Clinics train students for legal careers

Clinics provide more than 18,000 hours of pro bono services to the Twin Cities community each year.

Ed Swaray

Although Courtney Powell has not yet graduated from law school, she has spent the last two years working on lawsuits for low-income clients in the Twin Cities as part of the Law School’s clinic program.

“It is a powerful thing to be able to help someone navigate their way through a very complex legal system,” Powell said. “Providing these services to people who cannot afford it from anywhere else is a very rewarding thing.”

Established 35 years ago, the clinics allow second- and third-year students – under the clinic faculty’s tutelage – to represent clients in real court and administrative agency proceedings, Director of Clinics Maury Landsman said.

In 1967, the Minnesota Supreme Court adopted the Student Practice Rule, which facilitated such clinics’ establishment, Landsman said.

“Our vision is to educate the complete lawyer through the integration of skills and ethics with theory and doctrine,” he said.

The 16 clinics, which deal with issues such as child advocacy, domestic violence and immigration, provide more than 18,000 hours of pro bono legal services to the Twin Cities community each year, he said.

Landsman said the clinics accept cases based on referrals from legal agencies such as Legal Aid and the Volunteer Lawyers Network.

The clinics introduce students to a wide array of skills and values they will need in their law practice when they graduate, he said.

“Sixty percent of our students participate in at least one of these live client clinics before graduation,” he said.

But Powell, who is also a student director, said student enrollment in the clinics should not be optional.

“I have never been disappointed with my experience here,” she said. “I think the Law School should make it mandatory for students to participate before graduation.”

She said this will help them learn the practical side of law with faculty who are eager and willing to teach.

Second-year law student Nooshin Soltani, who participates in the Law School’s civil practice clinic, agreed.

Even though students receive only two credits for their many hours of work at the clinics, Soltani said they should be required to do it anyway.

“It is a macrocosm of a law practice where you are responsible to supervising attorneys, clients and student directors,” she said. “It is not like a classroom where you are responsible only to yourself.”

But Mary Grams, a student director at the civil practice clinic, said students should be encouraged, not mandated, to enroll in the clinic program.

She said people who will use their law degree in careers such as teaching or working for the FBI do not necessarily need clinical experience.

But, she said, students who are going to practice law would benefit immensely by enrolling in the program.

“A vast majority of students intend on a practicing legal career,” she said. “For those students, enrolling in the clinic program would put them ahead of the curve.”

Jean Gerval, assistant clinic director, said students are accepted to the program on a first-come, first-served basis.

She said there has been a very significant demand for spots in the clinics. To alleviate the situation, she said, the clinics’ offices were expanded and remodeled last summer.

She said the clinic network has also been designed to enable students to work from home or in the Law School’s special clinic computer lab, where they can exchange messages and documents with their instructors.

“This is the largest clinical program in the country,” she said. “Students have to look like associates in a law office.”