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On law clinic controversies

I had a great clinic experience in law school. I participated in a consumer protection clinic which was both extremely relevant and something that I’m very interested in. But I have heard varying opinions about clinics.

On the one hand, students have the opportunity to gain a great deal from clinic work by making connections, networking and gaining practical experience to jump-start their careers.

Of course, not every student lands a job through a clinic, and not all employers take clinical experience into account in the hiring process. Questions about the motives of clinic work are often raised; some view student attorneys in the same vein as research assistants, working on projects that advance a professor’s political agenda or research project.

And, as we’ve learned recently in Maryland, issues also arise when law schools receiving state funding file law suits that are considered by many to be against the better interests of the state. The University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic has drawn criticism about a lawsuit it filed against Perdue Farms and a chicken farming-family on the Eastern Shore, alleging violations of environmental regulations and polluting of the Chesapeake Bay.

Gov. Martin O’Malley came out recently against the litigation, calling it a waste of taxpayer money. The Hudson family, one of the defendants, has called the allegations false and warns it will lose its farm and livelihood should the law school prevail.

Proponents of the lawsuit say that it champions the causes of those people that can’t afford lawyers. But is any law school clinic representing the Hudsons?

What do you think about this case and the academic freedom currently given to law school clinics? Should the lawsuits filed by clinics receive greater scrutiny or is the Hudson’s plight just an unfortunate — but legitimate — outcome of our justice system?

4 comments

  1. The answer is simple in concept, but perhaps difficult in execution. A member of the bar is obligated to file a law suit only when there is substantial justification to do so, after an appropriate factual investigation and where applicable law supports the action. Where public university resources are used to provide counsel, I believe the highest level of care should be used in investigating and researching the law before bringing an action. Further, if early discovery (formal or informal) shows that the case is “weak” it should be dismissed by the plaintiff forthwith. In short, the ethical standards for the clinic should be higher than those of too many of our brothers and sisters at the bar.

  2. A more interesting question would have been why O’Malley (or some anonymous staffer) felt compelled to write this silly letter. Even a person with as limited an understanding of law as O’Malley would have known that the Maryland clinic would not dismiss the lawsuit voluntarily. The client would have had to agree, for one thing, and it is pretty clear that the Waterkeepers Alliance would not have. Besides, the case had survived a motion to dismiss, was at the summary judgment stage, and was likely to be decided soon. Taken literally, the letter was too little, too late, at least to have the effect it asked for. So it had it be written for some other purpose and sucking up to Perdue Farms, to broaden O’Malley’s “liberal” political base, is the logical candidate. This is the reason most commonly mentioned and it has some sense to it, but my guess is that something more specific is going on (no one thinks the Hudsons are the real parties in interest). The most laughable part of the letter was O’Malley’s touting his time in the clinic for battered women while at Maryland. Anyone around the School at that time knows that O’Malley hardly showed up long enough to register for a course, let alone participate in one. Even O’Malley acknowledges that, and seems to take a perverse pride in it (witness his remarks at the Maryland Law School ceremony celebrating the Carey gift). This was a constituent letter in some yet to be fully known sense of the term, and constituent letters are not a highly regarded form of literature.

    BTW – everything you say about clinics could be (and has been) said about every other course in law school. Some are great and some are terrible. Does that mean that the State should give “greater scrutiny” to the teaching of Administrative Law, Contracts, Real Estate Drafting, and the like? If you truly are serious about your question and don’t know the obvious answer, there is a vast literature to consult. These issues were debated and resolved for clinical education in the Sixties, when the phenomenon first appeared on the horizon, and everything you need to know about them is available in print (including electronic form, if you don’t know how to use books). The Perdue Farms brush fire is just another instance of politics sticking its nose in law, to the embarrassment and detriment of both.

  3. Law clinics are one of the most important aspects of a legal education, especially in this job environment for young lawyers. While some are good and some are bad, most are practical–especially at the University of Maryland School of Law.

    Many students receive little practical education in law school. You learn to read cases, you learn to write about those cases. You do not learn how to draft a brief, create discovery, or even evaluate a case for its legitimacy. Clinics give you that practical opportunity.

    Personally, I think schools need more clinics and to make them mandatory. For those who receive clinic legal services, most if not all have no alternative. The clinic working on foreclosures for instance helped a lot of people who could not have afforded an attorney anywhere else. It is a critical service the state needs.

    For me, it was a better education than almost any other class I took and it helped prepare me for the real world. Even if some of the cases I worked on weren’t winners, it was great experience.

  4. I find it fascinating that the government is criticizing the Maryland Environmental Law Clinic for using government funds in an attempt to insure the enforcement of the government’s environmental laws.

    I find this even more fascinating the day after the Baltimore Sun published an article citing a huge backlog of environmental law violations for the Attorney General’s Office due in part to a lack of attorneys (according to the Sun).

    It seems to me that using state funds to train student attorneys in the handling of cases dealing with potential violations of state law in an area where the government needs attorneys is EXACTLY how taxpayer dollars should be spent.