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The Future of Clinical Education: Q&A with LAB Faculty

ebrief feature

On Friday, October 28, 2011, BC Law School is hosting “The Way to Carnegie: Practice, Practice, Practice: A Conversation about Pedagogy, Social Justice, and Cost in Experiential Legal Education,” a symposium featuring experts from law schools and organizations around the country. E-Brief caught up with Associate Clinical Professor Alan Minuskin and Clinical Professor Paul Tremblay of the Boston College Legal Assistance Bureau (BC LAB) to talk about what’s going on in clinical legal education today.

E-Brief: Why are law clinics more important now than ever?

Alan Minuskin: I think they have always been important. I think that more people are paying more attention to the value of clinical legal education because they’re hearing about it from a lot of different sectors, especially law firms. In this economy, corporate clients are refusing to pay exorbitant hourly rates for inexperienced associates’ time. Firms are responding by telling law schools, give us people who come with experience. Also, law school applicants are expressing more interest in clinical legal training. Applications are down nationally, and competition over students is up. Law schools need clinical programs to attract the best students.

Paul Tremblay: There’s also the 2007 Carnegie report [Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law], which recommended that law schools provide more clinical legal education. The report is one in a series the Carnegie Foundation has done on educating professionals. It’s pretty striking how law schools are so disconnected from practice compared to other professions.

E-Brief: What is the best model for clinical law teaching? PT: The best model is really an in-house clinic, where the students are put in the role of being the lawyer for the client and taking full responsibility for the client’s case under the supervision of a faculty member whose full-time job is to teach and critique and educate. It’s more expensive than externship programs, where students work alongside lawyers, but usually are not on the frontline, and the feedback they’re getting is not from people whose full-time job is to teach them.

AM: It’s a bit of an effort to get the educational juice out of an externship experience. There’s certainly a place for externships: A student can’t get a real sense of what it’s like to work in the Attorney General’s office without actually working there. But, because externships are not just cheap, they’re free, there’s a trend toward expanding externships and scrutinizing in-house clinics. The problem is, that trend could affect the quality of students’ education. So, there’s also a trend toward implementing a hybrid model. In one model, a supervising faculty member is stationed off-site, at the public defenders’ office or at a legal services office, where the infrastructure is already in place and is not financed by the law school. That model retains the advantages of having a supervisor whose first priority is to the student and who makes sure the client is served as well. The disadvantage is that the program loses some of its independence.

PT: There’s another trend involving the changing role of clinical faculty members within law schools. When I was hired, I never went through the appointments process, and it was understood that I would be here for only a couple of years. My title was Adjunct Assistant Professor. Today, the positions have become more regularized. Now, we have clinical professor titles, and new hires go through almost the same appointments process. But the complication is that the expectations for written scholarship by clinical faculty have increased, which in some ways is a really good thing. The downside is that it takes time away from the teaching and client work.

AM: Related to that is, increasingly, clinical teachers are expected to teach classroom courses, sometimes really big classroom courses. That takes time away from the very labor-intensive work of clinical teaching. Yesterday, I had a conversation with a student about whether we need to share with a hearing examiner a piece of information that’s not really particularly helpful to us. Once a student has faced a conundrum like that, she’s just jumped to another level of confronting law practice, and she’ll be more thoughtful when observing other lawyers. That kind of learning deserves priority in law school.

E-Brief: What makes BC LAB such a critical part of BC Law School’s identity?

PT: BC LAB is the legal services office for the communities of Waltham, Watertown, and Newton. Our students not only practice in a neighborhood storefront with real clients; they also share that sense that we have lots of people asking for our services. How are we going to decide who gets served? How do we make the best of our resources? That raises the clinical legal experience here to a whole new level. And it all seems so completely congruent with the Jesuit, Catholic mission, so perfectly emblematic of what BC Law stands for.

E-Brief: What’s new here at BC LAB?

AM: The economy has been murder for our clients. I think the intensity of what our clients are bringing in and the volume of our clients’ needs grows with a bad economy. And I think the economy has made our students scared about what’s going to happen to them when they graduate.

PT: In this economy, the grants we rely on have gotten smaller, so it’s a struggle to keep this office in Waltham where it’s been since 1968. On the other hand, we’re seeing some really strong indications that alums are beginning to come together to shore up the program. That seems very exciting.

E-Brief: It sounds as though there is a need for something that might be called leadership in hard times.

PT: BC Law’s new dean, Vincent Rougeau, recently wrote a letter to the New York Times in response to some articles about law schools in a bad economy and what appears to be a glut of lawyers on the job market. He noted that there are a lot of people who need lawyers who go without them. Even if conventional jobs aren’t available, he said, we should be deploying lawyers creatively to connect need to the supply.

AM: That is a great example of leadership in hard times.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Jeri Zeder.

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