The Practical Value of Clinical Legal Education

By: Robert L. Yates, Spring 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

It’s fair to assume that most law students come to law school with the goal of becoming practicing attorneys. Unfortunately, most courses offered in the law school curriculum teach only the substantive law and how to apply it in a brief or memo. Obviously, these skills are important; however, there is much more to practicing law in the real world. Luckily, Georgia State University College of Law boasts three in-house clinics and several off-site clinics which offer students the chance to develop practical and professional skills by working on real cases for real clients.

As a student in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic, I represent low-income clients receiving healthcare services at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. While the lecture component of the clinic touches on some substantive areas of law such as Social Security Disability, Landlord-Tenant, Wills, and Advance Directives, most of the students’ time in the clinic is spent working up cases for clients. Under the supervision of a clinical professor, each student is assigned cases and a student partner. The students are then responsible for communicating with their clients, gathering facts, and applying the law to their clients’ situations. This is where most law school classes diverge from the clinical legal education experience.

In most law school classes, the students are taught the substantive law on the course topic. The students’ knowledge is tested at the end of the semester when they are presented an artificial fact pattern onto which to apply the substantive law. Clinical courses are the only law school classes that teach students how to gather facts from clients and other sources and sift through all the information to determine what is legally relevant and what is not. As an attorney, you will have a very tough time applying the law to your client’s facts if you cannot gather and organize the information necessary for a complete legal analysis.

The ability to gather facts from clients leads directly to my next point about client communication. A large component of clinical legal education is learning how to effectively communicate with clients, both in interviewing to gather facts about the client’s claim and in counseling the client on what to do once the legal analysis of the facts is complete. Again, this is something not taught in most law school classes. Law students can write memos and briefs on the law to judges and colleagues, but many are unable to explain the legal situation effectively to a layperson such as a client. This ineffective communication can result in lost cases, lost clients, and legal malpractice claims. Clinical legal education builds these client communication skills through both lecture and practice.

Personally, I believe clinical legal education is an invaluable part of becoming a practicing attorney. While many law students learn how to practice law by interning or externing during their time in law school, some never get that opportunity. Further, most interns or externs are not given clients and cases for which they are wholly responsible from intake through closing. The practical value of clinical legal education is something that cannot be overstated, and every law student will benefit immensely from participating in a clinic such as those offered at Georgia State University College of Law.