Try Clinical Courses Without Clients
By Professor John F. Banzhaf, III
A major complaint from both BigLaw hiring partners and corporation counsel is that law school graduates often have such little practical-skills training that the clients are unwilling to pay for legal work done by new associates, and firms are therefore reluctant to hire them. So, many law students interested in getting a leg up in the current distressed legal job market want to get real skills training—beyond the make believe of moot court, trail advocacy, and writing research papers for professors, journals, or contests.
One traditional way to seek such training was to take a legal clinic. But because clinic courses often severely limit the number of law students each clinical professor can supervise, the cost to the law school of providing such clinic training can be very expensive if not prohibitive; a major factor which can thus prevent the expansion of existing law school clinics or the establishment of new ones.
The supervisor-to-student ratios for clinics are often kept low because of the need – growing out of ethical obligations, best-practice guidelines, etc – to protect the rights of individual clients. Because of concerns about having clinicians overseeing too many students, a clinical professor supervising only 10 students at a time may be much more costly to the law school than a professor teaching a substantive class of 100 – even if the latter’s salary is 2-3 times higher.
So why not have clinics which engage in real legal activities, but without the limitations of representing individual clients? The University of Chicago Law School, for example, has established what it calls its “corporate lab” where law students work with corporation on real corporate problems and current issues. Overseen by only a small number of supervisors, some 70 law students learn how to provide client services. They also get to make invaluable contacts with many lawyers, but interact with them as legal collaborators, not as clients to be interviewed and represented.
For many years I taught a course in public interest law where I often supervised more than a dozen students a term in bringing real legal actions which usually proved to be remarkably successful. The students didn’t need – and probably didn’t want – the very close type of supervision and guidance they might get in a clinic.
Instead, knowing that they were largely responsible for their own success or failure, they worked harder – as real lawyers are often forced to do – familiarizing themselves with new legal areas. The resulting feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment from their successes were all the stronger because the students proved to themselves that they were able to work largely on their own without constant oversight. It also meant that, in addition to supervising more than 10 students in a clinical course, I was able to teach a 4-hour substantive course in Torts during the same term; classes which could exceed 100 students.
In short, it’s apparently possible to give many more law students real world legal experience, with much lower costs because of higher supervisor-to-student ratios, simply by not having the students represent individual clients. But not representing clients don’t mean that students must pass up the important experience of learning how to interview individuals regarding their legal problems.
For example, when my students did a project about spousal abuse, they interviewed many battered women. But the document they filed with the DC Police Department – which resulted in important new protections for battered women – was not filed in their individual names, so the need for very close oversight and supervision to protect their individual legal rights was absent.
Likewise, when law students researched a legal petition which resulted in making emergency warning messages on TV accessible to deaf people, they talked with many hearing impaired individuals, but did not legally represent them. Moreover, in moving from that victory to establishing the National Center for Law and the Deaf, they had to interview many more deaf individuals – a task made even more difficult than usual by the need to use interpreters.
Other examples abound. Both Alan Dershowitz at Harvard, and our own Jonathan Turley, have used students to assist them in bringing real cases in real courts (see “Reversal of Fortune,” available on Netflix.) But neither is restricted to teaching only in clinics in which a limited number of students receive this valuable real-life training. Instead, each also teaches substantive courses to large numbers of students as their colleagues do.
So, as we use the arrival of a new dean as a catalyst for change at the law school, perhaps we should consider having more programs in which law students are able to obtain valuable real-world legal experience, but without the major constraints which can be imposed when they represent individual clients whose rights must be protected.
PROFESSOR JOHN F. BANZHAF III is a Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School.