The Clinical Advantage
USD School of Law’s legal clinics give students invaluable real-world skills while providing assistance to underserved members of the community
Larry J. Gallagher, ’76 (JD), spent his legal career as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern and Eastern Districts of California and an assistant U.S. trustee in bankruptcy in Reno. On a recent visit back to USD School of Law, he returned to the place he credits for spawning his illustrious career: Barcelona Hall, home of USD’s legal clinics.
“By participating in the Civil Clinic and Immigration Clinic, I gained experience in dealing with real people with real problems. I also participated in trials with a supervising attorney,” Gallagher recalled. “I found this hands-on legal experience invaluable. It opened the door for me to become a litigator.”
Clinical education at USD School of Law is now in its 45th year. Today, the 10 client service legal clinics train 200 students each year. With guidance from supervising attorneys, students provide advice; exercise legal strategy; practice case management; write briefs, pleadings
and transactional documents; negotiate with opposing counsel; gather evidence;
and advocate for clients in litigation, arbitration and administrative hearings. This kind of practical training has become so popular that many clinics are oversubscribed, according to Associate Dean Margaret Dalton, formerly the faculty director for clinical and placement
education. Like a pro bono law firm, the clinics assist clients in a range of legal specialties, including tax, employment, business, immigration, education, veterans and appeals. “There is nothing like the experience of dealing with a real client firsthand,” Dalton said. “Not only
are the clinics a great way for students to develop their passion for the practice of law, but the practical training is critical to a student’s success in the legal market.”
USD School of Law’s clinics also effect change in the community. “We represent low-income, indigent and homeless individuals,” explained Robert Muth, academic director of the legal clinics. “Without the clinics, their lives would be different. We have seen our clients go from homeless to sheltered. Clients with a disability have gained educational services; clients have
gained refugee status.”
Veterans in Need
Dan Ballinger, ’18 (JD), took the Veterans Clinic in spring 2017 during his second year of law school and also intends to spend both semesters working in the clinic during his third year. A Marine Corps veteran, Ballinger plans to pursue a career in veterans disability law. “I’m doing work now that I want to do when I graduate,” he said.
In the Veterans Clinic, students like Ballinger assist former military personnel seeking to upgrade their discharge status or appealing Department of Veterans Affairs disability claims. Students also represent veterans who have disputes with predatory lenders or for-profit educational institutions over the use of GI Bill funds and related loans. Additionally, students
identify potential claims; provide advice; and advocate in civil litigation, arbitration,
or before government review boards.
“People management” is one of the primary skills Ballinger has acquired in the clinic. “It’s client interface, dealing with human beings,” Ballinger said. “I’m not just reading about a hypothetical.”
Ballinger decided to attend USD School of Law in part because of the clinic, which is “more extensive than any veterans clinic around,” he said. In addition to the skills he has acquired, he’s been able to make a positive impact on the community. The clinic represented one homeless veteran, for example, who was living under a bridge. The clinic helped him upgrade his discharge status, and he now has a significant disability rating for injuries incurred in the
military. “Because of the clinic, he’s now back to being a functioning member of society,” Ballinger said.
The legal clinics are funded by the law school, grants from federal and state governmental
agencies, family foundations, cy pres awards, and individual donors. The law school’s administration is “exceptionally supportive” of clinical education, noted Muth. “Both the administration and the faculty appreciate the importance of real-world training,” he said.
Each of the clinics has a weekly classroom component led by a supervising attorney. Typically, students spend the first hour learning the practice of law in a specific area; the second half of class shifts to case rounds, during which supervising attorneys assess progress. Most supervising attorneys stay with their clinic for years, adds Muth, who is the supervising
attorney for the Veterans Clinic. “There is not a lot of turnover among supervising attorneys. They enjoy the opportunity to mentor and train law students.”
Having supervising attorneys available to consult with is key to the clinic experience, Ballinger adds. “You get experience with top-notch attorneys,” he said. “They give you the reins but also help you make the right decisions.”
Spending two semesters in the Entrepreneurship Clinic, which provides transactional legal services to high-tech startups and other emerging growth companies, has been of “huge educational value” to Brandon Laurent Rebboah, ’17 (JD). In particular, he’s gained experience
Rebboah was drawn to the clinic because it was “one of the best avenues to get transactional experience, especially because so much of law school is litigation-focused,” he said. “In the clinic, I did corporate formation work, interacted with clients, and put into practice what I
learned in the classroom through working in what is essentially a mini law firm.”
Education and Disabilities
Adjunct Professor Mimi Adams, ’02 (JD), serves as supervising attorney in the Education and Disability Clinic, where matters include school discipline, special education services and limited conservatorships. Students get experience interviewing and counseling, representing
clients at meetings with school district personnel, negotiating settlement agreements,
and drafting complaints with the Office of Civil Rights and other agencies.
Ten percent of public school children have special needs, ranging from autism to health-related disabilities. “We’ve made changes in the lives of students,” Adams said. “The clinic serves families of limited means who otherwise would not have access to legal services.” Once the clinic takes charge, “the child’s team members listen more and give their attention. When
attorneys get involved, things change.” It’s why Adams, who has a private practice in special education law, jumped at the chance to become supervising attorney. “I felt it was really important to be of service.”
Many clinic alumni have gone into education law after graduation, Adams added. Their clinical experience “solidified their direction after having the opportunity to work on behalf of clients,” she said. Even those who chose a different speciality have still gained “terrific skills like client communication and reviewing documents.”
Indeed, clinical education is beneficial even if students haven’t yet zeroed in on the area of law they want to practice, Ballinger says. “All law students should do a clinic. You can get information from doctrinal classes, but you don’t really learn the job until you’re out there doing it.”
That Ballinger and Gallagher attended law school decades apart and both rave about clinical education is not unusual, Muth says. “Clinic students get the opportunity to apply theoretical concepts.”
It makes them more employable too. “There’s an incredible emphasis on hiring law students with experience. Employers no longer have the appetite for providing on-the-job training. Instead, lawyers need to be practice-ready on day one. With USD’s clinics, students develop practical skills while meeting community needs.”