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February 10, 2008

If you build it (around SCOTUS), they will come

Dream_fieldThe latest issue of the ABA Journal has this interesting article discussing perhaps the most significant innovation in elite law schools in recent years: the development of Supreme Court litigation clinics.  The entire article merits a close read by any and all wanna-be law school innovators, and I found these excerpts particularly interesting:

Since Stanford Law School launched the first such clinic in 2004, others have followed: North­western, Yale, the University of Texas and the University of Virginia began theirs in 2006; Harvard and New York University kicked off last fall.

The clinics function as miniature pro bono law firms, tackling cases concerning criminal and discrimination issues, as well as laws governing voting rights and maritime jurisdiction.  Typically, their clients are petitioners lacking the resources to move up the appellate chain without the assistance of eager students, full-time faculty and dedicated outside practitioners willing to give their time.

But the clinics share something else.  All have allied with well-known Supreme Court practitioners and their law firms.  The advantage is mutual: Top-tier law schools gain a glamorous clinic to offer students and to appeal to applicants in an increasingly competitive market.

Faced also with a shrinking Supreme Court docket, firms are going all out to seek opportunities to appear before the justices.  Meanwhile, law firms — facing their own competition for high-powered clients and the most talented grads — get a leg up on recruiting as well as an additional labor pool....  Not that the law firms realize a profit from the clinics; on the contrary, the students require a large commitment of nonbillable hours from the overseeing attorneys. With the focus on developing skills using real cases and with a strong emphasis on writing, students often have to rework documents numerous times before they are ready for submission....

Most of the clinics bring students to Washington at least once to hear oral arguments on Supreme Court cases with which they have assisted. Harvard goes a step further, offering students the opportunity to spend their winter term in Washington working with attorneys from O'Melveny & Myers.

And while few students will go on to seek careers as Supreme Court litigators, students and faculty alike agree that the experience offers invaluable training.  “My biggest goal when I come out is to be prepared to handle appellate litigation — not to be surprised by the process,” says Richard Kirkendall, a 25-year-old student attending the clinic at Northwestern. “I think it’s a good opportunity to see the full litigation process.”

I have worked directly with a number of these clinics on a number of different projects, and I cannot overstate the value that elite law schools and elite law firms are adding to both the development of important legal ideas and the development of the profession.

That all said, I hope the SCOTUS clinic model can and will be expanded to focus on appellate litigation opportunities and needs outside the beltway.  Every state has its own version of the Supreme Court (some even have two), and I think (only elite?) state law schools would be wise to seriously consider the development of state Supreme Court litigation clinics.  Similarly, there are over a dozen federal courts of appeals that all could benefit from the time and energy that law schools and their professors and student could devote to their major cases (especially when these cases go en banc).  I think lots of law school — especially those in or around the main location of a federal circuit court — would be wise to seriously consider the development of federal appellate circuit litigation clinics.

If any of this work is already on-going in school beyond those discussed in the ABA article, I would be grateful to hear reports from the field.

Posted by DAB

February 10, 2008 in Service -- legal profession | Permalink


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