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Law school clinics, like teaching hospitals, have long performed the twin tasks of training young professionals while filling community needs. Matching a learning lawyer with an indigent client serves both, the logic dictates. But lately, law schools have been shifting their clinical focuses away from poor-law practice and toward “impact litigation” — class-action suits and other complex cases that seek far-reaching results. And while officials say these cases serve as better teaching models for students, they also tend to advance agendas — typically, liberal ones. For example, Seton Hall University School of Law’s Civil Litigation Clinic recently won a class-action suit on behalf of mentally ill prisoners. At Rutgers Law School-Newark, N.J., the Constitutional Law Clinic was at the forefront of making case law in New Jersey that forced shopping malls to allow political protesters and leaflet distributors on their premises. And the long-running Women’s Rights Litigation Clinic at Rutgers helped establish the right to government funding for abortions. Although the clinics at Rutgers-Camden, N.J., have traditionally focused on legal-aid type services and not on impact litigation, that, too, is about to change. The school’s new Gender Equity in Education Clinic will pursue its agenda through impact litigation and by writing model legislation and raising public awareness, says its founder, Professor Linda Wharton. “There are more clinicians who are beginning to move in that direction,” says Professor Louis Raveson, who directs the Urban Legal Clinic at Rutgers-Newark, N.J. Raveson notes that complex cases, unlike a typical landlord-tenant matter or uncontested divorce, present more opportunities to teach students the rough-and-tumble of legal work. Clinical programs at the three law schools — Seton Hall has eight, Rutgers-Newark, nine, and Rutgers-Camden, three — come in all shapes and sizes. They range from the Environmental Law Clinic at Rutgers-Newark, which files complex environmental suits to block development and protect the environment, to legal-aid-style clinics like Seton Hall’s Immigration Clinic, Family Law Clinic and Juvenile Justice Clinic, which represent poor clients deprived of government assistance or facing criminal charges. “The ideal model [for a clinic] is one where the students have the major responsibility and have to think through a legal problem on their own, ” says Linda Fisher, a professor of law and director of Seton Hall’s Center for Social Justice. Fisher and other directors say they offer students the experience they can’t count on getting at a law firm. “In the biggest firms, [students are] mostly researching and writing memos in the library,” says Fisher. Although smaller firms may give more practical experience, law firm economics “often precludes thorough and effective supervision.” Toward that end, cases like those at Rutgers’ Constitutional Law Clinic, which involve a lot of discovery and motion practice, give students “practical skills in complex litigation,” says its founder, Professor Frank Askin. TRAINING MORE LIBERALS If clinics step up their mass litigation efforts, however, they may hear more of a common complaint by conservative voices: that clinics use law school resources to promote liberal agendas and thereby to train more liberals. Such clinics “purport to represent what they deem to be the public interest,” says Paul Kamenar, executive legal director for the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank that promotes property rights and free enterprise. And lawyers who have litigated against clinics aren’t fond of having their clients used to provide an educational experience for students. “These clinics are funded by state resources [and] take advocacy positions that … aren’t really accountable to an electorate that ultimately funds them,” says Curtis Michael, of Secaucus, N.J.’s Horowitz, Rubino & Patton. It was Michael who came up on the other end of last June’s state Supreme Court ruling that his client, The Mall at Mill Creek, violated political groups’ right to free speech by requiring a $1 million insurance policy and a “hold harmless” agreement as a condition of leafleting on mall property. Litigation with the Rutgers-Newark Constitutional Law Clinic also left a bad taste with John Segreto, a Haledon lawyer who defended the borough against an ACLU-backed suit to invalidate an ordinance restricting the use of its park to town residents. The Appellate Division found the ordinance to be impermissibly vague. The borough proceeded to redraft the statute, but the clinic sued again, and in 1998, a Passaic County, N.J., judge found the redrafted ordinance unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. What irks Segreto is that the borough had to pay the clinic’s legal fees — about $35,000 — including fees generated by the students, all for a dispute over a rarely enforced ordinance. Moreover, since the bulk of the clinic’s victory — and its legal fees — were a result of its second suit, Haledon was essentially penalized for trying to bring the ordinance into compliance, Segreto says. Clinical directors have a two-word response to those who criticize their activism: academic freedom. But it’s a double-edged sword. “Law students don’t get exposed to the other side of public interest litigation,” says the Washington Legal Foundation’s Kamenar. “We think there needs to be a balance.” The foundation has just established the Economic Freedom Law Clinic at George Mason University in Virginia, says Kamenar, who heads it. The clinic, he says, will teach students litigation “from a pro-free enterprise, limited government and economic freedom perspective.” Ironically, ideologically conservative clinics such as Kamenar’s have one disadvantage as an educational tool: They generally frown on instituting litigation to effect social change. Kamenar says his students concentrate more on filing amicus briefs in existing cases, supporting property owners in environmental cases or advocating for more limited government. Law firms, for their part, simply want well-educated lawyers, and clinics, whatever their ideology, to play a role. “I think the general view is: It’s a good thing for people to get a taste of what the practice of law is all about,” says Joseph Steinberg, who chairs the hiring committee at Roseland, N.J.’s Lowenstein Sandler. He adds, however, that a candidate’s clinical experience usually ranks below academic honors and journal membership.
Making the Most Out of Law School. Free Program. October 16-27.

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