What’s in a Clinic?

From The Practice January/February 2020
Highlighting key stories about the profession you may have missed

As Minna Kotkin notes in Clinical Legal Education and the Replication of Hierarchy, clinical offerings across law schools have exploded in recent years to include a wide range of subject areas and practice settings. In addition to traditional law school clinics in legal aid, family law, and housing, we now also see offerings in areas like media law, animal rights, and entrepreneurship. Data from the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education’s (CSALE’s) 2016–2017 Survey of Applied Legal Education reflects this trend. According to this most recent installment of the triennial survey, 1,433 distinct law clinics were reportedly offered during the 2016–2017 academic year (clinics offered during more than one term are counted just once) by the 187 responding schools. Indeed, all but four schools in the sample reported offering at least one law clinic, with the median being seven clinics per school.

To illustrate how many clinical options exist for today's law student, this table lists the various substantive focuses of clinics reported by law schools in the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education’s 2016–2017 Survey of Applied Legal Education. In descending order according to the percentage of all law schools offering clinics in each area, those substantive focuses include: Criminal Defense, Immigration, Children & the Law, Civil Litig./General Civil Clinic, Family Law, Mediation/ADR, Other, Appellate, Entrepreneur/Start-Up/Small Bus., Tax, Environmental, Community/Econ. Development, Intellectual Property, Transactional, Human Rights, Innocence, Domestic Violence, Civil Rights, Veterans, Criminal Prosecution Asylum/Refugee, Housing, Elder Law, Health Law, Legislative/Policy, Disability Law, Community Justice, Consumer Law, Civil & Criminal Litig/General Litig., Prisoner’s Rights, Administrative Law, Bankruptcy, Indian Law, Employment Law, Securities, Wills/Trusts/Estates, Death Penalty, and Constitutional Law.
The substantive focus of law school clinics today covers a wide array of practice areas and settings. (Source: CSALE 2016–2017 Survey of Applied Legal Education)

The CSALE data is just the tip of the iceberg, and in recent years, this expansion has seemed to shift into hyperdrive, producing an ever-growing plethora of clinical offerings. At Harvard Law School, for example, there are 22 in-house clinics, hundreds of external clinical placements, and the option for independent clinical experiences. In the last year alone, HLS launched clinics on animal law and LGBTQ+ rights. Similarly, during the 2017–2018 school year, Yale Law School launched six new clinics spanning subject matter such as mass incarceration, innovation in open government and data governance, reproductive rights, and others. Most recently, the school launched a religious liberty clinic.

It is important to stress the growth in clinics is not just coming from the most well-resourced law schools. For example, Drake University Law School launched a new refugee clinic in 2019, noting that “law students will have the opportunity for experiential learning by providing pro-bono legal representation to non-citizens in their applications for asylum before the U.S. government.” Similarly, DePaul University School of Law launched their Croak Community Legal Clinic in the fall of 2019 geared toward “students interested in community organizing, community education, and community empowerment.” Further, as Robert Kuehn notes in Speaker’s Corner, the growth of clinical areas, particularly beyond traditional litigation focus areas, has the potential to bring in whole new sets of students and clients into the fold. In 2014, Suffolk University Law School created its Accelerator Practice, an in-house clinic that “represents average-income individuals who otherwise lack access to the justice system.” In January 2020, University of Baltimore School of Law launched its Legal Data and Design Clinic, where students will apply “technology and principles of data and design to solve real-world legal problems.”

What makes a practical learning experience at law school a “clinic”?

While the expansion of clinics has added ample possibilities for law students seeking experiential training, this massive proliferation is not without trade-offs and even controversy. Clinics, for instance, are expensive and require a whole set of complex internal and external processes—not to mention qualified personnel—to run them. Moreover, there are debates to be had about which subject areas should have clinics. HLS’s growing clinical space offers a microcosm of some of these tensions. This past fall a group of HLS students wrote a petition to the dean for a broader selection of clinical course work, which was later shared on social media. Citing clinical offerings at other law schools, the petition sought more opportunities “for a wider range of student viewpoints.” On the one side, some students look at this proliferation and want to see more-tailored clinical experiences that align more closely with their own individual interests and intended career paths. On the other side, some argue that many of these new “clinical” offerings are not clinics at all—that “real” clinics are those that serve the same indigent or otherwise underserved client base that clinics were historically designed to serve, going back to the Ford Foundation grants that helped establish and sustain early law school clinics half a century ago.

These debates drive to the heart of the shift Kotkin highlights in Clinical Legal Education and the Replication of Hierarchy around the expansion of law school clinics—namely those that focus on subjects that do not involve serving underserved clients. They also raise questions that lack obvious answers. What makes a practical learning experience at law school a “clinic”? If there is space for issue advocacy in a law school’s clinical offerings, where are the lines drawn? Perhaps most fundamentally, what is the purpose of a law clinic?