Legal Clinics Under Siege

The New York Times reports that law school legal clinics continue to spark controversy and political backlash, particularly (though not exclusively) at state-supported schools.  The story keys on efforts by some Maryland legislators to defund the clinic at the University of Maryland law school unless the clinic turns over information about its clients and its finances.  This might seem like no big deal — the fact of client representation is not privileged and the legislature has a right, if not obligation, to know how state money is spent — but the request appears to have been a politically motivated respoonse to clinic lawsuits against Perdue, a major  employer within the state.  Maryland legislators did not seem to care what the clinic did until it challenged a powerful local corporation.

Law clinics at other universities — from New Jersey to Michigan to Louisiana — are facing similar challenges. And legal experts say the attacks jeopardize the work of the clinics, which not only train students with hands-on courtroom experience at more than 200 law schools but also have taken on more cases against companies and government agencies in recent years.“We’re seeing a very strong pushback from deep-pocket interests, and that pushback is creating a chilling effect on many clinics,” said Robert R. Kuehn, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, citing a recent survey he conducted that found that more than a third of faculty members at legal clinics expressed fears about university or state reaction to their casework and that a sixth said they had turned down unpopular clients because of these concerns.

But critics say law clinics are costly, unaccountable and often counterproductive to states’ interests, especially as they have broadened the scope of their work. The debate has raised larger questions about academic freedom at state-financed law schools and the role lawmakers should have over decisions at those schools.