So many conferences,so little time

The postings from last weekend’s University of Maryland School of Law conference are great for those of us who were unable to attend.  Some of us were at another conference last Thursday and Friday–Yale Law School’s celebration of 40 years of clinical education at Yale, specifically honoring clinicians Denny Curtis, Steve Wizner, Frank Dineen, and Carroll Lucht.  Part celebration, part substantive conference (and co-sponsored by the law school’s Liman Fellows Project), the gathering provided one more opportunity to think about how clinical education has evolved over time, and what our goals for it ought to be .  One of the themes that developed over the course of the two days was the relationship between social justice and substantive law/lawyering goals on the one hand and skills training on the other.  (There was also plenty of discussion about how “academic” clinicians should be–but that’s grist for another mill.)  One of the speakers expressed her frustration at the extent to which Carnegie and Best Practices seem to play social justice while over-emphasizing the skills dimension.  It reminded me of prior debates about the MacCrate Report and whether that report also was too reductionist in its emphasis on lawyering skills.

Of course, Best Practices, Carnegie and MacCrate all refer to the importance of goals that go beyond skills training, narrowly conceived.  For example, in Chapter 5, Best Practices for Experiential Courses, sub-secton C, In-House Clinical Courses, at p. 197, BP states “Principle: The school has in-house clinics that respond to the legal needs of the communities in which they operate,” and includes the following comments:

“Providing access to justice and seeking justice are two of the most important values of the legal profession.  One way in which a law school can impart these values to students is by establishing and supporting in-house clinics that respond to the legal services needs of the communities in which they operate.

In-house clinics are all too familiar with the tension between providing needed legal services and educating students through the clinical method.  Education should be the first priority.  Nevertheless, several pedagogical goals available to in-house clinics are best pursued when they are designed and operated mindful of the social justice mission assigned to the legal profession, including ‘imparting the obligation for service to indigent clients, information about how to engage in such representation, and knowledge concerning the impact of the legal system on poor people. [citation to Report of the Committe on the Future of the In-House Clinic]  In-house clinics that relate to and respond to the under-served legal needs of the communities in which they operate have the best chance of imparting this knowledge.”

So social justice is there.  And Best Practices, of course, in its urging programs to be more intentional about goals and missions, would certainly support a law school or its clinical program making pursuit of social justice one of its goals if it chose to do so.  But the speaker’s point (for what it’s worth, she was not a clinician) was in part that while this language was in the report the very small amount of space devoted to the topic (fewer than 2 pages in a 280-page book) reflected an unfortunate marginalization of what for the speaker was or should be a pre-eminent goal of clinical education.

My own view is that the skills vs. social justice dichotomy is a false one. [Query: has anyone ever discovered a dichotomy that wasn’t false?  One doesn’t hear much about true dichotomies. Consider this my atavistic Andy Rooney interlude]  Most of us who teach in in-house clinics do both of these things (and more–we’re not even talking about teaching students to be reflective practitioners, or to be able to learn from experience, all the wonderful pedagogical goals to which we aspire), though our emphasis may differ, both substantively and rhetorically.  Sometimes I find that it is through working with a student(s) on a “skill” such as interviewing or counseling or developing case theory I can generate a good discussion of how to translate an important social justice goal into a practical approach or result.  Mere rote repetition of decontextualized skills doesn’t much interest me, and I suspect it doesn’t much interest many clinicians. Yet abstract discussions of social justice, as fun as they might be in theory, don’t do it for me either–and, perhaps more importantly, are unlikely to make students better lawyers for social justice, if that’s our goal.  So let’s do both things (and more) and maybe not worry so much about what we call it.

When one has been around long enough in clinical education, one can feel that these debates seem eternal and endless. But rather than being frustrated with them this weekend, I found myself challenged once again to think about what I do and why I do it.  It’s good to be pushed about one’s craft, to exchange views with folks whose take on a subject is not the same as yours. You may come away changed or reinforced in your views, but either way you are stimulated.  And that’s why I like being a clinician.

–Bob Dinerstein

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