Law clinics grant useful experience

by Sascha Matuszak

When Jeff Brockmann, a third-year University law student, joined the Law School Law Clinics in May 1997 for internship experience, he didn’t realize the impact he could have.
Brockmann is one of 65 percent of the University’s law students who enroll in one of the school’s 16 law clinics each year. The program provides students with the opportunity to try actual cases through clinics ranging from civil litigation to Indian child welfare.
Students register for one of the available clinics, spending a semester both handling up to four cases and doing in-class work related to the cases.
“Students get experience with the practical side of the law, with the opposing counsel, and with trial-like situations,” said Greg Karpenko, University law student and clinics participant.
The law clinics assume the role of public defenders, often taking cases from the Human Rights Department. Over the past six years, the clinics have cultivated a relationship with the state attorney general’s office, in which some cases from the Human Rights Department are referred to the clinics for litigation.
The clinics handle up to 600 new cases a year, providing more than 17,000 hours of free legal service.
“We represent primarily those people who cannot afford legal representation,” said Maury Landsmann, a law school professor and licensed attorney.
Students are allowed to perform all the duties a professional lawyer does under the Student Practice Law of 1982, as long as they are second- or third-year students in good standing, and under the supervision of a licensed attorney — usually a full-time Law School faculty member.
“Students can do everything, as long as they are supervised,” Landsmann said.
Brockman and Karpenko were able to handle one of the biggest cases the Minnesota Department of Human Rights has ever championed through the University Law School Law Clinics.
The case dealt with alleged Minneapolis Police Department discrimination toward two married police officers, Donald and Katherine Smulski, based on their marital status, and added discrimination against Katherine Smulski based on her gender.
“By the time I arrived on the case, it was apparent how important the decision could be,” said Brockmann, one of 12 students to work on the case, which lasted more than three years. “There was real potential to make an impact.”
In the discrimination case, Katherine Smulski contended that she was denied promotions, given unjustifiably low performance evaluations and was assigned undesirable duties.
On Oct. 30, after 36 days of trial, 36 witnesses and more than 6,000 pages of oral testimony, the state administrative law judge, Allen E. Giles, found that the police department had “engaged in a pattern and practice of using various administrative rules … to commit sex discrimination.”
Giles ordered the city of Minneapolis to pay more than $1.8 million in damages, including the installment of extensive programs to combat discrimination within the workplace.
“This is a really rare case, in that we have received damages,” Brockman said. “Through the legal system we can make substantial changes.”
The attorney general’s office has been regularly referring cases to the clinics for the past six years under a program called the Human Rights Litigation Project.
“We have developed a relationship of trust and confidence with the attorney general’s office that the program can work effectively,” said Carl Warren, University professor who supervised the Smulski case.
Supervision usually entails reviewing all written work and hours of preparation through mock trials and hearings, said Landsmann, who helps supervise students in the Civil Practice Clinic.
“It would almost be impossible for students without supervision to handle a case of this size, along with classes and exams,” said Brockmann, who is now also a student director for the clinics, acting as an intermediary between students just starting the clinic and supervisors.
The clinics are an invaluable learning tool for University law students, helping them focus their job search and understand the inner workings of the legal system while giving them the work experience needed to survive in the world, Brockmann said.
“(The clinics) help you understand the nuances involved in an actual court case,” Karpenko said.
“It was exciting to know that we had a small role in improving the work environment of future police officers,” Brockmann added.