Clinics: More than Just Another Class

By: Charles Ronan

Clinics can be a great change of pace. Law students spend so much time in the books that it is hard to remember, or even know, why we are in school, what it all means, or what we face when we actually finish school.  The clinics bridge that gap very effectively.  Even internships often amount to only getting a chance to practice a fraction of what you have learned, but as assignments given to us, and not through client relationships.  At the clinics you get to practice certain things, such as managing client relationships, that you would not normally get to as a 2L or 3L intern in a law firm.

Supervision

Internship, clerkship or clinic—when you work during law school you are supposed to learn and be mentored while you work.  The amount of supervision given in these positions can vary widely.  However, the clinics offer a much more controlled situation.  At the clinics you get to work with recent graduates who are filling the role of a law clerk.  They can help you with everything from keeping on top of your cases to getting through school.  The professors are attorneys who practice in the area related to your clinic, all with years of valuable experience.  The nice thing is having access to them in ways you might not with a partner at a firm.

Work Environment

The USD clinics are set up like a real law firm.  This is important because knowing who to ask what questions can be important, as well as knowing who to report to and keep “happy.” In an internship, outside of school, students can get put in that “student” corner and may not receive work that helps them learn.  As a student intern you also may get to meet more people around the office than just the attorney you are working for, but it is unlikely that you will interact with clients the way the attorneys do.  At the clinics have your own cases and clients, and have to care for them and help them with their issues.  You are not handed a part of a case and asked to handle it separately, instead you manage all aspects of the case the entire time you are at the clinic.

Case Management

At the clinics you are required to manage your own cases, case files, recording hours (like billable hours), and electronic case information.  It is an important part of getting used to balancing actual “lawyering” with all the other things that go along with it.  Finishing a memo in time is one thing, but if you still have to go back and make sure all your documents are scanned, all your hours are logged, and your client is properly kept up to date, you learn how to operate as a lawyer.  Learning how other requirements can sneak up on you is an important thing to learn before you are on the clock.

Clients

This is the most important part of the clinics.  Having to set up appointments, interview, screen, and work with real, live, breathing clients is a challenge if you have never done it before. There is a lot you can learn from interviewing classes and skills classes where you run through demonstrations and role-plays, but nothing is going to teach you more than sitting with an actual client and interviewing them.  Guiding the quiet client through awkward questions, getting the talkative client to focus, or figuring out what to do with the quirky/strange/eccentric client can only be learned by experiencing it without a safety net.  Some other things you learn working with clients are the ability to make sure you have listened to what they actually said, digging deeper to find out what they actually meant, explaining things to them in a way they can understand, asking the tough questions, and the ability to say “no”.

Guest Speakers

Clinics will bring speakers who are very experienced in handling the issues you are seeing with your clients.  This gives you a chance to not only learn more about the law, but also about practicing law, and making a living doing it.

Outside Agencies

In most clinics you will also have contact with outside agencies.  It can be everything from checking on a filing to talking about a client’s case with a government agency.  Just like contacting clients, this is a skill which can be developed only with practice.  You can ask questions, but you are working with your clients right away and making all the required phone calls, speaking on their behalf.  If you feel like you need more practice in this area, then the clinics are perfect for you.  Better now than when you are expected to do perform or lose your job.

Learn More

If you are interested in the USD Law clinics, there are a number of great places to look for information.  First, you can look under Course Descriptions on the USD web site.  Under the Clinics tab, you can see a general description of each clinic.  This will include information about who is the supervising attorney, what types of clients you will represent, and whether or not the clinic has prerequisites.  Some clinics will have prerequisites because you will be making court appearances, while others will not.

A second source of current information about the clinics would be the clinics’ blog, located online at http://sites.sandiego.edu/legal_clinics/blog/category/community-service.  The blog covers the events that members of the clinics attend, and spotlights some of the professors connected with the clinics, so you can see both who you will be learning from and working with. The blog is interesting even if you are not thinking about taking a clinic because it shows some of the great work that members of the school’s faculty and student body perform throughout the community.

Two other ways to find out if the clinics might work well with your law school plans would be to drop by the Student Affairs office or the clinics themselves.  Student Affairs is always a great asset when trying to figure out how to plan your schedule.  Law students only get four semesters to choose their own classes, so make them count.  Stopping by the clinics is a great idea.  It may take you a while to figure out that they are not in some hidden office in Warren Hall (or was that just me?).  The Legal Clinics office is located in Barcelona (BA) Room 305.  I won’t ruin the surprise as to where that actually is. Stop by and ask questions.  Everyone is nice and willing to help.

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