Many law schools offer legal clinics, where law students get course credit for engaging in substantive legal work under the direction of a licensed attorney. These usually offer free legal services to underserved populations and may be focused on local communities (such as local legal aid) or far-flung populations (such as international human rights clinics). Those law schools that offer clinics structure their programs differently, but clinics are usually only available to 2Ls and 3Ls. So if you are a 1L or 2L and contemplating your schedule for next year, and debating whether or a not a clinic is right for you, here are four things to keep in mind as you weigh this decision:
1. The Structure of the Clinic and your Schedule
Different law schools structure their clinics differently. Some law schools have students focus exclusively on a clinic for a term or semester, others balance the clinic with other courses. Some law schools count certain externships as clinical experience, allow students to design their own clinical experience, or partner with law firms and government offices to offer unique and tailored clinical experiences. Spend a little time on your law school’s website and talking with other law students about the clinical programs at your school and reflect on yourself and your coursework. If your school offers clinics as just one course among many for the term, consider whether you can devote the time you want and need to a clinic while taking other courses. This is a difficult balance for some students, and easy for others. Also consider whether you can fit in all of the courses you feel that you want to take and a clinic. For most students, the three years of law school offer plenty of time to take the courses you need, but sometimes certain courses are only offered every other year, or with a visiting professor, and so keeping in mind the bigger picture of your law school career can be important when choosing whether or not to take a clinic.
2. Experience-Based Learning
In general, clinics offer hands-on training and often allow students to take a leading role in the types of activities that new lawyers don’t often experience: interacting directly with clients, taking depositions, preparing motions, speaking in court, etc. These experiences can be very rewarding and prepare you well for life after law school. If a law firm is looking for specific skills that you have demonstrated through your clinic, this could give you a leg up on your competition when applying for jobs. And while the stakes are still high in a clinic, where you are representing real clients, it can nevertheless be a less stressful introduction to actual practice since the level of oversight is high. Most people learn best by doing, and so the hands-on approach of clinics is also a great way to learn and cement your understanding of some of these key skills that you will need to exercise later in your career. This leads us to number three.
3. Skills, Skills, Skills
Law schools don’t often offer clinics that will map exactly onto the career you want to pursue, but that’s okay. Law firms and future employers understand that. What is important is that you can map the skills you learned in the law school clinic onto the career you would like to pursue. Think critically about this in selecting a clinic and in discussing your clinic after the fact with future employers. For example, if you want to do policy work for the state legislature, is there a clinic that will equip you with helpful skills? Is there a clinic that involves representing people in administrative hearings and gives you a detailed understanding of the administrative process? Similarly, if you want to pursue a career in white collar defense work after law school, but you want to do a clinic about securing educational opportunities for developmentally disabled children in law school, be able to talk about the specific skills you have acquired, whether they be defending your case before an adjudicator, gathering evidence for a hearing, or interviewing clients, and how they map onto your desired career in white collar defense. Ultimately, for most students, the skills you learn and the way you talk about them are more important than the subject of the clinic.
4. Perspective and Satisfaction
Law school is a difficult time for many students psychologically and emotionally. It is an unusual crucible for emotions and stress, and it is important to take care of yourself during law school. But sometimes happiness, contentment, and satisfaction come not just by taking time for yourself, but also in keeping perspective. Clinics can offer a great opportunity to provide perspective during law school both because they allow you to serve beyond yourself and your immediate law school community, and also because they help you to begin to experience life as a lawyer instead of as a law student. For many students that can provide a necessary respite from the anxiety of law school life and offer a window into the good that they can do as a lawyer – something that it is easy to lose sight of in law school.
Clinics offer many law students a tremendous opportunity to develop skills through experiential hands-on learning. These skills can often put you ahead of your peers in the job market, when you can demonstrate their usefulness for your chosen career path. Not all law schools offer clinics, and not all law students should or will want to take a clinic. But where clinics are an option, it does make sense to weigh their pros and cons, considering your schedule, the type of experience they provide, the skills you want to develop, and the long-term perspective they can offer.
Did you find this article helpful? Check out some other great articles:
- Ahead of the Curve: Get a Head Start on Your Career
- Tips for Applying for Internships and Externships
- The 3L Snooze
- Checklist for Choosing Your Law School Classes
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