This is the fourth and final article in a series on the William H. Bowen School of Law’s Clinical Programs. This week’s article regards the Litigation Clinic.
Students taking part in the Bowen School of Law’s Litigation Clinic are obviously excited about receiving up to six credit hours for participating and getting hands-on experience one usually has to wait and experience after entering the workforce. However, the ability to help people in dire need of legal help that would otherwise likely have had to settle for other options is what some students find most rewarding.
“It changed my perception of what being a lawyer is all about,” said Joe Denton, a native of Jonesboro who will learn if he has passed the Arkansas Bar on Aug. 31. “You hear a lot coming into law school about access to justice, but it’s hard to put a face with that and identify with it until you’ve seen it. You see the places these people are living in. My client was really a transformative experience. Getting her to a better life and realizing the amount of change you can have in someone life is special. It had the opportunity to give back to the community.”
The Litigation Clinic allows students to be certified through the Arkansas Supreme Court under Special Rule XV to be certified to practice law. The stipulations include the students must be closely supervised by a licensed attorney, they attend certain classes, and they must have at least 48 hours toward their law degree.
The program was initiated originally by retired Bowen Law Professor Ken Gould.
Suzanne Penn, assistant professor of clinical legal education and director of the Litigation Clinic, said the experience for the students taking part in the clinic is immeasurable.
“I think a lot of people come to law school with ideals,” Penn said. “They spend the first couple of years learning theory. They sort of disconnect justice and helping people hands-on, things that made them want to come to law school that they had seen in the movies and television that made them want to deal with clients. The clinic reconnects their ideas of when they came to law school. When you get to the clinic, theory and rules of ethics follows. But, you focus on how to handle matters and how theory and law impacts an individual. It changes the way they think of what it’s like to be a lawyer. It’s why they came to law school in the first place.”
The income requirements of the clients often result in the students dealing with situations unlike any they’ve seen.
“I think our clients teach our students things,” Penn said. “Sometimes they are humbled by things they see. They learn what it means to be unempowered, what it means to have an advocate empower you. They learn how different their lives could be had they been in a different situation.”
Beth Levi, visiting professor of law at the Bowen School of Law and a supervising attorney at the Litigation Clinic, noted that the types of cases currently handled by the Litigation Clinic’s students are ones that are going to court. Some of those include juveniles accused of offenses, divorces, custody battles and guardianships.
“Most of them are referred to us from the Center for Arkansas Legal Services (CALS),” Levi said. “They do very close screening of their clients. We’ll get cases from the public defender’s office, and others from various women shelters in the area.
“What’s exciting for the students is that they’re getting help for people who desperately need their help. They work the cases so hard so that they really are able to give them a lot of time and attention.”
While the Litigation Clinic primarily works with cases in Pulaski County, it will accept some in Saline, Lonoke and Faulkner counties. While there is no specific geographic area, the law school doesn’t want students to have to spend too much of their own money traveling far from school.
The Litigation Clinic takes 12 students for the fall and spring semesters and four in the summer. That limits the number of cases the clinic can handle with each student only being able to handle one to three cases. Students can get six credit hours if they work an average of about 20 hours a week with the clinic; four hours for working an average of 15 hours a week.
“I think it should be a class offered to more,” said Dekeidra Brewer, a law school student from Seattle, Wash. “Everyone is vying for a spot. It’s very, very beneficial. I drafted a divorce decree and went in front of a judge rather than a professor pretending to be a judge.
“Law school is kind of like taking an exam. With the litigation clinic, you can learn other things you need to know. You think you would know these things coming out of law school. But with the litigation clinic, you get the experience and information you don’t learn in any other class. It’s real life litigation. A case might depend on you filing something on time rather just reading and taking test end of year.”
Brewer graduated from the Bowen School of Law in December 2011.
“A lot of things look very easy while you observe, but it’s actually much harder when you’re doing it yourself,” Levi said. “You would never dream of a doctor practicing if they hadn’t practiced things while closely supervised. In the real world you have to do a lot of work to develop facts to see what the case is going to be. Our students are really doing everything that a lawyer does – interviewing clients, counseling clients, drafting documents to be filed in court – only they’re doing so under our supervision. It’s something the students need to know. You may be looking up past cases, property values, doing Internet research, keeping time records, or interviewing witnesses.”
Bruce Davis, of Conway, has also graduated and like Denton, is awaiting his Bar results on Aug. 31. Married and the father of four daughters, Davis – if he passes – has a job awaiting him at firm in his hometown.
“I took Litigation Clinic during the summer of 2011 and Advanced Litigation Clinic during the following fall semester,” Davis said. “Beth Levi supervised my work both semesters, during which I worked two cases. Each offered its own rewards and challenges. In short, the Litigation Clinic was a great experience.
“I clerked for two law firms before I participated in the clinic, so I had some practical experience. But clerking was different. The work I did clerking was done under someone else’s name and reputation. In the clinic, it was mine on the line. I think it helped me understand how rigorous the practice of law can be. The best part of participating in the clinic was having the opportunity to help people who needed help, but weren’t going to get it elsewhere.”
Two of the local juvenile public defenders are former Bowen law students, and they handpick some cases that they feel would be good for the Litigation Clinic.
Levi said the philosophy is “Learning by Doing.”
If people are interested in getting help through the clinic, Levi said they should contact CALS and get on their list for services.