Crossing the Bar--The Column of the Legal Education Committee

Crossing the Bar--A Legal Clinic Education

by Jeffrey M. Winters

My scholastic career at Valparaiso University School of Law never included an invitation to join the ranks of law review or moot court. My opportunity to gain experience came from a class entitled "Civil Clinic." Though many people signed up for the class, only a limited number were granted entrance. My desire to be chosen for something during law school led me to apply, and after much anticipation, I was chosen to enroll in the "Civil Clinic" and enter the world of legal clinics.

Legal clinics are a growing area in legal education.1 Many clinics were developed throughout the nation by people trying to teach the information, skills, and values that are essential to professional development in legal education.2 These people recognized that the training of lawyers could not be pure apprenticeship or strict case study, but rather classroom studies that were enhanced by real world lessons and the guidance of attorneys.

Charles Henderson Miller had such foresight when he built a clinic program at the University of Tennessee. He explained legal clinical education as follows: "To study the phenomenon of law in society without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study law without clients is not to go to sea at all."3

Though my venture was to the waters of Lake Michigan and the city of Gary, Indiana, the concept still rang true. I soon realized that this "class" was giving me an opportunity to learn through philanthropic means. The truly needy, both in income and predicament, came to me looking for guidance and assistance. My work was accomplished with no thought or pressure of billable hours. The goal was to assist the client without restrictions on time or cost.

I have since continued with pro bono work in private practice, although it does not match the altruism of my law school efforts. The post-academia world demands of student loans, billable hours, family time, and sports appreciation leave little time to devote to legal services for unrepresented and needy clients. The hours of pro bono work are carefully fit in with the paying files. My personal guilt of not having the time to pursue this area is soothed by my belief that I am able to offer a great deal of experience to pro bono clients. My comfort now arises from knowing that though I am able to help a smaller number of people, it is with improved ability.

The benefit of my legal education to potential employers is immeasurable. I was able to shake, sweat, and stutter at my first divorce hearing with my clinic client knowing that I was green as pond scum and learning on their case. A paying client is not enthralled with the notion of the rookie learning and making mistakes on his or her hard earned dollar.

I recall working for Sears in Madison Heights for a summer and explaining to clients that I was "in training" each time I made a mistake or lacked prompt service. While the consumers at Sears allowed this reason to pacify them, it is not so comforting to the defendant charged with home invasion or the paying client trying to keep their home in divorce proceedings. My clinic experience gave me the opportunity to shed my first layer of greenness with clients who knew of my inexperience and accepted it.

The clinics offered at my alma mater are not new or isolated. A majority of law schools in Michigan recognize the importance of this teaching tool.4 The variety of clinics are outstanding and each affects those in need who have no alternative resources. The current clinics in Michigan include:

•The University of Detroit-Mercy School of Law has operated the Urban Law Clinic for 35 years and includes or will include clinics in the areas of criminal law, elder law, immigration, and landlord-tenant law.

•Cooley Law School currently offers The Sixty Plus, Inc. Elderlaw Clinic.

•The Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University has a rental housing clinic and a tax clinic.

•The University of Michigan’s law school has clinics for the study of civil and criminal litigation, child advocacy, community economic development, environmental law, and poverty law.

•Wayne State University School of Law offers the Free Legal Aid clinic and others in the area of disability, nonprofit corporations, urban development, criminal appellate practice, and civil rights litigation.

The demand for experience before graduation has led to the continued growth of law school clinics. For example, when I graduated in 1994, Valparaiso offered one clinic in criminal law and one in civil matters. Today, its program includes clinics in the areas of criminal law, consumer law, landlord tenant law, family law, public benefits law, and environmental law. This expansion also seems to mirror the expected trend of specialization in legal practice. A recent graduate with such clinic practice has experience in a specific area of practice allowing them to search for a position in that area.

Educating students in the law through actual experience is not the sole benefit of clinical education. A clinic student can "develop fundamental lawyering skills and commitment to the values of the profession."5 This philosophy of education alters the view of producing lawyers to fight for clients. The key is to define an attorney as a service provider, not a "hired gun" or "mouth piece."

MaryAnn Pierce, Director of Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University’s Rental Housing Clinic states that since attorneys are service providers, it is appropriate for our profession to include service learning to produce "responsible problem-solvers."6

My first year of law school taught me that some individual "future lawyers" would do or say anything to achieve status or victory. I experienced book hiding, offering of inaccurate information, and an unwillingness to assist in finding the right answer in isolated situations. The rules and goals of ethics are commonly required in law school curriculum; however, the emulation of ethics cannot be taught in the classroom. The first real experience in a live legal setting helps mold an attorney’s application of professional ethics.

Of course, this opportunity to channel the ethical path of an attorney is only as effective as the leader. If a clinic student misses a notice date or discovery date and opts to use a false date to avoid problems, the clinic professor can halt the poor choices and guide the student to ethical alternatives. My clinic professor at Valparaiso reviewed each document filed with the court or sent to a client. Direct oversight affords intention when students are tempted to cut corners or commit an unethical action to be victorious for a client or to resolve an error.

Each week during my clinical education, I would meet with the instructing attorney and three other law students to discuss our files, clients, and procedures. These meetings granted additional education and an opportunity for the attorney to guide our methods and choices in representing our clients. The final grade would not be determined by the outcome of each class but by our efforts, choices, and work product.

Our introduction to legal practice was reading the civil court rules, family procedure, and specific civil statutes. This was not the action and excitement I saw in the advertisements, but it proved important when I began meeting with clients. Imagine my surprise when this nonsense forced by the professor was actually good for me. I soon met people who had been separated from a spouse for five, ten, even twenty-five years, and needed a divorce. The reasons for ending marriage varied and included divorces to enter the next marriage, to avoid losing social security benefits, or just based on the realization that the relationship was over. I also had opportunities to begin claims for injured and ill persons needing federal assistance to cover their daily needs. My career as an attorney began with these experiences and gave me a path to follow as I represented my clients.

I returned to western Michigan to study like a sponge for the bar exam and then to begin my career once I received the elusive "P" number. My first employment experience was opening my own office in Carson City.

Since I had little money and no staff, the procedural and court experience I received during the clinic was invaluable. The success I achieved was built on the foundation I received during my education in Gary.

While my experience in Gary may vary in detail, I am confident that other clinic students would promote this form of education. An employer hiring a graduate with clinical experience gains an employee with legal education and ethical guidance. The development of legal clinics, the history of clinics, and the importance of this venue of learning for both law schools and employers is further detailed in numerous publications. Law review articles have explored the need for and the history of clinical education.7

My travels through the law clinic education were very positive and I do not hesitate to recommend them to all students. However, the clinic classes are not without flaws and each student should assess the benefits and costs before committing to this form of learning. For example, since many schools are offering clinics in concentrated practices, it forces a student to choose one area, or may result in a student entering one area just to get some clinic experience. The specialization of clinics may funnel the students into that area of practice without the intent of the pupil.

Another potential downfall is the risk of instruction from an unqualified or unethical teacher. If a student is introduced to the wrong path, it could snowball into a career of poor decisions. Also, the cost of running clinics appears to be greater than filling a classroom with 20-80 students for lectures. The student-teacher ratio for clinic education must be lower because of the need for hands-on training. These examples are not an exhaustive list of flaws.

However, the benefits received far outweigh the detriments of offering and participating in a legal clinic. My travels to Gary and my opportunities to represent the folks in northwest Indiana is a cherished learning experience. I left Valparaiso in 1994 knowing what a summons and complaint was, where to file it, and who to charm to assure good service at the clerk’s office. I gained this experience and confidence all before I crossed the bar exam.


1. Fell, Norman, Development of a Criminal Law Clinic: A Blended Approach, 44 Clev St L Rev 275 (1996).

2. Robert McCrate, Educating a changing profession from clinic to continuum, 64 Tenn L Rev 1099 (1997).

3. Douglas A. Blaze, Deja Vu all over again: Reflections of fifty years of clinical education, 64 Tenn L Rev 939 (1997).

4. Ave Maria law school has not opened a legal clinic at the writing of this article.

5. Win, Win, Win: A Case for Service Learning, Amicus (2000).

6. Id.

7. See the cites infra, as well as the following: L. E. White, The Transformative Potential of Clinical Legal Education, 35 Osgoode Hall LJ 603 (1997); or Paul Chill, 1999 Connecticut Law Review Award Recipient: On the Unique Value of Law School Clinics, 32 Conn L Rev 381(1997).

Jeffrey M. Winters

All columns are the opinion of the writer and do not represent the position of the Legal Education Committee.

Jeffrey Winters is an attorney at McKaig & Balice in Ionia. His practice concentrates on criminal defense, family law, and probate family issues. He is a member of the State Bar Legal Education Committee.

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