It’s one thing for first-year law students to learn the ins and outs of an existing legal case through lecture and course readings but quite another to figure out how to take the facts and make an argument that could win the case for a real client.
It’s not the glamorous work often depicted in popular culture, and sometimes the weight of the details can be overwhelming.
These are among the lessons first-year students are learning about the realities of legal practice through a revamped University of Michigan Law School curriculum that allows them to work with clients from the start.
“It’s real for a 1L (first-year law student) when you have actual client relying on you. If you screw up in class versus in a clinic, you’re potentially damaging someone’s life. It’s nice to realize the gravity,” said first-year law student Aidan McCarthy.
U-M is expanding the traditional theory-based curriculum to respond to new demands in the field. In addition to traditional lecture based doctrinal courses new students are immersed right away into practical experiences and pro-bono work so that they are better prepared to solve complex client problems.
Michigan students are some of the first in the country to work directly with clients as a part of their first-year curriculum.
Started more than three years ago, the Unemployment Insurance Clinic (UIC) offers free advocacy, advice and assistance to Michigan workers. Steve Gray, director of the clinic came up with the idea after working with MLAW students on the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Project, a nonprofit organization he established after the high unemployment levels in 2008 and 2009.
“Students volunteered their time outside of class and provided representation to people who were denied unemployment benefits,” Gray said. “We discovered it was very popular with the students and that first-year students wanted to volunteer, too. They were itching for client contact.”
After deciding to turn it into a clinic, the Michigan Law received funding from the University of Michigan Transforming Learning for a Third Century program, a part of the Third Century Initiative. Now, first-year law students in their second semesters are working at the clinic and learning how to handle these types of cases. Dozen of students can be seen in the clinic at any point during the day.
“When you have a human face you’re working with, things like why you have to know what the cases say become more important,” said first-year law student Sarah Du. “It grounded me and reaffirmed why I want to be here and what I want to do.”
Potential clients contact UIC and first-year students talk to them over the phone, understanding the details of the case. Then the students meet with the supervising attorneys to decide if the case should be taken or not. From there, a pair of first-year students will be assigned to an client and they start requesting documents to be sent from the unemployment agency to the UIC office.
“One of my biggest realizations is when I look through all this paperwork, I realize how incredibly difficult it is for someone who’s not well-versed in law to receive this paperwork from the government and then be expected to act appropriately in a very short period of time,” said Nadia Alhadi, third-year law student.
Unemployment insurance claimants are given 30 days to protest the unemployment agency’s determination of benefits that claimants are eligible to receive. That’s where the UIC comes in, helping them protest this determination. If the agency does not accept the argument, then the law students can request a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge. They’ll prepare the clients for their direct examination by the law students and cross-examination by their former employer.
“Most first-year law students never get the chance to actually practice law, learn about the technicalities of filing documents or address court,” McCarthy said. “A lot of hearings occur over the phone, and there’s a lot of technical difficulties and sometimes confusion with you, your client and the judge all being on different lines. There’s no 1st year class that teaches you about the rules of working through a court system like this clinic does.”
This process can take anywhere from a month to several years depending on how far the case travels. Alhadi and third-year law student Andrew Dickson have seen cases travel all the way to the Michigan Court of Appeals.
“I was in the second set of students to participate in the UIC, and we just closed a case last week from back when I started,” Dickson said. “I’ve learned how much a little assistance can go a long way for individuals who don’t have a legal background.”
For many this is their first time doing any legal work.
“I had never worked in any law context before, and everything I knew about law is based on stereotypes,” Du said. “There’s a really human aspect to figuring out what clients want and how you can help them get that.”
Students like Alhadi and Dickson who have worked with the UIC over the course of several years now serve as peer supervisors and mentors to the younger students. They both noted that their writing and oral argument skills, and overall legal knowledge have greatly increased because of their work with the clinic. Alhadi also noted the litigation experience has been extremely valuable.
“I didn’t want to do litigation in when I started law school but then I decided I wanted to work in this clinic to push back on my limits,” Alhadi said. “I’d never done litigation work before, and though I don’t want to work in unemployment I realized I want to do more litigation work. It’s nice to figure that out early on.”
Law students can also work with clients in UIC by taking a legal practice course in their first year. They learn legal analysis, writing, and research, and then spend six weeks helping clients.
“One of the benefits for them, if not the number one benefit, is confidence,” said Nancy Vettorello, Clinical Assistant Professor of the Law Legal Practice Program. “It allows them to understand they can do this job and they can do it well, which is always exciting to see. I feel like the students do a remarkably good job, and they we win almost all of the cases we take.”
As part of the UM 3rd Century grant the School of Education is currently evaluating the impact of UIC and early experiential learning on student performance and job placement outcomes. Gray also has plans in mind for further expansion of the clinic, currently exploring the possibility of tying in policy issues. He has also noticed UIC’s rising prominence in the Ann Arbor community and beyond.
“One of the things we’ve discovered is there aren’t a lot of people doing advocacy for claimants in the unemployment arena, so we’ve become a source of expertise,” Gray said. “Beyond representation at hearings, there is a lot of other advocacy that needs to be done.”
UIC is one of 18 clinics within Michigan Law. As students gain a breadth of experience working cases with real clients, they also give back to the community. Though some cases can span over several years, U-M law students have made significant impacts, whether by freeing people wrongfully convicted through U-M’s Innocence Clinic or by representing people who were wrongfully denied their unemployment rights through UIC.