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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Clinical Eye for the Doctrinal Guy (Part 4 of 5)

I am not a clinician.  I don’t pretend to be one.  I guess I am more of the doctrinal guy, even though my interests are interdisciplinary both between law and other disciplines and between disciplines within law.   As a result, my reactions to Alfredo’s positive experiences with the Lawyering for Social Change Curriculum are not as finely honed as they could be.  My post today will address how some outside the Lawyering for Social Change Curriculum understood it and why it may have passed away.

I had a close friend from graduate school in the Class of 1993 who participated in the Lawyering for Social Change Curriculum, and when I made a campus visit in Spring, 1991, before deciding to matriculate, I visited some of his classes.  I was not quite sure what to make of them.  The discussion was interesting, but the classroom was filled with as much talk and abstraction as in any of the doctrinal classes I sat in on.    My friend Rob was a sociologist like Alfredo, although he hadn’t had much luck in the academic market and so decided to go to law school and is now an employment attorney in the Bay Area.  His take was that the program provided some practical insights that the doctrinal classes sorely lacked, but that they were few and far between, emerging often between theoretical discussions of how not to turn the attorney-client relationship into a hierarchical and patriarchal one.  From his comments I inferred that the courses provided a needed break from the dullness of typical doctrinal classes, but not much of one.

As a 1L, I worked a bit in the clinic in East Palo Alto just to learn more about it. I worked on one or two landlord-tenant disputes just to get my feet wet.  I had done some expert witnessing before going to law school and so had some, but admittedly limited, exposure to the legal system.    It was never clear to me the relationship between the East Palo Alto Clinic and the Lawyering for Social Change Curriculum.  I just remember the Clinic closing down sometime after I graduated, and I think that closing had something to do with the Curriculum itself being downsized after Professor Lopez left in 1994.   From Alfredo’s descriptions, there were a lot of valuable learning opportunities especially in the immigration projects he worked on.  The faculty was excellent and the students committed.

So what happened?  Alfredo suggests that it was due to a lack of commitment from the powers that be in the law school at the time.  His account confirmed what other classmates were saying back then: there seemed to be a personality conflict as well as a conflict in visions about the role of clinical education and how it should be structured.  All of these issues were publicly packaged as matters of budgetary concerns and curricular needs.  I know at the time there was a push to ratchet up the private law curriculum, particularly the corporate area, which was already amazingly strong.   Choices had to be made; bangs and bucks compared.    The Curriculum seemed to go the way of many programs. Commitments change, key players leave, priorities shift. 

Today, Stanford’s web site boasts of several active clinics or centers that provide clinical opportunities.  I hear about the activities of the IP clinic vicariously.   The circumstances that led to a movement away from the clinical curriculum in the early to mid Nineties seem to have been resolved.   But there is a difference in tone from what existed with the Lawyering for Social Change Curriculum.   The emphasis in the old clinics was on rebellious lawyering, using the legal system to tackle difficult political issues and to represent those who would not otherwise have counsel.   The clinics of today are progressive; perhaps mainstream is the better word.    For example, the IP Clinic does not strike me as nearly as cutting edge as the Consumer Project on Technology, Jamie Love’s group that I was lucky enough to work with a few years ago in a case involving pharmaceutical patents and competition policy in South Africa.  The contemporary clinics are more politically palatable, not nudging the status quo too much, and with enough brio to make us feel good about ourselves without threatening anyone. Perhaps today’s clinical programs represent the times while Lawyering for Social Change was a holdover from the radically progressive lawyering of the Seventies.   The contrasts are striking and the inevitable question is why the difference?

Change in the political climate is only one answer.   Another I want to suggest is the shift in our understanding of how to teach students skills.   The Lawyering for Social Change Curriculum saw skill training as a means of empowering the attorney to empower the client.  Modern clinics are more technical.   I have no idea how doctrinal courses are taught now, but when I was a student, the courses were fairly straight forward: presentation of the general structure of the field and then the details.   Sometimes, depending upon the professor, we would get an interesting theoretical or interdisciplinary spin on the doctrine.   I found the doctrinal courses, for the most part, excellent but I was blessed with some of the better professors at Stanford, especially in all of my first year courses.   I got what I wanted and that was an understanding of the structure of the legal system and much of its hardware and software.   I learned enough not to be too dangerous, I hope, and to know what I needed to keep up with and study more.  But I am not sure I was technically skilled as an attorney at the end of the trip.  That was neither my purpose nor the school’s.   I should not be quoted as saying that Stanford did not produce excellent attorneys, but I think all of my classmates would have been excellent technical attorneys even without the three years there.  Stanford’s value added was to provide some polish and understanding that would provide success in any field where legal analysis and thinking would be valuable, not just the courtroom.

Despite its demise, the Lawyering for Social Change Curriculum fit into that general mission of the law school.  Therefore, at some level, there was not much difference between the Lawyering for Social Change Curriculum and doctrinal areas in tone and purpose.    That could explain my friend Rob the sociologist’s point that there really was not much more practical training in the clinical courses than in the doctrinal courses.   I wonder what Alfredo would say about the Stanford clinics today.   While they are excellent and active, I wonder if he would miss the passion of his clinical experience and see the current trend as emphasizing technical skill over using the law to aid the disempowered and disenfranchised.   Or is it just safer to see the technique of law as a tool for gradual, socially sanctioned change and leave the radical social change for others?

Posted by Shubha Ghosh on September 21, 2006 at 12:36 AM in Books | Permalink

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