What are clinical courses?
Clinical courses are those which involve students in the real (as opposed to simulated) world of practice. All clinical courses give students the opportunity to participate in the legal process through fieldwork and to discuss aspects of their practice in a seminar setting.
Clinical courses differ significantly from summer or part-time work in law firms in a number of ways. First, the student's role in a clinic is not that of an employee in an office, agency, or organization. In many courses the student's role is that of an attorney, who takes primary responsibility for advising and representing clients. In other courses the student's role is to assume responsibility for the development of actual cases on which many lawyers are working. Students in many programs are certified to practice law in Massachusetts under the student practice rule of the Supreme Judicial Court. Supervision in clinical courses is focused on helping the student develop superior lawyering skills, and a positive professional orientation. The seminars provide students an opportunity to discuss the meaning of what they are doing and observing, in their practice and fieldwork.
Some clinical courses enable students to handle a variety of types of cases; others provide more in-depth experience in a single area. Several courses enable students to work with a variety of types of clients; others focus on the representation of clients in a particular legal situation. Some courses are focused primarily on giving students an opportunity to make observations and discuss in the classroom what they have seen; others provide students with first-hand experience.
Why take clinical courses?
The primary reason for taking clinical courses is to learn about lawyering and the legal system in a manner that cannot be taught in the classroom. This is well understood by anyone who has experienced the contrast between learning by doing something and learning by listening to someone describe it. Beyond this, clinical experience helps students better understand what they are learning in the classroom. Most students who take clinical courses in their second year, for example, report that having done so contributed to the value and enjoyment of their later classroom experiences.
Clinical courses enable students to test whether areas and aspects of practice are what they seem to be. Many students who aspire to a career in civil litigation, for example, take the Civil Litigation Clinic to see how well the experience of the work matches their expectations. Others interested primarily in transactional lawyering may take a course involving civil litigation to confirm that they are making the right choice; they also may recognize that transactional lawyers need to learn the same skills of negotiation, counseling and interviewing in order to do their work effectively. Likewise, when students assume the roles of prosecutors or criminal defense lawyers, they learn how the people involved in the criminal justice system attempt to achieve justice. They learn this not by hearing about it or watching it, but by performing as lawyers, themselves.
Obviously, students take clinical courses for a variety of reasons. Many students want to enhance their knowledge of lawyering and their own lawyering abilities. Many want to deepen their understanding of the legal system and the roles they might play in it. Others take clinical courses in specialized areas because they are committed to learning comprehensively about practice in those areas. The Immigration Practicum, for example, provides some students taking the classroom Immigration course the opportunity to engage in immigration practice as a way of learning exactly how legal principles and procedures are applied to people with immigration problems.
Some students take clinical courses primarily because they want to take the earliest possible opportunity to assume the role of lawyer in order to provide valuable service to clients, agencies, or organizations. Many students, for example, feel strongly about the importance of advancing and protecting the rights of women, children, elderly or homeless people, people who have been accused of crimes, people who have been victimized by criminal activity, or people facing deportation.
Some students take clinical courses because they are eager to begin their professional lives in government lawyering, or to work closely with judges, before they finish law school. They want to learn from within the Attorney General's Office, or the chambers of a judge, precisely how the legal system yields justice for the people it affects. They are eager, as well, to understand how government lawyers and judges think and feel about the work they do.
Clinical experiences also enable students to develop and build contacts with members of the legal profession and judicial system. The legal profession is known historically to be one in which experience is a commodity generously shared by those who have it with those who seek it. The mentoring relationships that develop in clinical settings are typically enriching and long-lasting.
Deciding when to take a clinical course
There is no general rule governing how many clinical courses a student should take, or when is the best time to enroll in them. There is also no general rule about the sequence in which clinical courses may, or should, be taken.
Some students have found that taking clinical courses in the second year is beneficial because of how dramatically the clinical experience bridges the gap between the first-year classroom and the world of practice. Many have reported great satisfaction taking clinical courses in the fall semester of the second year because of how energizing it was to begin doing what they envisioned themselves doing when they applied to law school. Some have reported that taking a clinical course in the fall semester of the second year gave them important and interesting things to talk about during their job interviews.
Some students prefer to wait until the third year, because they want to use clinical courses as a way to transition to professional life, or because the clinics in which they were interested were open only to third-year students.
Because clinical courses provide the benefit of rich exposure to the world of practice, they generally yield more credits and are more time-intensive than classroom courses. As a result, students must plan carefully to fit clinics into their course schedules.
Although there is no single formula for when and in what sequence clinical courses should be taken, there are some factors which should be considered in guiding choices about what courses to select and when to select them.
Two clinical courses, Criminal Justice and Attorney General Program, are open only to third-year students. All other clinical courses are open to second and third-year students; however, many programs give preference to third-year students.
All clinical courses have limited enrollments. Some select students by lottery. Others involve an interview process.
Some courses are offered only one semester per year, and will admit only a small number of students (e.g., Housing Law Clinic and Judicial Process are offered only in the spring and admit six students each). The Attorney General Program, Criminal Justice Clinic (Defense) is a full year course and Juvenile Rights Advocacy is a one semester course, offered in the fall and in the spring semesters.
Certain state bars limit the total number of clinical credits a student may earn in law school. You should check with the bar for the state(s) in which you intend to seek admission to make sure there is no limit, or that the limit is not exceeded.
The faculty has determined that a student may not take more than one of the following five major externships: the Attorney General Program, the London Program, Semester in Practice, Semester in Practice: Criminal, or Semester in Practice: International Human Rights.
For those clinics in which students will be certified to practice in Massachusetts (Civil Litigation, Criminal Justice, Housing Law Clinic and Attorney General Program), students must be taking, or have successfully completed, a course in Evidence or Trial Practice. (The faculty has defined successful completion as a grade of C or better.) This means that students taking these courses in the fall semester of the second year must take either Evidence or Trial Practice during that semester.
Getting help and advice
The process of choosing courses for next semester involves thinking ahead to what other experiences you would like to be part of your legal education. This is a good time to contact your faculty advisor, other faculty members to whom you feel comfortable turning for advice, or members of the clinical faculty, who will be able to give you more detailed information. In addition, students who have taken clinical courses are great sources of information about the clinical experience.
Attending Informational Meetings will give you a further opportunity to speak with clinical faculty and students in specific programs. Some of these events will include presentations and discussions by Law School alumni who took clinical courses.