First-year law students tout value of early clinic experience
The University of Michigan Law School is well known for the headline-making, hands-on work that students, with guidance from faculty, do to gain freedom for wrongfully convicted individuals across the country.
Although not as well publicized, there also is a group of students each year that provide many hours of free legal assistance to people closer to the university’s home.
Since 2015, Residents of Washtenaw County and some from Detroit who need help with immigration, unemployment and tenant-landlord issues have been served through a unique program that offers first-year law students a client-based experience.
“This kind of work often goes unnoticed; the front line of not sexy, non-newsworthy work in the trenches,” said David Santacroce, clinical professor of law and director of the Civil-Criminal Litigation Clinic.
The school received a $1.57 million Third Century Initiative grant for a program, Reimagining Legal Education: Early Experimental Learning and Community Engagement in Legal Education, to develop the first and—to date—only program, to build into the curriculum opportunities exclusively for first-year students to practice law.
Some universities have volunteer clinics but at U-M the 1L students, as they are called in the school, prepare for the work in their fall semester and jump into clinical work in the winter.
“Law school is very theoretical, and students can feel disconnected from the practice of law,” said Santacroce who, as the school’s first associate dean for experiential education in 2013-19, co-wrote the grant proposal and led the implementation.
Confidence and career builder
Donya Khadem, a December 2019 graduate who recently took a role as federal law clerk at the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, says the experience not only taught her how to be a lawyer but how to provide direct services to legal-aid clients.
“1L can be hard. Doing something like this lets you step out of the class and positively impact a client,” she said. “It allows you to try something and see if it fits.”
Khadem worked in what then was called the Unemployment Insurance Clinic but is now the Workers’ Rights Clinic. She remembers her first case—an older woman unfairly let go from her job who was trying to fight the system on her own and struggling financially.
“It forces you to reckon with what kind of lawyer you want to be. It reassured me that I want to do litigation with a civil rights focus,” she said.
Students interview clients, review the law in question and prepare each case. Depending on the legal issue, they may help a client file paperwork or plan and argue a case in front of an administrative law judge. Those who argue cases introduce evidence, make objections and conduct witness examinations and cross examinations.
Although the students have a highly successful track record of winning the cases, occasionally they have to prepare an appeal.
Current third-year student Aiden Park had to do just that. He had a client who failed to clock out at times when leaving work and had what his employer considered too many absences. He was let go and the employer claimed he was ineligible for unemployment.
Park argued that the client’s behavior wasn’t intended to harm his employer but his health issues explained the absences and the advanced age contributed to forgetting to punch out. The first judge was not convinced, so Park had to prepare an appeal, and won.
“There are just no words to describe how excited he was and how great it felt to fight for him in that process,” Park said. “It was a really great learning experience in how to lower the temperature and … just listen, and how that’s its own kind of public service. It was a crash course in how to deal with clients and be there for them.
“I want to work with clients, I want to fight for clients and that’s why I am here.”
Cases in the Workers’ Rights Clinic are conducted by phone, which meant students were able to continue serving clients during COVID-19 restrictions.
“COVID just ramped up how many people needed the assistance of the clinic because, all of a sudden, so many people were losing their jobs, and the rules around unemployment insurance changed,” said Nancy Vettorello, clinical law professor. “So, there was this whole extra layer of community need that the clinic was able to meet.”
Third-year student David Meyerson got a chance to work on a case involving the pandemic that was used in a larger policy discussion to illustrate a need for legislation to protect workers from companies that were deemed reckless in how they responded to the virus.
Michael Timmons worked in the laundry of a nursing home where masks and gloves were available pre-pandemic. When COVID-19 struck, his employer locked up the personal protective equipment and Timmons had to work without it. He continued to do his job until a co-worker contracted the virus. He had a preexisting heart condition and was nervous about taking COVID home to his family, so he left his job and filed for unemployment.
Typically, quitting a job would not qualify someone for benefits but Meyerson, under the supervision of a faculty member, convinced a judge that the circumstances in light of interpretation of the governor’s executive orders around unemployment should allow him to receive benefits.
“It showed me how many holes, how many pitfalls the system has and how easy it is for a lot of workers to slip through the cracks,” Meyerson said.
Beth Wilensky, clinical professor of law, teaches a section of the course that gives students experience with immigrants. Working with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, they assist people with green cards through the naturalization process to become U.S. citizens.
“There are lots of legal touch points in that process and it’s extraordinarily helpful to applicants if they have someone with knowledge of the law to help them with that process,” she said.
This work goes well beyond crossing t’s and dotting i’s, Wilensky said. The students must ask very probing questions to make sure the applicants are fit for citizenship.
“It is an extraordinarily detailed application that asks about their history in their countries, like have you ever engaged in prostitution, have you ever been a part of a militia or been a part of certain kinds of organizations,” she said. “We talk a lot about how you work with clients in a sensitive way and encourage them to communicate in a way that is open and honest, and explain the consequences if they fill something out that is wrong.”
Sometimes the answers raise red flags and the students, working under the supervision of an experienced MIRC attorney, must advise clients that a disclosure could rule them out for citizenship or worse, lead to immediate deportation. Their advice in the end may be not to go through with the application.
“The students tend to be kind of nervous before the client interview but to a person they’ve all found it to be extremely rewarding, and some have come back on a volunteer basis to do the naturalization work with clients. Students find it very energizing,” Wilensky said.
Vettorello, who has taught the foundational Legal Practice Skills course since 2001, was one of the first faculty members to introduce the clinic experience. Originally, she helped students work on tenant-landlord issues and later began the unemployment work, a much bigger endeavor.
She says transforming the curriculum was an enormous task, particularly for the first 2-3 years.
“It gave me an exciting new pathway to teach my students, teach them new skills,” she said. “Dealing with a real client is much richer, tougher. It calls for some more sophisticated skills than dealing with a simulated situation. When you are dealing with a real client there are unknowns.
“That’s been exciting for me to give my students those experiences, for me to grow as an attorney and a professor, and to make sure I am giving students the best learning opportunity possible.”
Wilensky agreed it has been a growth experience for her as well. She was unfamiliar with immigration law, so she took the training students now go through with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and worked with a client before teaching the clinic.
The impact of these first-year programs and the Law School’s 16 upper-level clinics is clear, Santacroce said. What started out as an elective course for only a handful of students in the 1960s has turned into an army of Michigan students engaged in the practice of law and delivering more 100,000 hours of free legal services into the community each year.
“Still, all clinics can’t meet the demand for their services,” he said. “The sad truth is almost 70% of civil legal needs of the poor and working poor go unmet.”
The Law School and the School of Education Center for Education Design, Evaluation and Research are concluding an assessment to measure the impact of the experimental first-year curriculum on students. Those already interested in public interest law have found the client work affirmed or perhaps honed their direction. However, most U-M students typically go into different areas of law. Still, those who didn’t plan to practice public interest law were grateful to have experienced the client work and many expressed a desire to incorporate pro bono work into their future practices.
In addition to gaining lawyering skills, students grew from working with peers and clients who often were different from themselves, focusing on detail in their work and improvising.
“This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but students just really seem to love the engagement of the live client work,” Vettorello said. “It made students happier.”
Written by Laurel Thomas