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The importance of law school clinics

chaz-ball

As law students move toward their final year, or 2Ls start becoming able to control their schedules, I cannot say strongly enough how much I would encourage law students to participate in clinics.

The educational requirements of our profession too often marginalize practical experience in favor of potentially esoteric exercises in academia. Some students are simply better at the practical than the academic, better lawyers than scholars. And in practice, we must be practical.

I had a career-shaping experience in my law school clinic. For the summer after my 2L year, I decided to stay in Arizona, where I went to law school. I had already signed up for a two-week, all-day Applied Evidence in Trial Advocacy class and was encouraged by friends to join them in applying for the Public Defender Clinic. Arizona State, at least at the time, did not require a clinic, but I figured that since I would now have the time, it was an opportunity I should take.

I walked over to the office, expressed my interest in signing up… and was told that all the slots were already filled. But I also was told,  there was an opening in the Prosecution Clinic. I had no interest at all in prosecution at that point but I figured I would give the clinic a try.

What followed was an amazing summer, an increased passion for the profession and growth as a trial attorney. I was placed at the Scottsdale Prosecutor’s Office, which handled the rough equivalent of Maryland’s District Court prosecution for the city. Because most of the sentences sought by the state were fines, a good deal of cases went to trial. And because Arizona has six-person jury trials for certain misdemeanors with limited periods of incarceration, those trials were common as well in the Scottsdale City Court as well.

I fresh, young, excited, and enthused. I knew that the normal course for the clinic was for the interns to mostly shadow, perhaps do some research and try a few bench trials and maybe one jury trial near the end of the internship. But I wanted the action. After shadowing and learning, and asking, and asking and asking, I was able to try cases myself as Arizona’s equivalent to Rule 16 student attorney. I was truly eager; I’m pretty sure I had a theme for just about every case, bench or jury.

I was fortunate enough to have assistant state’s attorneys who would sit back and allow me to try the cases and largely supervise instead of interject. I prosecuted 30 bench trials ranging from assault and possession of drug paraphernalia to minor in possession of alcohol and public urination. I also was able to prosecute six jury trials: a theft of services case which was my first trial; four driving under the influence cases; and a case with two counts of reckless driving.

The assistant state’s attorney’s and the city’s top prosecutor herself showed faith in me, and in return I put in the work. The clinic allowed me to both grow and learn about myself. Obviously, not everyone has that type of experience, and a clinic can also help future attorney determine a practice area he or she is not interested in. But that practical experience, on cases with real people, is invaluable in the growth of a law student.

I finished that summer fully aware of how much I loved litigation trial work and confident in myself that I could do it. Every law student should take the opportunity to achieve that type of experience.

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