When applying for the community and housing development clinic in the spring of my first year of law school, a barrage of questions flooded my mind: Do I know enough? What if my client doesn't like me? What if I get stuck in the role of student? But most of all, the question on my mind was “Am I prepared for this?” The blunt answer to this question was no- not because I didn't have a strong foundation from my first year coursework, but because there was no way a law student could truly prepare for the multitude of experiences and roles they would have to take on in the legal clinic environment. These new experiences are unique to the environment.
Within my first two months at the clinic, I have taken on roles that I could have never anticipated. The legal clinic student, like a practicing attorney, takes on different roles for their clients and wears a variety of hats, if you will.
Clinician as actor
I personally experienced this role quite literally, having to act in legal literacy training videos for my client- a feat I was definitely not prepared to undertake. But law student clinicians as a whole learn to manage their own character when speaking with their client. Though we may not have the years of experience our graduated counterparts have, we too have knowledge and an evolving legal background to be able to efficiently work with real world clients. Presenting this persona is a key element to the clinic that I did not anticipate.
Clinician as teacher
Although the initial thought when entering a clinic would be to take on the role of student, I have found the role as teacher to be equally important. When discussing our cases with our peers in the clinic, it is crucial to be able to articulate and educate them on the legal situations we are encountering with our clients. It is through this mutual teaching that often unexpected and valuable lessons are learned.
Clinician as chef
Yes, I said chef. This is not because we are working with food, but rather like a chef who may be experimenting with a new recipe for the first time, law student clinicians have to adapt to the situation. For many of us who are used to following strict guidelines, and not necessarily swaying from the recipe, it can be a challenge to be dependent on real life clients. Patience becomes a key ingredient. Remaining calm in the face of change or the unexpected often creates a sweet and memorable result.
Clinician as Manager
The role of manager is one of most important roles a student can take on in a legal clinic. Each legal student becomes a manager of his or her efficiency. It is up to the legal student to determine how their time can be most valuable while working for their client. Similarly, it is up to the students to keep their projects on track. This is done through standard communication with clients, but there is also a finesse that comes with this territory that is learned through the management process. Finding the correct tone in order to create a comfortable relationship with the client, while still maintaining an air of authority in order to get tasks accomplished and maintain respect, is a difficult balance to maintain. The clinic environment teaches this invaluable communication skill. Being able to effectively communicate and manage client relations is a lesson that will be forever used.
The legal clinic has taught me so many lessons that I had not anticipated. Beyond the lessons, it has given me the opportunity to step into the shoes of an attorney. Through this experience, I quickly discovered the multifaceted nature of the occupation and it keeps me encouraged for the future. The dynamic environment of the Housing and Community Development Legal Clinic has provided a platform for law students to try out the many different roles they will be expected to take on in the real world. Hats off to you legal clinic!