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Easy verdict: law students reap rewards from clinic's real-world setting

By Laura Fenton

This isn’t practice anymore. The cases, people and situations are real, and they’re seeking the aid of University of Memphis law students.

“It lets you put the attorney hat on,” said law student Grace Whiting. “You actually get to see what it would be like if you were practicing.”

Like Whiting, students gain working knowledge of the trial preparation and court system through experiences in the elective litigation clinic course at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

The practical skills and real-world knowledge help students understand the daily routines of lawyers.

“I have a real judge asking me the questions,” Whiting said. “It matters what I say because the client needs to win. You can’t fix everything for everybody, but there are some problems that a lawyer can fix,” Whiting said. “The clinic really helps you see that.”

Under the supervision of professors, students research, prepare and argue cases for clients in Shelby County.

The clinic opened in 1990, partnering with Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS) to represent low-income people living in the county in civil matters. Advice and services from the law students are no cost to clients, although they must pay for court costs or filing fees. Each client saves about $250 an hour in potential attorney fees, multiplied by anywhere from five to 100 hours of time law students spend researching, preparing and representing clients in court trails.

“[Students] become more confident,” said Christina Zawisza, associate professor of clinical law and director of the child and family litigation clinic. “I describe it that they grow up a little. They’ve had to struggle with hard decisions, hard ethical decisions, hard practical decisions in terms of solving somebody’s problems.”

Each clinic has a specification, whether elder law, child and family law or civil law. Students accepted to the class work under one of these divisions.

Granted permission by a special rule of the state Supreme Court, third-year law students represent real clients in real cases under the supervision of law school professors.

“This is their first chance to do something as simple as interview,” said Donna Harkness, professor of clinical law and director of the elder law clinic. “Sometimes they’ll think that is simple until they sit down. It’s a learning experience all along the way.”

Students learn interviewing techniques, counseling, identifying the problem in comparison with statutes (fact-law analysis), legal analysis, legal research, negotiation and mediation. They also learn steps in the litigation process, such as putting together a trial plan of case planning, execution, direct exam, cross examination, oral examination, opening statement, closing statement, theory of the case, questions, preparing the client, identify expert witnesses, obtaining documents and gathering evidence.

If a case is appealed and must be taken to a higher court, student attorneys have the opportunity to argue their cases at the appellate level. Most cases are resolved at the juvenile level in a trial.

Whiting and classmate Leslie Fouche successfully argued before the Tennessee Court of Appeals in October under the supervision of Zawisza, culminating a case that student attorneys represented for three years. This was the first time for a U of M student attorney to argue in the appellate court.

During each semester, the elder law clinic accepts about six to nine cases and the civil clinic accepts about two to four cases. Students work in pairs, teams or solitary dependant on the amount of work within the case.

Students receive four credit hours, but each person must have 10 office hours per week plus about an additional five hours of work, teaching time-management skills.

“We are open for business all the time,” said Daniel Schaffzin, assistant professor of law. “Our students constantly are in and out, constantly need guidance. The clients just don’t appear magically three hours a week, but they’re here, so to speak, all the time.”

Class space is limited as each professor can only oversee up to eight students as mandated by the state Supreme Court rules. By the third year of law school, total student enrollment is about 120-150 students, vying for no more than 24 spots in the elective class.

Sandy Love, administrative assistant for the legal clinic, enjoys working with the law students because of their enthusiasm and dedication to the cases.

“The student attorneys are so eager,” Love said. “They just bend over backwards doing a wonderful, outstanding job. Every semester, I think I cannot enjoy and appreciate a group any more than I do this group, and then the next group comes in. I just can’t say enough good things about them.”

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