Law Clinics Offer Advocacy Experience and Real-World Complexity

Wednesday, November 17 2010


Written by Donna Emert

MOSCOW, Idaho – In University of Idaho College of Law classrooms, students learn the law. In its law clinics, they learn how to practice law.

“Clinics give students an opportunity not only to learn how to lawyer, but also to realize what kind of law they want to practice,” said Maureen Laflin, director of clinical programs and professor of law. “They apply what they’ve learned to a real situation.”

Clinic services are offered free of charge to clients who are selected according to the legal and factual merits of their cases, their income levels, their location/physical proximity to the clinics, the educational value of issues raised in their case, and other criteria. Some cases are referred from the state and federal courts when judges or clerks determine that pro se litigants – those defending themselves in court – need representation to proceed.

Not surprisingly, a real-life case is often messier than a classroom exercise.

“The main difference between a live client and a simulation is the factual and legal complexity that’s introduced by having a real person there,” said Laflin.

Like the rest of us, attorneys must live and work in an imperfect world, Laflin suggests.

“We represent people who don’t always make prudent choices,” she said. “Clinic students have to ask themselves, ‘How do you work with the reality of the client’s situation?’ Clinic work also can reveal bad laws, and students learn to work with that, at times seeking a change in the law.”

Reality creates some pretty inflexible parameters for clinic students. “You must accept the facts that are given to you and the circumstances in which you must operate,” Laflin said.

Only third-year law students who hold limited license to practice law from the Idaho Supreme Court can participate in clinics. Students are directly supervised by licensed attorneys – their University of Idaho law professors. Students also often work with practicing legal experts to investigate specific facets of the law pertaining to their cases.

With faculty mentors overseeing all student cases, clinics serve as a safe place to sharpen vital skills.

“I wanted to learn how to mediate,” said Alex Muir, a third-year law student working in the General Clinic and the Mediation Clinic. "And I wanted to know what is the first thing you need to do as a lawyer when you represent someone: how to get a case started and move it forward, how to organize a case and how to work with your client to get all the proper documents submitted. “You don’t learn that in law school so much. You learn the law, but not really how to practice.”

Muir found that clients are more complex than their cases.

“When you’re actually representing someone, they share with you their life, and you have to parse out the legal aspects,” Muir said.

In the General Law Clinic, which addresses misdemeanor defense, family law, consumer protection, landlord-tenant disputes, probate, and civil rights cases, Muir has mastered several practical lawyering skills, including mediation, conducting initial client interviews, working with clients to gather information, the process of putting together a case, and the crucial skills of properly filling out and submitting paperwork. For example, “I know how to draft a divorce complaint, and file it. I’ve spent time doing that,” said Muir. “Hopefully I will be more marketable because of that experience.”

While the practical skills acquired help build law student resumes, the experience also plants the seed for continued pro bono work.

“Our legal system is complicated. It’s hard to navigate through it, and it’s costly,” Muir said. “Working with people in the clinics gives you that unique perspective, and hopefully translates into a greater ability to help clients in the future.”

Actively promoting justice remains an essential component of the clinic experience as well.

“The clinics have given me opportunity to represent people who would not otherwise have access to a lawyer or to legal services. It gives me the chance to give back,” Muir said. “I believe that’s a good thing.”

Learn more about the University of Idaho College of Law Clinics and Clinical Labs at www.uidaho.edu/law/academics/clinicsprofessionalskills/clinics.
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The student population of 12,302 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For more information, visit www.uidaho.edu.






About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.