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The Future of Law Is Clinic-Driven

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Terence Theus, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

As many law students can likely relate, law school has completely changed the way that I view the world. From innocuous experiences, such as reading the back of my live event tickets for the tiny liability waivers to carefully reading a website’s clickwrap agreements before clicking submit, I am more cognizant of the impact the law has on nearly every facet of my daily life.

However, as I begin to learn more about the law, I have had an epiphany of sorts. I believe that law students and law schools should work in concert to give regular citizens insight into laws that may generally help their lives. For example, a common issue that is publicized in the media is the legalities surrounding interactions between police officers and ordinary citizens. An initiative that I think would be beneficial for every law school to consider is to create a community outreach program where law students and legal practitioners with an interest in criminal law conduct workshops that teach citizens their rights when interacting with police. If these people ever have to actually interact with a police officer, they would likely feel more assured that they were acting within the confines of the law.

Each subset of law has similar issues that they can use to inform citizens and leave a positive impact. If law school had a community outreach program for every facet of law to give the general public insight, it would lead to a better-informed society. As presently constituted, legal clinics are the best way to accomplish this, but they have a problem at many of the top law schools. The problems include: the practice of severely limiting the enrollment of students in each clinic, having a limited amount of clinic opportunities to choose from, and the practice of restricting the number of clinics that a student can take part in during their law school career.

The experience gained in clinics and externships cannot be rivaled by any other learning experience offered by law schools. As such, law schools should begin the process of increasing the amount of staff whose primary job would be to start new and larger legal clinics.

Much of the learning that takes place in law school is heavily theory driven. While theory is important for establishing a knowledge base in a practice area, practical experience is the best way to determine the actual level of skill possessed by the practitioner and to solve real legal problems.

From a personal perspective, I have noticed a bit of a disconnect between the practice of law as taught by legal scholars and the law as practiced by currently practicing attorneys. In theory driven doctrinal classes, I have witnessed a tendency for the class to concentrate on obscure issues and legal concepts that tend to rarely come up in practice. In my externships and legal clinic experiences, I was able to work directly with people in search of legal assistance and then tailor a result that matched their specific needs without many of the externalities that often coincide with doctrinal work. I found the clinical experience to be much better from a learning perspective.

The environment at a top law school is very competitive. People come from a variety of backgrounds, but the one connection that they generally all share are the facts that they are smart and hard-working. While these traits serve students well in the classroom and likely in their future practice as an attorney, using these skills in a pro bono environment would likely help to build the esteem of lawyers to lay people and influence students to become more philanthropic. It would also create better trained attorneys.

I have been inspired by the selfless people that I have had the honor of working with and I am sure others would benefit from a similar experience. An increase in the amount of clinical opportunities would make this a highly beneficial process for legal practitioners, students, and the general public. I believe this will become a bigger trend in the legal world as the world becomes more connected through our advances in technology.

As current law students and future attorneys, we are privileged in our learned abilities to understand the legal world and to strategically map out legal strategies to achieve our desired objectives. As long as we have a legal system, people with the ability to navigate it will be needed to effectuate change and to get results. Increased clinical training will give new attorneys a leg up in this rapidly changing economy. The future of the legal profession depends on our next crop of attorneys understanding real challenges in an increasingly complex legal market.