At Harvard Law School, more than 800 students will be doing clinical work this academic year. They will be engaged in factual and legal investigations; interviewing clients and witnesses; drafting legislation, legal memoranda and briefs; and preparing for trial amongst other legal work. In this blog post, a former clinic student, faculty, and staff share advice as students take on these challenges.
Derek Manner ’16
Winner of CLEA’s Outstanding Clinical Student Award
Almost every lawyer I’ve spoken with says that their favorite part of law school was their clinic. This was certainly true in my case as well. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was that I got some pretty good advice about how to be successful before I started. The head of the department who was supervising me suggested that I needed to spend as much time in the office with the other attorneys as possible to get a feel for the work. It also helped that my direct supervising attorney and I quickly developed a strong working relationship built on an open line of communication. This was particularly helpful when I knew my schedule would be hectic and I needed to front load some of my hours so I could focus exclusively on law school at times. Finally, clinicals are a big time commitment. So make sure that you’ve built chunks of time into your schedule every week to adequately complete your work. This is easier said than done due to last minute activities that pop up, so try to factor in some flex time.
Clinical Professor of Law
Faculty Director of Legal Services Center and Veterans Legal Clinic
Vice-Dean for Experiential and Clinical Education
As you are about to embark upon your first semester in a law school clinic, keep in mind a few key ideas. First, you will be undertaking two roles at once: student and advocate. Having a client and a cause radically alter the dynamic of being a student. Your client’s stresses and burdens are now yours too. Your obligations are not simply self-generated; they are imposed externally by codes of conduct for zealous and ethical law practice. You are now beholden not just to your own standards and Law School standards, but owe separate duties to your clients, to tribunals, and to third parties. These additional layers both complicate and enrich the experience of being a student. Second, the rhythms of clinical work will feel different. Real cases and projects don’t always follow a linear or expected path. So prepare to face—and embrace—some amount of uncertainty in your clinical work. And third, have fun. Even though the stakes can be very high indeed—saving a family from eviction, keeping a woman safe from domestic violence, protecting the human rights of people in faraway places, negotiating a contract, advocating for legal rights in cyberspace, seeking asylum for someone targeted for his political activity in his home country, improving access to healthcare and healthy foods, and on and on—don’t forget to smile periodically as you undertake this critical work. What a joy and privilege it is to advocate for someone who needs your help.
Senior Clinical Instructor, Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic
So you are about to start your first clinic—what can you expect? My answer is based on what you would experience in my clinic, the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, but I expect that it would also apply to most other clinics here at HLS. First, you should not expect to be stuck in a back room researching legal memos to answer simple, clearly-defined questions. On the contrary, you should expect to be dealing with challenging problems to which there is no easy answer. Second, you will be front and center in each project and will interact frequently with clients and government decisionmakers—legislators, regulators, or judges. This role can seem frightening for some people, but it ultimately makes the clinical experience far more rewarding. Third, clinics can be hard work. This does not mean that you are expected to put in extra hours; we make sure that all students can stick to their allotted clinical hours. The clinic is hard because you don’t just spend your time reading a casebook; instead, you need to engage in original legal and policy analysis and work on your writing and oral presentation skills. Again, however, you will find that the time spent working on these skills pays huge dividends. Finally, you are not left entirely to your own devices. You will have clinical faculty and staff, as well as your fellow students, supporting you each step of the way. In the end, I think you will find your time in a clinic to be one of the best learning experiences you have in law school.
Administrative Director, Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with balancing the clinic work with your other law school and life responsibilities, don’t hesitate to reach out for help to your clinic supervisor, faculty, clinic administrator, the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs, or any of the health and wellness resources available to you at HLS and Harvard. All of us in the clinical community are invested in making a successful and meaningful experience for students – we are here to help!