Are In-House Law School Clinics Useful? Yes

David French

What is the purpose of law school? The answer is not as easy as one might think. Is the purpose of law school to prepare students for legal practice? Is it to provide a specific kind of legal knowledge that can be used in law, business, or politics? Is it an extension of a liberal arts education where students are taught a new way of understanding and thinking about issues of not only legal but also philosophical and cultural consequence?

What do students think they’re paying for? What does the school think it’s providing?

After attending – and later teaching – law school, I’d contend that the vast majority of students attend school to prepare for legal practice while the school itself has a slightly different goal, to inculcate a legal mindset and to transmit legal knowledge.

But aren’t those the same goals? Don’t lawyers have to learn to “think like a lawyer” and then learn the law itself?

The problem, however, is that while the first law school goal – thinking like a lawyer – is somewhat attainable, the second goal – learning the law – is impossible and its single-minded pursuit interferes with the student’s overriding purpose, to prepare for law practice.

This is how the typical student experiences law school:  It begins with a shock. No matter their previous education (including taking pre-law classes), the language of the law is alien, the case study method feels strange, and they find it difficult to slog through even short reading assignments. My own goal as a first-year student was to read and truly understand a mere ten pages an hour. 

By the end of that year, you feel like a different person. Ten pages per hour becomes twenty and that becomes thirty. You feel confident. Suddenly you know more than you ever thought you would about contracts, criminal law, torts, property, and civil procedure. You can use phrases like “fee simple absolute” in casual conversation. 

Then you start (if you’re lucky) your summer job, and you realize you know nothing. Your knowledge of the subjects you worked so hard to study is so rudimentary that you’re worthless. You have to research the answer to every question you’re asked, and no sane client would seek your advice. Even worse, you realize that there’s a side of legal practice that you’ll never see in law school. What does “motion day” look like? How do you interview clients? How do you generate the routine legal documents that are the nuts and bolts of daily practice?

You go back to school the next semester and look at your schedule -- corporate law, constitutional law, family law, secured transactions – and realize, “I’m going to graduate knowing a little about a lot and nothing about actual law practice.” In other words, you won’t graduate knowing what lawyers need to know. And, unless you go out of your way to find the right opportunities, you’ll graduate without knowing what lawyers actually do

You’ll start your first job feeling utterly lost and perhaps a little frustrated at how little your $100,000 got you . . . besides a nice credential.

There’s no easy answer. There’s no way for law schools to produce well-prepared graduates, individuals ready to take your case from day one. But law schools can produce better-prepared graduates, individuals who have a better grasp of law as a practice, not just a body of knowledge. 

How? Through law school clinics – courses designed explicitly to allow law students to experience law in the real world. As I look back on my law school life, three courses stand out: Constitutional law, my third-year constitutional law seminar (because it was fun), and my “government lawyer” clinic.

I externed with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, where I assisted the organized crime division. Sometimes I did real work, like editing briefs. Other times, I just watched the lawyers work. I saw them interview witnesses, make court arguments, and conduct jury trials. I saw the law as challenge (fashioning arguments to counter a well-crafted brief) and farce (watching a defendant fake a heart attack after the jury delivered a guilty verdict).

Every summer up to sixteen students at Regent University School of Law extern with my employer, the American Center for Law and Justice. Working for law school credit, we give them as much work as they can handle, and they get to experience the day-to-day rhythm of law office life – but against the backdrop of cutting edge cases in the forefront of the conservative movement.

Even simulations can be useful. When I taught in Cornell Law School’s Legal Methods program, my department chair encouraged us to “keep it real” with the students. Help them experience law as it is. So they not only wrote motions and briefs, they also did client interviews, took simulated depositions, fashioned the transcripts and documents into coherent factual narratives, and then delivered oral arguments to a panel of practicing lawyers. At the end of my course, they’d “practiced” a case.

While it is undeniable that most clinics are leftist in bent – focusing on political advocacy, poverty, and criminal law – so are substantive courses. The clinics mirror the school’s politics just like the classroom experience. But unlike in the classroom – where students can merely take what’s given them – enterprising conservatives can often fashion their own clinical programs through partnerships with local law firms, advocacy groups, or prosecutors. I’ve worked with numerous law students to obtain credit for work they’ve done for me.

A student can take classroom course after classroom course and still not graduate with truly useful substantive knowledge. But with two or three good clinical classes, a student can experience a real oral argument, interact with real clients, and begin to understand what the “practice of law” means, where excellence is defined not just by knowledge but also by charisma, confidence, and integrity. 

It would be years before I’d know enough about any area of law to answer complex questions off the top of my head. But I had to appear in court my first year out of school. And as I stood there, so nervous that my voice seemed to have dropped a full octave, I was thankful that I’d seen this all before and knew how to carry myself. 

Somehow, my arguments carried the day, and we won the motion. As I relaxed on the drive home, I silently thanked the attorneys back in Boston who showed me how it was all done.


David French is a Senior Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.



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