With new digs, clinical education at Law School aims high

L.A. Cicero clinic

Third-year law students Darien Shanske, James Darrow and Lauren Kofke meet at the law clinics’ new offices with Professor Pamela Karlan, second from left.

Larry Marshall has a vision. One day, in the not too distant future, every Stanford law student will graduate with hands-on experience in clinical education. Stanford will become the first top law school in the country to require that its students learn what it takes to represent underpaid restaurant workers, protect environmentally fragile lands, work on California death penalty appeals and assist in far-reaching Supreme Court cases.

Combined with Stanford's reputation for providing excellent intellectual and analytical legal training, a top-notch clinical education will give students the added skills and professional experience to help them become great lawyers, Marshall says.

Marshall, the David and Stephanie Mills Director of Clinical Education and associate dean at the Law School, knows what clinical work can do to change lives. Earlier this year, he came to Stanford from the Northwestern University School of Law, where he founded the Center on Wrongful Convictions. In the early 1990s, Marshall and his students began working on behalf of several Illinois death row inmates, conducting research, interviewing witnesses and writing drafts. Over the years, their successes in freeing wrongly convicted prisoners attracted national headlines. In 2003, the clinic's work ultimately influenced Gov. George Ryan to commute the sentences of all the state's death row inmates.

Marshall is confident that Stanford Law School has the right combination of talent, drive and institutional support to become the nation's leader in clinical education. In doing so, the university joins a movement that is raising the academic status of clinics. It is also helping return part of the legal discipline to its apprenticeship origins, a system that was replaced by a scholarly based, nonclinical methodology when law became part of institutionalized academia at the turn of the 20th century.

"I'm optimistic that the faculty will recognize that this is not just a nice appendage to a legal education but a fundamental part," Marshall said. "Every professional school, except for law, has an element of clinical training as a requirement."

In promoting this form of education, Stanford finds itself at the forefront of a broader trend. "The push is happening nationally," Marshall said. "But it's happening here at a trajectory that is, as far as I can tell, faster and sharper than anyplace else. The commitment that this institution is demonstrating toward building its clinics is just enormous. It's a dramatic difference from where clinics were a decade ago."

Law Professor Pamela Karlan knows that firsthand. Since she helped launch the Supreme Court clinic, students and staff have established a track record that many law firms would envy. "We went from not having anything to becoming a major player in front of the Supreme Court in two and a half years," she said. This fall alone, she said, the clinic is arguing five cases before the court. According to Marshall, that's more than any law firm in America.

The Law School will celebrate its commitment to clinical education Oct. 20 when it opens a new Clinic Center. With opportunities for students to work on capital defense, criminal prosecution, cyberlaw, youth and education advocacy, environmental law, immigrants' rights, community law, international community law (in Ghana) and Supreme Court litigation, the center will operate as a mini-law firm. Discussions are also under way about establishing clinics in international human rights and transactional law.

For the first time, Marshall's base of operations will even look like a professional law office. The newly renovated space is a far cry from its former "pretty miserable," cramped conditions, Marshall said. The center includes a tastefully appointed reception area, glass-walled offices for faculty and fellows, wireless student workstations and several conference rooms. "Although it was controversial at first, having all that glass was about [developing] a sense of intense community," Marshall said. "We're not about holing ourselves into our offices and closing the door; we're wide open and inviting interaction." The center also has interview rooms equipped with closed-circuit cameras where students can talk to clients under the supervision of their instructors in a remote location. Afterward, teachers can review the recorded meeting to analyze students' body language and interview techniques. Such intense, student-centric and teaching-centric instruction is what makes the clinical experience so valuable, Marshall said.

The new space also will allow more students to pursue clinical work. This semester alone, Marshall said, 90 out of 160 students are in clinics. "What that means is that we have the capacity to serve the entire student body, which is definitely the first time in Stanford's history," Marshall said. "Among the elite law schools, there is no other school in the country that has this capacity."

Past and futureIn the 1970s, Stanford was a pioneer in clinical education, which originally was touted as a way for students to "give back" to society by doing pro bono work. Such an image drew resistance from some law faculty who viewed their role as teachers, not as providers of services, Marshall said. "They would say, 'It's not our job to give students outlets during this small window of legal education to do their good work—they'll have a career to do [that],'" he said. "I disagree—the habit of teaching them to do good work has to be instilled from the get-go of a legal education."

To be taken seriously, Marshall said, clinics must be recognized as essential to educating students in the full context of what it means to be a lawyer. For example, he said, you can't teach someone to swim only by standing in front of a class and moving your arms—at some point you have to get in the water. "There's a moment at which you need hands-on, intensely supervised training," Marshall said. "That's what clinics do."

The current generation of law school leaders knows this from personal experience. "We now have law deans and law faculties who grew up in law schools [that] had clinics," Marshall said. "So it's no longer some revolutionary, weirdo, leftist idea. It's now something all of us realize serves a very important function."

Furthermore, clinical education is gaining respectability as an academic pedagogy develops around it, Marshall said. Support also has grown as nonclinical faculty understand that their clinical counterparts are not legal-aid lawyers co-opting their students, but rather colleagues supplementing their own theoretical instruction. "Some of my colleagues have talked about how the clinic 'cements' the lessons of the classroom," Marshall said. "Nobody remembers a lot from what they learned in the classroom, but they remember cases they worked on in the clinic."

In its best form, the experience combines hands-on practice with an intense, reflective, analytical discussion between the teacher and student. "In other words, it gives you the best of the apprenticeship model with the best of the scholarly intellectual model," Marshall said.

Marshall acknowledges that few Stanford law graduates will pursue the kind of litigious work experienced in much of clinical education. But he wants future lawyers to consider their options when they join firms. "What makes me proudest [is] the student who calls me five years later and says, 'I'm working on this pro bono project that I took on because of my experience in clinics, and I'm really proud of it,'" Marshall said. "That's good stuff, good stuff."