via The Practice

In this article we revisit three themes from previous issues this year—Clinical Legal EducationApproaching Lawyer Well-Being, and Lawyers on the Board—with thought leaders deeply engaged in these subjects to gauge how their respective areas have developed throughout the year 2020. To each respondent, we posed three questions. Their answers may be found below.

On Clinical Legal Education: Daniel L. Nagin

Daniel L. Nagin is a clinical professor of law, vice dean for experiential and clinical education, and faculty director of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center and Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School.

How have law clinics adjusted to the events of 2020?

This past year has highlighted the centrality of law and lawyers—and hence clinics—to the most pressing issues we face as a society. Law school clinics do far more than provide a vehicle for students to acquire skills. Clinics permit students to recognize firsthand the awesome power that inheres in our legal system and that gives lawyers a unique role in shaping and re-shaping it. Such power and privilege, clinics also teach, must be accompanied by a responsibility to others, including especially those who are most vulnerable. Whether working on criminal justice reform, health law and policy, the rights of asylum seekers, or countless other issues, clinic students have been able to engage the colliding crises of our time and endeavor to remake the world for the better. Clinics have always promoted the profession’s duty to the larger society. This year, that public service ethos—and the bonds of mutuality between the profession and the public—has energized law students and clinics in particularly profound ways.

This moment of crisis has also revealed new possibilities—new ways to think about the impact of eviction on families and neighborhoods, the role of race and racism within our institutions, the function of jails and prisons, the policies that govern food access, and the mechanisms to keep small business afloat, to cite just a few examples. Clinics have responded to this moment by leveraging their expertise and seizing opportunities to reconsider how longstanding legal problems and remedies are framed.

Necessary to all this work has been the clinics’ embrace of new ways of practicing law. From Zoom hearings to FaceTime client interviews, and from sharing documentary evidence over WhatsApp to conducting community legal workshops via Facebook live, clinics have used technology tools in ways and to an extent that would never have been imagined a year ago.

What have you found the most challenging in leading HLS’s clinical programs during this unprecedented time? On the flip side, what have you found encouraging?

It would be a mistake to say that any one person, or even small group of people, leads HLS’s clinical programs. Our over 40 clinics and student practice organizations each have their own terrific group of leaders and team members. Our program—which spans 22 in-house clinics, 13 externship clinics, and 11 student practice organizations—continues to thrive because of the strength of these teams individually and collectively.

Among many challenges this year, an especially large operational challenge was the very sudden shift to remote teaching and lawyering last March. Looking back on that time now, it is simply astonishing how quickly basic assumptions about how one teaches and lawyers were upended. At that same moment, of course, the legal needs of the community were only growing and becoming more urgent by the day—which placed additional pressures on our clinical program to remain accessible and responsive. And all this unfolded against a backdrop of simultaneous disruption in the lives of clinical community members with school age children, with health vulnerabilities, and with unique family obligations.

In the face of these challenges, the clinical community has demonstrated astonishing creativity, resilience, and determination. Clinicians improvised and found ways time and again to meet the needs of each other and their students. It is simply extraordinary how swiftly—and thoughtfully—clinics incorporated pedagogical, technological, and logistical innovations into their work.

And clinical students were no less remarkable. As they faced their own set of individual and sometimes familial challenges, students kept a relentless focus on meeting the needs of their clinic clients and responding to the deepening disadvantage and inequality the pandemic has imposed. Our students have been resolute and fearless throughout. The legal profession is in very good hands.

What lessons from 2020 are likeliest to carry forward as you plan for the future of law school clinics?

The list of lessons grows by the day. If I had to name just a few, it would certainly be important—and obvious—to include technology’s role on the list. By technology, I am referring to two things. First, technology-enabled law practice—that is, how technology can facilitate the efficient and effective delivery of legal services. And second, technology law as subject—that is, the legal frameworks that govern access to and the use of technology in general, which is the focus of our CyberLaw Clinic. Looking ahead, we have a unique opportunity to focus anew on how to equip our clinical program with the technological tools that will best prepare students for 21st-century legal practice and how we can continue to explore the role of technology and technology law in an array of clinical practice areas. And we need to do all that while bearing in mind that many of the people who most desperately need legal help have limited or no access to everyday technology tools, such as the internet.

A second important lesson from 2020 relates to institutional flexibility. One of the genuine highlights of an enormously trying year was the way in which the Law School and individual clinics were able to pivot to respond to an emerging legal need, to develop new partnerships and externship opportunities, or to build a new area of practice based on student interest. As a program, we have been especially nimble this last year to purse new pedagogical and service opportunities as the world around us has evolved so rapidly. These new offerings underscore the necessary interconnectedness of the clinics to real-world law practice and community need. Going forward, our willingness to experiment, to try new things, and to be responsive will serve us well.

Filed in: Clinical Voices

Tags: Center on the Legal Profession, Dan Nagin, Legal Services Center, LSC, WilmerHale Legal Services Center

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