"Nothing in my educational experience has proven as valuable to my judicial responsibilities as my LAIP participation...My ability to be mindful of the humans who participate in, or suffer because of, the legal system was focused by my participation in LAIP."
--Patrick L. Madden 1976, LAIP 1975 Iron County Circuit Judge
The Frank J. Remington Center provides a tremendous array of clinical experiences to students at the University of Wisconsin Law School. But regardless of their variety, all of the Center’s clinical projects are motivated by three core educational values:
- Students best construct their own legal education by doing the real work of lawyers, taking advantage of opportunities for experiential learning as they arise.
- Students best learn the art of lawyering by taking responsibility for trying to solve clients’ problems in an ethical, creative, and diligent manner.
- Students will best contribute to the quality of the legal system by developing the habit of engaging in life-long critical reflection about themselves, the practice of law, and the justice system.
Grounded in these core values, we have developed a consistent philosophy of clinical education at the Remington Center. We believe that:
A law school clinic is more than just a law office with students.
A law school cannot merely be a pre-graduation legal services office. Consistent with Professor Frank Remington’s vision, our goal is to enrich legal education by providing an environment in which 2nd- and 3rd-year students can begin to learn the art of lawyering by serving real clients, and can develop the habit of reflecting on how to improve themselves, the profession, and the legal system.
The reality of our students’ post-graduation experience is what makes our educational focus so important. After three years of law school, most UW Law students are admitted to the bar and begin practicing law. The constraints of finances, time, and staff experienced by most law offices–whether private firms or public agencies–rarely allow new lawyers to serve an “apprenticeship” in which they can observe and practice excellent lawyering before they actually begin serving clients.
To foster an educational environment that our graduates’ employers may not be able to supply, we deliberately limit the number of cases each student handles, allowing the student to strive for the highest level of practice with each client. We strive to provide each student with a caseload that involves a varied group of problems, legal issues, and lawyering skills. Our professional emphasis is on “client-centered representation,” in which the student lawyer focuses on the client’s goals, rather than defining what the client needs; and treats the client as an effective collaborator in problem-solving. Our educational goal is to graduate lawyers who know what excellent legal practice should be; and who have developed a habit of thinking about the complexities of the law and the larger implications of the work they do, setting them up to be life-long learners.
Students learn best by being in the driver’s seat.
All UW Law students have had at least four years of undergraduate education, and many come to the Law School from successful careers in other fields. Thus, the starting point for the Remington Center’s teaching method is the premise that law students are adult learners who can and do take responsibility for their own education.
Law students undergo a great deal of “passive” learning, especially in their first year, when most of their courses involve a lecture/final exam format. In contrast, the Remington Center makes each student actively responsible for the client’s case, from initial interview to final resolution. Indeed, students can actually appear in court on behalf of clients, if they qualify under Wisconsin Supreme Court practice rules. The teacher acts as a “bumper,” guiding the student back into the lane if he/she goes too far astray; and as a “coach,” encouraging the student to suggest steps that will move the case forward.
In this kind of learning, the student-teacher relationship is critical. Our student-faculty ratio is about 6:1, allowing for mostly individualized instruction. Teachers meet weekly with each student--going over the student’s cases; discussing the student’s progress during the week; asking probing questions; and providing guidance, when appropriate, on where to go next. Throughout, we encourage the students to engage in creative problem-solving. Thus, for example, we discourage the use of fill-in-the-blank legal forms, preferring that students treat drafting a legal document as a writing problem, and take into consideration the document’s purpose, audience, and conventions.
Still, no real-life legal case is predictable, and both students and teachers will constantly be confronted with new, unfamiliar problems. We think that this is a good thing, for at least a couple of reasons. First, after a certain amount of floundering, the students begin to realize that they can confront the unfamiliar, and gain confidence that they can develop their own methods for working through a new problem. This confidence carries over into their professional lives.
Second we believe that students learn best in specific contexts. They learn that clients are individuals with specific needs, not simply “cases” to be opened and closed. They polish their writing skills by writing, with a particular purpose, to a specific real-life audience (a client with an eighth-grade education, opposing counsel, an appellate court). They hone legal research skills by trying to answer new, unfamiliar legal questions of critical importance to their clients. They learn that the “facts” of a given case are not fixed and clear-cut, and develop techniques for gathering factual information–from court files, from witnesses, from law enforcement, and from the internet. They realize that any case can raise ethical issues, and work through the steps to resolve them. Their learning in these contexts becomes internalized, and a part of who they are as individuals and as professionals. Thus, the challenges posed by new, unfamiliar clients and issues are better viewed as constant opportunities for learning.
In a live-client clinical program, we need to build in opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences.
Our goal is to develop reflective practitioners, who think about implications of the legal work they’re doing, in order to improve their own lawyering and the legal system. We deliberately create opportunities for reflection to occur in a variety of contexts, including regular small group meetings at which students discuss issues raised by their work that they find particularly problematic, either personally or professionally; reflective essay assignments or journals; self-evaluation questionnaires at the close of each case; and end-of-semester essays on their experiences. Students are asked to reflect on their relationships with their clients, and what these show about the role of a lawyer, as well as the ethical issues raised in individual cases. They are also asked to consider what their clients’ concerns have taught them about legal “systems” such as the family law system or the criminal justice system; about the actors within those systems; and about legislative and judicial responses to social problems. Finally, the students are asked to reflect upon themselves: whether they are comfortable or uncomfortable with specific tasks, legal issues, or clients; what they see as their greatest strengths in working for clients; and what skills they need to develop to best represent future clients and serve the legal system.
Collaboration is key to effective education and meaningful legal practice.
Because each student’s clients–and thus each student’s educational experience–is unique, the clinical component of each Remington Center project is graded on a pass-fail basis. This approach facilitates a collaborative, mentoring relationship between students and clinical faculty. Students and teachers work together to solve their clients’ problems. Together, they discuss strategies, write (and re-write) letters and pleadings, talk with clients, and appear in court. Students may also coauthor articles or make presentations along with clinical faculty, and even act as mentors to other students.
The Remington Center’s collaborative approach often allows the faculty to learn as much from students as the students learn from them. For example, Clinical Professor Michele LaVigne has become something of an expert in the area of deafness and the law–in part because she has represented deaf clients, but also because she has worked with deaf law students in the Center’s clinical projects. For the past several years, Prof. LaVigne and a group of law students have taught trial advocacy to high school students at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf in Delavan, Wisconsin, and have coached the students as they prepare for a mock trial before an actual Wisconsin judge. The law student “coaches” have consistently praised the value of teaching the School for the Deaf students as a way to increase their own mastery of the nuances of trial advocacy.
And of course our students learn from each other. In the Remington Center’s large, communal office spaces, the students talk to each other constantly about their clients, their cases, and their concerns–sharing ideas, strategies, victories, and defeats. Similarly, even years after graduation, former students reflect fondly upon their weekly “drives to the prison,” in which they brainstormed ideas about upcoming client interviews on the way to the institution, and debriefed each other about the interviews on the way back.
Finally, we believe that we can both educate, and learn from, the community at large. The Remington Center embodies the “Wisconsin idea” by serving the community in a variety of ways: in the individual case work by students; in the research by students and faculty that seeks to improve the justice system; and in the development of competent, ethical, legal practitioners who will practice after graduation in every part of the state. The Center’s students and faculty work closely with members of the community to translate what we’ve learned into knowledge and service. At the same time, we learn from the community, and translate that knowledge back into improving the educational curriculum of our clinical projects and the other Law School courses we teach.
To stay vital, an educational program must constantly evolve.
The Remington Center has continued to change to meet needs of students, clients, community, and the Law School. In particular, we are proactive about constantly assessing and revising our educational methods.
Each of the Center’s clinical projects provides a slightly different learning environment for students. For example, in our Legal Assistance to Institutionalized Persons (LAIP) Project, each student works with a fairly large number of clients on a wide variety of criminal legal issues, with emphasis on the fundamentals of interviewing, counseling, research, case development, and case management. The Wisconsin Innocence Project, on the other hand, involves a very thorough examination of complex postconviction issues for a much more limited number of clients. The Restorative Justice Project often involves working with multiple people or organizations to bring fair resolution to a variety of problems related to criminal behavior. But the main educational anchor for all of our projects, however varied, continues remains one-on-one instruction, and collaboration between students and teachers.
We recognize that, as each project has a different substantive legal focus, its learning techniques must vary as well. Thus, we engage in ongoing experimentation and refinement of the curriculum of each project. LAIP involves a short classroom orientation followed by extensive clinical assistance to clients, along with weekly small group meetings to keep students grounded and reflective. The Innocence Project includes a semester-long classroom course focusing on a limited area of substantive law, combined with small group and individualized clinical instruction.
We know that we can't rest on our laurels. Students, clients, and the world change constantly, and we need to make a point of changing as well.
And, in the end:
Each year in May, Professor Walter Dickey speaks to the Remington Center’s incoming summer students. He tells the students that no one can “give them” their education–that what they get out of their clinical experience is directly related to what they put into it. We have found that the presence of real clients, with real needs, motivates the overwhelming majority of our students to give their best, so that their learning curve is extremely steep without their even realizing it. The Remington Center strives constantly to foster the best possible educational environment; still, in the end, it is the students who make their own education.