Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Law School Clinics Key to Bridging Access-to-Justice Gap

By Dean Michael Waterstone

This op-ed originally appeared in the Feb. 14 edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Legal education has been a source of vigorous debate and criticism. Some is no doubt warranted. High tuition. A challenging job market for new grads. President Barack Obama opined that the third year of law school is unnecessary. These are all important and complex topics, and worthy of public discussion.

But another issue is of pressing importance, and law schools have an important story to tell. There is an access-to-justice crisis in this country. Three quarters of litigants in state courts are unrepresented. In California, there is one legal aid lawyer for every eligible 6,000 poor people. The most vulnerable members of our society, facing some of the most challenging struggles of their lives, are being forced into the legal system on their own, where they will unquestionably meet worse outcomes. This is undermining confidence in one of our most prized national assets — our commitment to the rule of law. The World Justice Project currently ranks the United States 94th out of 113 nations on the “Accessibility and Affordability of Civil Justice” 2016 Index.

This is a society-wide problem, and law schools have a crucial role to play. One of the primary ways we do this is through clinical legal education. Based on the medical residency model, clinical legal education gives law students an opportunity to represent actual clients under the supervision of clinical law professors. Most states, including California, have student practice rules that allow qualified law students to do this.

Our law school, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, has a longstanding commitment to clinical legal education. It is a key way we fulfill our social justice mission to train our students to be lawyers for others. Our Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic represents some of the most vulnerable members in our community. They recently held an event where they helped 100 Deferred Action for Child Arrivals recipients with their renewals.

Our Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, which recently received a prestigious $1 million grant from the Everychild Foundation, represents children who would otherwise be alone in the juvenile justice system. One recent client was expelled from high school and prosecuted for bringing a pocket knife on campus. Our joint team of juvenile justice and education advocates investigated his background and learned that he suffered from PTSD in response to being kidnapped and beaten by the notorious MS-13 gang. ‎With the help of our social worker and outside experts, the team created a treatment plan to address his untreated PTSD and get him readmitted to a new school, where he is now excelling academically and socially.

Our Loyola Project for the Innocent has secured the release of individuals who have collectively served more than a 100 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. One was Andrew Wilson, who was freed after 32 years in prison thanks to the work of our students, who were able to show that key pieces of evidence were never turned over to the defense during the original trial.

While I believe Loyola has a special story to tell about our clinical programs, we are not alone. Most of our fellow law schools in Southern California and nationally have clinical programs that do great work. And these programs provide a great rejoinder to another criticism of legal education — that we are producing graduates who do not have the tools or training to do actual lawyering. Our graduates with clinical experiences have exercised legal judgment in a professional capacity, and will be in a better position to deliver value to a broad range of clients when they graduate.

Imagine doing this work while you are still a student. It changes not just the lawyer you become, but the person you are. I loved law school — I relished in learning about law and the intellectual richness of making arguments and understanding the positions of the other side. But my most lasting memories of law school, and the experiences I am most proud of, were when I was able to represent real clients. I was lucky — even though clinical education was not as popular then as it was now, I got to represent a victim of domestic abuse who was able to secure a divorce and child support; stop a slumlord from evicting my client; and secure government benefits for someone who had been unjustly denied them for more than a decade. This stoked in me an enthusiasm for public interest law and social justice lawyering that has animated my entire professional career, from my time as a litigation associate at a law firm to a professor and now Dean.

Wednesday, Loyola Law School will formally open our Loyola Social Justice Law Clinic, a consolidated space on campus. For the first time, many of our live-client clinics will be housed under one roof, operating collaboratively as a social-justice law firm to help the greater Los Angeles community. It is an exciting moment, and one that stands ready to produce graduates with training and passion to help close the justice gap.

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