Law School Clinics: What Exactly Does Student Tuition Subsidize?

In his recent post about ABA law school accreditation, Dave Hoffman suggests that law school clinics provide (among other things, presumably) legal services for the poor, subsidized by student tuition. For Dave, this is probably a social good. For many others, however, this might be seen as an undesirable tax on those students uninterested in such issues. I’d like to take issue with this whole premise, however.

Painting with a broad brush, law clinics are split between two different models: those driven by the need to provide services and those driven by pedagogy. Clinics on the service model are constantly struggling to provide services to a relatively substantial client base. These clinics are typically funded by soft money – grants provided by some interested group for the purpose of delivering particular legal services. As a result of these grants, these clinics cost law schools – and students – far less money. Their cost is underwritten by third parties, not tuition. But these clinics have pedagogical problems, because their need to serve many clients conflicts with the clinical pedagogy calling for students to dig very deeply into a small number of cases.

The other model – the one typically funded by hard money, and thus tuition dollars – takes on cases primarily for the purpose of training students how to practice. Because these clinics serve the goals of the law school (albeit with social justice issues still hovering about), they provide services to a relatively small number of clients. Instead, they train students in “best practices”, teaching them the ideal way to provide legal services. The thinking is that once you train a student how to practice well, she will use better judgment later when her caseload demands more corner-cutting.

So who exactly is receiving the benefit of these highly subsidized clinics? Law firms (and their clients) lacking in-house training programs. Big firms train lawyers themselves. But small firms, legal service offices and – this is a big one, in a place like Alabama – government agencies (i.e., DA offices) need law schools to train students in concrete lawyering skills. For economic reasons, they simply can’t do an adequate job themselves.

So the ABA requirement that schools provide experiential education (and that those teachers be treated as legitimate members of the law school community) actually speaks to the needs of the small town law firm and client, the shingle hanger and her clients, the indigent client, and that entire public consuming such goods as crime control, pollution suppression, and housing safety. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about these folks – us, that is – but maybe worrying about “us” is exactly what motivates states to grant such power to the ABA. It’s hard to imagine, but maybe in this respect, the guild is actually doing right by the public at large.

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3 Responses

  1. Seth R. says:

    It was always my assumption that tuition from the law school was diverted to fund other college departments with a greater overhead than the law school, like say, the chemistry department.

  2. Andrea says:

    I had never thought about those two types of clinics before – interesting. Except now I’m desperately trying to figure out how the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center at Harvard fits in. I guess leaning toward the second one?

    I agree that one of the most valuable parts of clinical education is to provide training for career where there will be a lot of responsibility early on. There are an awful lot of clients of such lawyers who will benefit from that supervised training.

  3. pungas says: