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What Law Clinics Left Behind


Talia K. Rothstein (@TaliaRothstein) is the Law and Organizing Fellow for the LPE Project.

Law clinics are a staple of legal education. As just a small sample, UCLA offers their students a choice of more than 20 clinics; Michigan notes that it has offered clinics in which students take “first-chair” responsibility for more than 45 years; and Harvard, being Harvard, boasts that it “offers more clinical opportunities than any law school in the world.”

For most of this country’s history, however, law schools did not prioritize experiential education. Instead, most clinics were student-run and extracurricular. The turning point arrived only in the 1960s and 1970s, when law student activists demanded curricular reform. Law clinics, in other words, have roots in protest.

But as with many stories of social movement wins, the rise of clinics did not represent a simple victory for student protestors. Instead, it left them with a host of unmet demands—many of which remain unfulfilled today. It was also the result of forces from the institutional mainstream: a concern about lawyer preparedness from national organizations like the American Bar Association (ABA), federal policy attention to the legal needs of the poor, and, a key funder, the Ford Foundation, becoming convinced of clinics’ worth. These developments made experiential education more palatable to previously opposed faculty, such that law schools faced with the threat of student power came to see clinics as the perfect concession.

This complex story of movement demands and institutional cooptation should matter to anyone with stakes in the give-and-take between protest and power—that is to say, all of us. But this history is especially important for current law students, as it helps illuminate what was left behind, demonstrating the need to reclaim the legacy of more militant student organizing beyond clinical education.

The Rise of Clinics

In the 1960s and 70s, college and graduate students around the United States protested the Vietnam War, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the repressive cultural norms of the university. Law students, as historian Robert Stevens has put it, “caught the bug.” Many turned their attention to curricular reform, calling for more attention to pressing social problems in their regular coursework. This included practical education to prepare them for practice in areas like poverty law, as well as course credit for pro bono legal assistance. Many students backed up their demands with the threat of occupation of faculty buildings and disruption of campus activity. Faculty and the profession took note: as the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) chairman warned in 1968, “fundamental changes [to legal education] must be made soon . . . law students over the country are reaching the point of open revolt.”

Many deans, however, were reluctant to devote the funds necessary to build up clinical programs, in large part due to longstanding faculty opposition. Alexander Bickel, famed constitutional scholar and then-dean of Yale Law, lamented a “radical and disastrous . . . return to vocational training.” Nearby, Connecticut Superior Judge Douglass Brownell Wright wrote to the president of the University of Connecticut that the law faculty were in “complete revolt” over curricular changes. These sentiments were echoed around the country. The decisive push for clinics, then, had to come from outside.

Luckily for advocates of clinical education, it wasn’t just radical students calling for curricular reform. In 1963, the Supreme Court handed down Gideon v. Wainwright, requiring the state to provide legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants and giving many a sense that law schools needed to step up. President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs, including federal funding for legal services, similarly drew national attention to the legal needs of the poor. In this climate, the mainstream legal community began to develop a concern that legal education was failing to meet its professional obligation to train law students in social responsibility. Clinical education was a way to do that, especially as the profession became increasingly willing to critique the Socratic method and consider more experimental forms of legal education.

Funders had also taken notice of the developments in legal education. Beginning as early as 1959, the Ford Foundation took interest in funding law clinics. By 1968, it had established the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility (CLEPR), committing $6 million (the equivalent of over $50 million today) upfront to the new organization. Within six months, CLEPR administered its first nine grants, going to Duke, Harvard, Northwestern, Rutgers, the University of South Carolina, the University of Utah, the University of Wisconsin, the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C., and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. Although CLEPR money had to eventually be matched by recipient law schools, it was enough to convince many deans to make the initial leap, proving massively successful: while only twelve law schools offered clinics for credit in 1968, 125 of 147 law schools did only four years later.

As Stephen Teles described in The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, this “peculiar confluence of factors”—forces both internal and external to law schools—meant that clinics were here to stay.

Clinics as Part of a Broader Vision

As this thumbnail history shows, clinics went mainstream when forces from the professional mainstream repackaged student demands in a form more palatable to law schools. This is, of course, how most institutional change happens. Nevertheless, it raises the question of what was left behind—what the student demand for clinics really entailed.

A single blog post can’t answer the question of what diverse groups of students from around the country understood themselves to be calling for. But a first clue lies in the fact that student activists had already been providing legal services for free to community members, well before clinics went mainstream. In the 1960s, students from around the country travelled South to provide legal support to Black lawyers challenging racially discriminatory practices. They advised political protestors on their rights and provided mass defense. And they organized themselves to provide support to local legal aid attorneys working on civil and criminal defense pro bono cases. As a result, the call for clinics can be understood as a demand for the university to put resources and support into relatively autonomous student activities already in existence. In some cases, students explicitly disavowed the idea of bringing their pro bono work “in house” due to the institutional cooptation that would come with faculty supervision. In other words, students wanted experiential education and practical training—but they also sought to hold universities accountable to their claims of training lawyers in service of justice, asking them to commit resources to disadvantaged communities outside their walls.

Evidence of that broader vision lies in the demands students made beyond curricular reform. During this period, diverse groups of students called for financial aid and debt relief to make law school more accessible. Minority students sought affirmative action in both student admissions and faculty hiring. Black students and their allies also called for universities to dedicate resources to preparing Black applicants for law school, and for an end to campus police harassment of Black students. These demands suggest that students agitated for an overhaul not only of the curriculum, but also of the institutional view of who belonged. Crucially, their protests didn’t end after winning experiential education; even the Antioch School of Law, founded in 1972 in Washington, D.C., as an attempt to institutionalize the radical spirit of the 1960s by making progressive law practice central to its curriculum, was besieged by student protest. Antioch students pointed out that the “constant crush of classroom and client work” presented by the school’s model further disadvantaged minority students. In 1980, Antioch students occupied the acting dean’s office, demanding that Black students make up 70% of the student body in alignment with the racial demographics of D.C.

In other words, clinics were never the end goal. Rather, as Fred Cochran, the Black Law Students Union president at Yale, told the student newspaper in 1969:

While we believe in what we are doing, we hope that soon we’ll be at the point where black students will not have to spend an awful lot of time making this Law School not merely a place that arms the country with Supreme Court clerks, Undersecretaries of State and corporation heads, but what it pretends to be: a community armed with the highest intellectual, political and social awareness.

Evaluating Clinics Today

Evaluating the rise of clinics against the vision articulated by Cochran and students around the country is a complex task. On one hand, many clinics today keep alive the radical practice of their origins, working with client communities to build tenant and worker power, fight the carceral state, advocate for the disenfranchised, and much more. Some clinical professors and practitioners today are pushing clinics away from the dominant model of public interest law to more explicitly support left political organization and power-building. This is valuable work, and there should be more of it in law schools.

On the other hand, it should be clear to anyone educated at or affiliated with American law schools that clinics have not transformed the institutions. Law schools continue to churn out indebted workers; funnel students into corporate firms; incubate reactionary ideas and people; and entrench racial, class, and gender hierarchies. They also often occupy predatory positions in relationship to nearby communities. In other words, the political economy of law schools remains unchanged, and law student activists’ broader vision has gone unfulfilled. Many component demands of that vision remain ongoing sites of struggle, from debt to affirmative action.

And although clinics are often refuges for leftist law students, they are not exempt from implication in the institutional ills of the surrounding university. Clinics—no matter their substance—often serve to appease and deflect opposition to the ways that law schools reproduce hierarchy. Universities publicize clinic wins to attract students and garner prestige. These benefits accrue even as clinics serve some of the same populations subject to disinvestment and gentrification at the hands of law schools.

Clinics themselves often reproduce hierarchy and exploitation within their structure. For public interest-minded students, they are one of the sole places on campus to get training, develop relationships with progressive faculty, and signal their commitment to prospective employers. Yet most clinics have highly competitive admissions; by the time students take on their first case, they have already been trained to compete as individuals for scarce resources. Thus, clinics today play a sorting and credentialing function, contributing to professionalization that emphasizes individual achievement over collective solidarity. Once students arrive in clinic, the work is usually demanding and emotionally draining—problems that disproportionately affect first-generation students with closer ties to client communities. Despite functioning as workers, clinic students are unpaid and usually vastly undercompensated in credit hours. If students today are spending dozens of hours a week on casework in addition to coursework—the “constant crush” that Antioch students identified in the 1970s—they are left with no time to organize for better conditions or show up in solidarity with communities outside the bounds of their clinic docket.

My time in clinics gifted me political community: friends, mentors, and partners-in-struggle from our client communities. And for some of my clinic clients, free legal representation may have prevented deportation; challenged workplace exploitation; and brought material compensation for other harms. But clinics are no panacea for the problems of the institution. To truly live up to their radical origins, clinics must be re-politicized with a deeper critique of the university. For that, law students—members of clinics and not—must organize. Relationship-building against the grain of professional norms that urge competition; demand-making to articulate a different vision for law schools; autonomous student coalitions as a way of building real power that will force faculty and administrators to change. Only with this level of broader student organization will clinics become a force for solidarity both within and outside university walls.