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St. Louis Diary

When it comes to practical experience, American law schools are more than willing to support their students and to provide the maximum exposure to "real law".


 

When it comes to practical experience, American law schools are more than willing to support their students and to provide the maximum exposure to "real law". Therefore, every School has a so-called legal clinic program. The Saint Louis University Law School offers four different legal clinics to their students. The Judicial Process Clinic assigns students as law clerks to state and federal judges, while the Criminal Clinic offers the possibility to work in the Saint Louis Public Defender's office. Students interested in commercial law can gain experience in the Corporate General Counsel Clinic where they work with attorneys at major corporations such as Trans World Airlines or the Anheuser Busch Brewery.

These clinic programs are not unknown in Germany, where every law student has to fulfill certain practical experience requirements during the semester breaks (and many students find the once in a lifetime opportunity to get a valuable second education as a certified Xerox operator and honored coffee brewer). However, it is the fourth legal clinic that really makes the difference. The pro bono Civil Legal Clinic is basically a law office at school, where the attorneys are students under the supervision of faculty members.

Students that plan to participate in the Civil Clinic must be in their second or third year of law school and have to obtain a special student license, which allows them to practice law under the direction of an attorney. Once a student has obtained the license he can do all kinds of legal work, from client counseling to opening a lawsuit and presenting arguments at court.

The Civil Clinic fulfils different goals. First of all students can gain practical "hands on" experience in developing lawyering skills while still in school. On the other side it provides legal services to those who otherwise can't afford a lawyer. Since the clinic does only represent low-income individuals that else can't meet the expense of legal assistance, client incomes must fall within the federal poverty income guidelines. Additionally the clinic does not accept cases that could generate any income for attorneys, since the aim of the clinic is to serve as a pro bono service and not to take away business from attorneys.

While the clinic office receives hundreds of calls for help, it is on the faculty advisers to select those cases that serve the aim of the clinic best. The clinic accepts for representation only those cases, which maximize the student's opportunities to learn and develop practical legal skills.

The type of work the students perform and the experience they gain is various, as the clinic assists their clients with the full range of civil, administrative and even smaller criminal law problems. The cases reflect the typical day-to-day problems an attorney in a small to medium sized law firm encounters. They include landlord-tenant problems such as eviction, unlawful detainer actions or security deposit cases as well as domestic cases such as paternity actions or divorce cases. Contract cases are part of the regular issues as well as fraud actions and criminal misdemeanor offenses. Additionally, students visit homeless shelters to assist clients with food stamp appeals and disabilities claims. Since SLU Law has a specialization on health law, many cases deal with this field. In a recent case the clinic helped defending the founding of a group home for Alzheimer patients in a residential neighborhood, which was opposed by the city. Moreover the clinic represents on a regular basis several large not-for-profit organizations. The latest addition to the clinic program is an arrangement with the St. Louis County Court to have students trained as court appointed special advocates for abused children. After conducting interviews with the children, their parents, family members, and teachers the students make recommendations to the court as to where the children should live.

The impressive thing about the clinic is the amount of responsibility that is given to the clinic participants. When assigned to a case, students have to develop strategies and to fight for their clients just as an attorney would. Memoranda have to be drafted, legal briefs to be written and documents to be filed with the court. If it eventually comes to a trial, the assigned clinic participants have to appear before a judge and make their arguments in court. The return on investment for all the work is twofold. Participants get extensive practical experience that makes them more valuable on the job market and by the same token they do also learn that legal practice means more than just making the "big bucks".

Later, Nils