The social value of legal clinics

Soledad Atienza. Professor. IE University

28 September 2015

Legal clinics are a learning model for the field of law that promote a fundamental value in the sector, namely that of serving the community.

Legal Clinics are an education model in the field of law that offer a social component. They enable law students, under the supervision of a professor, to provide legal counsel that helps the community, which often takes the form of assessing an NGO.  

The model has enjoyed great success in the US, and is now gaining ground in Europe and Spain.

The first institution to create a legal clinic in the EU was the  Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility (CLEPER), sponsored by the Ford Foundation in 1960. Today, institutions like the ABA (American Bar Association) and the Carnegie Foundation, promote the legal clinic education model, and we have the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) and a 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 the legal clinic system.

Some of the most interesting clinics in the US are run by 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 30 different clinics so that their students can “learn by doing”, which deal with areas that range from the deportation of immigrants to the defence of minors, or  of people who have been sentenced to death.  

Unlike what happens in other universities, the 15 full-time professors who lead them are tenure professors, which goes to prove just how important they are now considered to be.

In Spain there are a number of legal clinics which have been created by universities and law faculties that work with NGOs. ICADE and Universidad Carlos III are two leading Spanish examples, while in Portugal, “Pro Bono Portugal” works with over 100 lawyers and acts as a Clearing House by serving as an interface between the NGOs with legal issues and a hundred-strong team of volunteers.

There are also an increasing number of law firms in Spain with a formally organized department, like the Pro Bono program run by Cuatrecasas Gonçalves Pereira, or those run through foundations like the Fernando Pombo Foundation, the Professor Uría Foundation, or the Garrigues Foundation.

There also ever larger numbers of NGOs and institutions that are benefiting from this service, and many believe that the next step will be to create a professionalized clearing house in Spain, like those in the US.

These programs make a very positive contribution to the community, offering a legal service to institutions or people that need it, addressing a real social need.

Moreover, they foster a sense of social responsibility among students and among the entire academic community in the field of law and of the value of a service to the community. Many students are socially committed and cannot channel their commitment through legal clinics.  

Finally, these programs are a magnificent teaching tool, which permits the student to put into practice the knowledge acquired and to learn skills that will enhance their career (like, for example, communication, interpersonal skills, teamwork, or project management) in a real environment, with the advantage that students enjoy the guidance and support of a professor. 

In short, legal clinics, which emerged in the US, are a legal education model that bring huge benefits for the community while fostering a basic value among the legal profession, namely the importance of being of service to the community.

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