Students On The Case

May 05, 1991|By Patrick A. McGuire

Like so many of the discreet little law offices tucked into the gray and brown anonymity of North Calvert Street's row houses, the firm at 1221 displays one of those small brass nameplates out front, quietly proclaiming its existence. Like all of the other firms on this street, this one has an electric gizmo in its door that buzzes you in when the secretary is satisfied you aren't there to detonate a thermonuclear device. And typically, once inside, you climb the quaint, natural-wood staircase leading to the high-ceilinged second and third floors, past an ancient bathroom that still boasts a bathtub with feet, and into small-bedrooms-turned-offices crowded now with copying machines and computers and law books.

Oh, and lots and lots of lawyers. Just like at those other law firms.

In fact, the differences between these lawyers and the lawyers in the other law firms on the same street or across the city are quite subtle. For one, the reduced caseloads here are almost unheard of -- three to six cases per lawyer. For another, most of the lawyers in this firm aren't even licensed to practice law -- which, in most law firms, would present a severe obstacle to success. Yet here the success rate is spectacularly high; they win almost all of their cases.

Which brings up another anomaly. The turnover at this firm is unusually high: The average stay is about five months. Still, everyone involved is happy and satisfied. Within the walls of this little office, they say, the law actually comes alive.

The idea is not new. Doctors, nurses and dentists have done it for decades. Even barbers have outlets where rookies advance from shaving balloons to lathering up real live faces. So why not a hands-on clinic for lawyers-in-training?

"A law school is not complete anymore without a clinical education component," says Professor Donald H. Stone from his office on the third floor of this row house. As director of the clinical program run by the University of Baltimore's Law School -- whose main campus is only a few blocks away -- he is, in effect, this unusual law firm's managing partner.

"In law school you should have both theory and real cases to get a feel for what it is to be a lawyer," he says. "It's hard to make the law come alive without real clients."

The real clients who find their way to the UB law clinic come largely from the low-income populace of Baltimore. They are referred by the courts or by various Legal Aid bureaus. They come with real problems ranging from abusive spouses to disputes with landlords to entanglements with the red tape of a Medicare or Social Security assistance program.

They are paired with bright, energetic law students, fresh from tortuously dry courses like torts and property and eager for the chance of human contact.

"I'm 23 and I've been in a classroom setting since I was 6," explains second-year law student Rob Desilets, who volunteered spend this semester in the law clinic. "I wanted some experience out of the classroom setting. I wanted to see the difference between theory and application."

Each team of students operates under the close scrutiny of a university faculty member who becomes the official attorney of record in each of these cases. But, as Mr. Stone notes, the work in each case is expected to be performed by the student.

"The faculty member is there to catch them when they fall and guide them through," he says. "Sometimes it's very difficult to sit on your hands and not take over a case. There are different schools of thought on that. I think we all agree that if a client's best interests are jeopardized, we will intervene, or whisper to the student to ask a question. After all, we're the attorney of record and we're responsible for the outcome of that case. It's rare you have to take over, but you don't let a case be lost because you're afraid to hurt a student's feelings by intervening."

Law schools have been putting more and more emphasis on clinical education since the early 1970s when the University of Maryland was one of the first schools in the country to become involved. From humble storefront beginnings, the University of Maryland's clinic now occupies two floors of the law school on Paca Street and, while much larger than the cozy confines at the University of Baltimore, it offers the same opportunity to students.

"When you put responsibility on someone it heightens the learning curve dramatically," says Richard North, the clinical education director at Maryland. "If you're responsible for a patient's life you will certainly do a better job. That is how the medical model of clinics works. We in law schools were slow to understand what was going on in medical schools."

If they were slow, they have come on strong in recent years. "There are just very few schools that don't have some kind of clinical experience," says Betsy Levin, executive director of the American Law School Association in Washington.

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