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Law School Clinics As Policy Advocates

One of the long-standing complaints about law schools is that they do not really teach the skills needed to practice law. One answer to this problem has been the development of clinical programs in which students actually do legal work under the supervision of lawyers.

However, there is a darker side to law school clinics. To an increasing degree, we are seeing clinical programs that have the effect of promoting one side of controversial policy issues. This article by Karen Sloan in National Law Journal describes the controversy over an amendment to the Maryland budget that would simply require disclosures from a state-funded environmental law clinic. Even that modest requirement -- tell us what you are doing with our money -- is being resisted.

Actually, a much broader requirement is needed. A school's clinical programs should be required to be policy neutral.  If there are clinical programs in criminal law -- and especially in controversial areas such as the death penalty -- they should spend equal time representing each side. If that cannot be done, then the clinical programs should be redirected to less controversial areas. With taxpayer-funded law schools in particular, education funds should not be used to advocate one side over another on public policy questions.


When I was in law school a couple of decades ago, I participated in the law clinic program, which provided public defender services to selected misdemeanor offenders in the local municipal court. It was an invaluable experience, and I appreciated the opportunity to see things from the defense perspective. With controversial topics like the death penalty, however, I couldn't agree more that a policy-neutral position should be required, at least at state schools. Otherwise, legal clinics will simply continue to provide endless free labor to the anti-death penalty crusade on the taxpayer's dime. However, given the ideological bent of most in academia, any change in policy is unlikely without some sort of intervention from, for example, the state legislatures.

Yes, I agree these misdemeanor clinics are valuable additions to the law school curriculum. There is no need for them to be limited to defense, though. Here in Sacramento, the clinical programs include both prosecution and defense.

I should have added that there were certainly opportunities at my law school to work with the local county prosecutor's office, either as a summer intern or as an extern at any time of year. These opportunities were not available through the law school clinic, however, in large part because I believe the county prosecutor's office wanted to have direct control over its programs.

While some may quibble with the characterization "darker side", here on the east coast there is a pronounced partisan slant to nearly all law school clinics. In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that professors who supervise these students value "getting the guilty off" by any means necessary rather than teaching an objective search for the truth.

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