The social value of legal clinics

Soledad Atienza. Professor. IE University

25 June 2014

Legal clinics are taking lawyering beyond law firms and courts to foster a sense of social responsibility in the legal profession and to highlight the value of the service it provides for the community.  

Legal clinics are a law education model with a social component whereby law students provide the community with legal services under the supervision of a professor,   often by giving assessment free of charge to an NGO.

The model has achieved very positive results in the US and is gaining ground in Europe and Spain.

The first institution to create a legal clinic in the US was the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility (CLEPER), sponsored by the Ford Foundation in 1960. Today, institutions like ABA (American Bar Association) and the Carnegie Foundation, promote the clinic model, while there is also a Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) and Clinical Law Review sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), the Clinical Legal Education Association, and New York University School of Law, which confirms the growing importance of this model.

The most interesting legal clinic programs in the US include those of the Washington and Lee University School of Law, City University of New York, Yale and New York University. The New York University (NYU) program has over 39 different clinics which provide the opportunity to learn with hands-on experience, covering issues that range from the deportation of immigrants, to the defense of minors or prisoners on death row.

The 15 full-time professors who teach on them are tenured professors. This is different to what happens in other universities and evidences their importance.

There are different legal clinics in Spain, created by universities or law faculties, which work with NGOs. The best known examples are those run by ICADE and Carlos III University.  Portugal has “Pro Bono Portugal,” which works with over 100 lawyers and acts as a Clearing House, coordinating the legal affairs of NGOs with the help of 100 volunteers.

Spain also has an increasing number of law firms with an officially organized Pro Bono department, such as the Pro Bono Program of Cuatrecasas Gonçalves Pereira, or a program organized through their foundations like the Fernando Pombo Foundation, the Professor Uría Foundation, or the Garrigues Foundation.There are also more NGOs and institutions that benefit from this service, and many more believe that the next step will be to create an official Clearing House similar to that in the US.These programs make a very positive contribution to the community, offering a legal service to organizations or people that need it, covering a very real social need within the community. 

Moreover, they promote a sense of the legal profession’s social responsibility and the value of service to the community among students and in the academic community in general. The large number of students who are already socially committed are able to satisfy their interest in helping others through legal clinics.

Finally, these programs are a magnificent teaching tool, which permits the student to put all the knowledge acquired into practice, and to learn professional development skills (such as communication, interpersonal skills, team work, or project management) in a real environment, but with the advantage that students have the guidance and support of a professor.

In short, legal clinics, which originated in the US, are a law education model that bring enormous benefits to communities, and which foster a fundamental value of the legal profession, namely that of providing society with a service.




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