Washington Lawyer

President's Page: Learning by Doing

From Washington Lawyer, January/February 2000

By Joan H. Strand

president_strandThis issue of The Washington Lawyer features clinical programs at D.C. area law schools. For me the focus has special meaning, for my entire legal career has been spent teaching in law school clinics. Many Bar members (the younger, more recent arrivals to the practice of law) may take for granted the existence of rich clinical experiences offered at our local law schools. However, the current spectrum of clinical courses is the result of a progression that began more than 30 years ago.

In 1968 the deans of five D.C. law schools backed a plan to allow third-year law students to defend indigents in small claims cases before the Court of General Sessions. Their petition led to the adoption of a student practice rule in this jurisdiction. For the first time, law students under the supervision of an attorney (and with other restrictions) were permitted to appear and argue cases in the local court system. The D.C. Law Students in Court (LSIC) program was one of the first clinical programs to take advantage of the rule; it drew students from five law schools and expanded its areas of practice to include landlord-tenant, civil, and criminal cases.

The impact of this program upon me was profound. I entered the LSIC in fall 1974, and remember my first days in court quite clearly. Growing up, I hadn’t known any lawyers-there were no lawyers in my family or in my neighborhood. I’d never been in a courtroom. Today’s array of popular TV shows portraying all types of attorneys practicing law in a panoply of settings had not yet come into existence. Surely I had formed some ideas of lawyering from watching Perry Mason and E. G. Marshall on TV, but I resembled them so little in age, gender, and approach to life that they were hardly role models for me. My concept of what a lawyer should do and be was-after two years of law school-largely formless. After LSIC orientation in the ways of student practice, I met my first client, made my first appearance before a judge, and loved the whole experience. And now, as a lawyer who teaches students in a clinical program similar to the one I was in 25 years ago, I recall some of my most vivid lessons in civility, ethics, procedure, and the presentation of facts from my early clinical experiences.

Times have changed.Students in their third year of law school are (thankfully) nowhere near as naive as I was. They are seasoned by exposure to different aspects of the legal world through their part-time jobs, internships, trial advocacy courses, mock job interviews, and moot court competitions. However, the need for clinical programs-and students’ potential benefit from participation in clinics-remains as strong as ever. In clinical programs students have their first experience, under the watchful eye of a supervisor, of being responsible for a client matter. It is their first opportunity to begin developing the commodity that we as lawyers in many different practice settings hone and sell to others: our ability to make judgments. Mark Twain commented, "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way." The same holds true for real courtrooms and judges, live clients and actual cases; our experiences in handling the demands of these immediate situations cannot be simulated. The student practice rule enables a student to be on the firing line facing the uncertainty of what the next minute might bring. Whether a clinical experience involves making a decision involving ethics, evidence, investigation, or giving advice to a client, it provides a continual opportunity to take on responsibility, act, reflect, and over time develop judgment as a lawyer.

In addition to the educational goals of imparting to students the skills and values they need to be successful and ethical lawyers, other reasons commend clinical programs to the law school curriculum. Clinics teach students the skills of interviewing, counseling, research, writing, fact investigation, negotiations, and trial skills, while educating them in substantive areas of law. Clinics also train students in a broader sense as to what their responsibilities will be as members of the bar. Clinical programs promote a sense of public service and instill in students an awareness of their professional responsibility to provide legal services to indigents not just now, but in the future. The role of the private bar is critical, especially in this time of increased client need that has been coupled with funding cutbacks to legal service providers. The training that students receive in clinical programs not only equips them with skills that are transferable into the areas of the law where they will practice; it gives them the confidence and interest to use those skills to do pro bono work after they have become practicing lawyers-by taking on cases accepted through one of the D.C. Bar clinics, referred through legal service providers, or by finding some other way to assist in representing needy clients who might otherwise receive no representation. Our Rules of Professional Conduct state the minimum requirements that practicing lawyers are expected to meet in providing pro bono assistance; the experience of students in clinical programs gives life to these words and carries forward into their careers.

Here in the District we are blessed with diverse offerings of clinical programs at every law school. We, as Bar members, should be proud of the work done training students, and of the service those students provide now-and for inspiring professional standards of pro bono service that extend into the future.