You will likely register for spring classes soon, and you may feel unsure about what courses to take. Let me reassure you that for the most part, it doesn’t matter what you take in law school after you get your required classes out of the way. Sure, taking “black letter” courses might be marginally beneficial for the bar, but you’ll need to relearn it anyway. And while many seminars will be interesting, they are rarely essential to your future practice as a lawyer. But there is one type of course that you absolutely must take, the earlier the better. It is likely to be one of the most influential courses you take in law school, and will have a lasting effect on your career. That course is a law school clinic.
Law school clinics operate like small public interest organizations located within law schools and are designed to provide experiential education to law students. They are usually taught by professors, although sometimes they are taught by outside lawyers acting as adjunct instructors. They are organized around different areas of law (like housing or employment law) or around different kinds of lawyering (litigation, transactional, policy), and they take on real clients and legal matters. Most schools have limited clinical spots, and you may need to apply multiple semesters before being accepted. Some clinics only last one semester. Others allow students to stay in them until they graduate. They typically do all of their legal work on a pro bono basis.
Before I make the pitch for clinics, I should admit that I am biased. I am a clinical professor after all and so it is only natural that I think clinics are important! However, I was also once in law school and I can say without a doubt that clinics were the most important part of my legal education. I am not the only person who holds this view. If you talk to lawyers, you will find that those who took a clinic will name it as one of their most influential experiences they had in law school.
There are several reasons for this. The first is that clinics are structured in a way that makes them superior learning experiences when compared with law students’ other opportunities. Internships, for example, are a good way to get real legal experience, but the organization you are working for is hiring you because of what you will contribute to its work, not because of how the internship benefits you. Some public interest organizations do take an active interest in their interns, but if there is a conflict between their own priorities and the students’ experience, their priorities will come first. Clinics, on the other hand, are designed to provide the maximum benefit possible for students while still complying with the clinic’s ethical obligations to clients. Clinics would not exist but for the students and as such, clinics prioritize the student experience.
To see how this plays out in practice, think about this example. Let’s say that there is a court hearing scheduled in two weeks. It will take an experienced lawyer 2 hours to prepare for the hearing, while it will take a law student 10 hours to prepare. In addition, if a law student does the argument, an experienced lawyer will need to spend an additional 5 hours prepping the student. The choice between these two options for a public interest organization is simple: the lawyer will do the argument because it will take 2 man-hours instead of 15. But a clinical professor will prepare the student to do the argument because that is what is best pedagogically for the student. The student may get something out of watching the public interest lawyer argue the case, but it will pale in comparison to the experience of actually doing the oral argument.
In my clinic, the rule is that students take the lead on all lawyering tasks while I take on a supportive role. Unless there is not enough time to prepare a student for a task, or it is a task that a student cannot be prepped to handle, I do not step in. This is not unique to my clinic. It is standard practice among clinical professors.
So that’s the first reason that taking a clinic is important. You just can’t get better experience while you are in law school.
The second reason is more intangible. As I have written about in the past, law school can be deeply alienating for a student who wants to take a different career path than most of their classmates. Clinics can provide an antidote to that alienation. One of your goals in law school should be to find other public interest students who can provide you with encouragement and support. You are more likely to meet these students in clinic because clinics are more likely to attract public interest students, and you are more likely to bond with them because of the intensive nature of the work.
Moreover, clinics are a good way to meet and cultivate mentoring relationships with professors who can support you in your public interest career. Most clinical professors come from public interest backgrounds and they are much more likely to have extensive experience in practice, unlike your other professors who may have only worked in practice for a year or two if at all. Clinics are usually limited to just a handful of students and you will get to know your clinical professors much better than professors you have big lecture classes with.
The only downside of law school clinics is that they tend to be time-intensive. But I guarantee the work you do will be richly rewarded, both in terms of the impact you can have on real people’s lives and the positive effect it will have on your own public interest career.