Law clinics that go beyond theory face attacks

November 18, 2010

Law students in the US are finding their efforts to get hands-on experience stifled by the very sector they are trying to learn from, according to a report.

Robert R. Kuehn, professor of law at Washington University in St Louis, and Peter A. Joy, vice-dean and professor of law at Washington University, warn in an article in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), that academic freedom is "increasingly at risk when teaching bumps up against powerful political and corporate interests".

In particular, they say that a growing number of attacks on law school clinics could be the "bellwether" on whether teaching is able to "transcend the classroom" in US universities. About 30 instances of interference in clinics have been publicised since the first law school clinics were introduced in the 1960s, the professors say.

Of those, 12 have occurred in the past decade, with three in the past year alone.

The clinics provide students with the opportunity to get practical experience and offer access to legal representation for poorer citizens.

Threatened repercussions for universities, professors and students have included a loss or removal of funding, termination of employment and legal action against those involved.

The professors cite the example of Tulane University, which has a law clinic that has represented clients challenging petrochemical-industry environmental permits.

They say that the industry responded by attempting to "kneecap" the university financially.

The authors also cite a 2005 survey that revealed that 12 per cent of law professors had experienced interference in their law clinics.

In addition, they continue, more than 33 per cent worried about their university's response should they choose to represent controversial clients.

The authors call on the AAUP to update the meaning of academic freedom in teaching and say it is "an opportune time" to issue a formal statement "focused on service learning".

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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