What is a law school “clinic”?

Clinics, clinics, clinics!  When I was considering law schools, all of my lawyer friends emphasized the importance of clinics and selecting a school that offered at least one that I’d be interested in. After completing my first clinic last year, I whole heartedly agree and strongly recommend you take this advice into account (particularly if you’re short on work experience or are unsure about what type of law you’d like to practice).

First, what is a clinic?  No, it has nothing to do with doctors, shots, or awkward waiting room encounters.  Law school clinics provide an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a specific area of law.  This could include criminal law, housing disputes, immigration/asylum issues, and even legislative drafting.  Clinics provide a unique opportunity to gain real work experience, which is surprisingly in short supply in law school.  You’d imagine that since a JD is a professional degree the academic experience would include a lot of hands-on, real world work-like experience.  Unfortunately this is not so.  Most of your work will be in the classroom, discussing cases and doing legal analysis, which is helpful but not nearly the same as replicating the work you’ll be doing after graduation.

So, why participate in a clinic? Clinics typically partner up with practitioners in the field and provide you with an opportunity to assist them in taking on actual cases, working with real clients, and going to the court or legislature (depending on your clinic).  Participating in a clinic is a good way to learn more about a specific field of law and may help you decide whether you want to commit to that particular practice area.

Last semester, I participated in the Africa iParliaments Clinic, which is linked with the African Parliamentary Knowledge Network (a United Nations affiliate).  The main point of the Clinic is to help parliamentarians in African countries draft coherent, well-targeted legislation and also by providing this service to help demonstrate what well-drafted legislation looks like.  The APKN helps the Clinic in reaching out to parliamentarians in their network and then comes back with requests for assistance.  For example, last semester, we were approached by (1) a legislative drafter in Uganda who asked us to draft an amendment to the current petroleum refining bill and (2) a parliamentarian in Liberia seeking assistance in drafting a new state-sponsored health insurance bill.  Cool stuff, right?

By participating in the Africa iParliaments Clinic, I learned not only the mechanics of drafting legislation (e.g., what words to use; how to format; etc.), but also the many other considerations that go into understanding legislation and its purpose.  For the Liberian bill, we had to do extensive research on the existing health care structures so that we could understand what was in place as well as what was working (and not working). We also had to explore social and cultural values in Liberia to better grasp what the citizens of Liberia actually wanted and what services would best serve their needs.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to like the Clinic very much.  I was never very interested in legislative drafting;  instead I was more excited by the opportunity to develop my geographic expertise.  But, in the end, I learned how legislation (even when aspirational) shapes society and politics and can help cultivate development.  This experience has proved very valuable in understanding how legislation may impact my future work in post-conflict development and the important (and many) considerations involved in developing a coherent legal framework.

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