Saturday, May 15, 2010

Rule of Law, Environmental Clinics, Justice, and Academic Freedom

At Washington and Lee University School of Law’s commencement ceremony last weekend, ABA President Carolyn Lamm made a call for the critical role of lawyers in forwarding justice. Talking about the rule of law, in particular, she said: “it is not just the rule of law that we are called upon to strengthen but the rule of just law.”
Her remarks made me reflect upon the current attacks on U.S. clinical legal education, and especially environmental clinics, by state legislatures in light of my experiences helping to develop clinical legal education in China almost ten years ago. As a Yale-China Legal Education Fellow at Sun Yat-Sen University’s law school, I taught civil rights law and helped the school launch its first legal clinic, which focused on labor law. The Ford Foundation has played a critical role in launching clinical legal education programs around the world, including in both the United States and China.
During my time working with clinical legal education in China, I often heard this Ford Foundation clinical initative described as playing a critical role in developing the rule of law there. Because they provided students with an active learning experience and practical understanding of the law, these clinical experiences helped them to bridge the gap between school and practice. They also provided students with the chance to reflect upon professional responsibility under the guidance of their professors. Whenever I have encountered people who scoff at the notion that I was teaching law in China out of a sense that there is not meaningful law there, I describe a day I spent observing students provide legal advice to injured workers in a manner very much like what takes place in clinics in this country.
From my own experiences of clinical legal education in both countries and the stories of my students and colleagues, I am quite certain that clinics play a critical role in helping our students strengthen the “rule of just law.” As the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT), which I serve on the board of governors of, has articulated in its responses (here and here) to these clinic attacks, clinics play a crucial role in preparing our students to be ethical lawyers and in serving populations (like those injured farm workers in China) who would not otherwise be able to have needed legal assistance. When state legislatures threaten to impede the operation of these clinics, they put at risk our student’s education and law schools’ provision of a needed service to those who are disadvantaged in our society.
Moreover, these attacks are part of a broader, troubling pattern exemplified by the Virginia Attorney General’s recent request that UVA provide information on climate scientist Michael Mann. Law schools and the universities in which they are located need academic freedom in order to provide important knowledge to society and educate the next generation effectively. These attacks are wrong not simply because they are politically motivated—supported by powerful corporations facing suit by clinics or by those who disagree with climate science—but because they make it harder for universities to be places in which people learn through the free flow of ideas. If we create a climate of fear around research already being scrutinized through a peer-review system or around teaching people to provide needed representation to a broad range of clients, we undermine the ability of universities and their law schools to serve society. As our country and the world faces a broad range of vexing problems, such service is more needed than ever.

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