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Op-ed: The importance of a clinical approach to legal education

Friday, May 8, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jordan Uhl
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Contact: Jordan Uhl

Op-ed: The importance of a clinical approach to legal education

Why law schools are losing relevance — and how they’re trying to win it back,” demonstrates the consequences to law schools and to the legal profession of an inordinate focus for decades of training students to meet the needs of large law firms and the collapse of that market. With diminishing jobs in “big law” since the recession, law schools are seeing fewer applicants and taking a hit on their bottom-line.  

Legal education has been designed to make students attractive for firm jobs and the cost of education has risen to match law firm salaries. While the jobs in large law firms may have grown scarce, the unmet need for legal services among low and moderate incomes remains enormous.

The link between law schools and big law feeds the misallocation of legal resources. Rather than target training for the highest paying elite jobs, schools should look to teach students to serve where the needs are the greatest. It may require a dramatic shift to teach students who will go into small practices that are affordable to the middle class or into legal services that serve those at or near poverty. It might mean that tuition should be dramatically lower so that the salary pressures are less extreme and graduates can choose to do good and do well at the same time. But the social good that comes with greater access for those who are now shut out will be huge.

The view from academia is not monolithic and not all law schools are the same. We are proud to be part of the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, the District of Columbia’s public law school. The statute creating the Law School mandates that we make a high quality legal education available to communities underrepresented in the profession and, at the same time, meet the legal needs of under-served District residents.  Our students must provide 740 hours of legal assistance to the District’s most vulnerable community to graduate. Together with our faculty, students work each day to ensure that basic human needs are met.  They fight to save affordable housing, assist immigrants facing deportation, resolve family law disputes, engage in community development projects and other initiatives. This education has prepared our graduates to embark on a life-long commitment to services that has made an enormous difference in the District and the nation. The law school has kept tuition deliberately low so that students can pursue careers where there is the greatest need without the burden of crushing debt.

There are more than 37 million people in the United States living below the federal poverty line and scores of millions others who while not technically “poor” have inadequate incomes.  There are very limited legal services for those at the very bottom of the income scale and for those who have too much income to qualify for a free lawyer, but too little to pay a lawyer, there is nothing. According to the economic census, around one half of one percent of the legal industry is dedicated to serving people with low-incomes. The overwhelming majority of money and lawyer time is dedicated to business interests and the concerns of the wealthy.

In 1994, the American Bar Association Comprehensive Legal Needs Study found that nationally, on average, low-income families had civil legal problems about once a year. Subsequent studies conclude that this report may have understated the problem and that the level of need is, in fact, higher, especially in the wake of the recession and the sluggish recover that has followed.  The economic circumstances of persons living in poverty are, by definition, fragile. One small setback can be catastrophic. As a result, the legal problems that poor families experience often relate to the very basics of life, including housing, health care, income, and family stability. The inability to resolve these issues further exacerbates economic inequality and perpetuates racial and gender disparities in income and wealth. Lack of access to legal services limits social and economic mobility and increases inequality.

The answer for law schools is not to chase the diminishing number of high paying corporate jobs, but instead to meet the aspiration of Justice Lewis Powell: “it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”


Dean Shelley Broderick

Associate Dean Jonathan Smith

UDC David A. Clarke School of Law 


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