Law Clinics Impact Students and the Community

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Law Clinics Impact Students and the Community

Law Clinics Impact Students and the Community

The clinics at SIU School of Law trace back to the origins of the school itself, which speaks volumes about the way that SIU Law has always valued giving students real-life experiences and providing a necessary legal service to the thirteen southernmost counties that they serve.  Although they began with only one clinic, the Prison-Aid Clinic, they have now expanded to four clinics, Civil Practice Clinic, Domestic Violence Clinic, Juvenile Justice Clinic, and Veterans’ Legal Assistance Program Clinic (VLAP).  In 2020, the Illinois State Bar Association recognized the Law Clinics’ impressive efforts and awarded them the Excellence in Legal Education Award. 

The law clinics’ ISBA recognition is well-earned for this faculty group composed of Clinic Director Professor John Erbes (Civil Practice) and his colleagues Professor Martin Parsons (VLAP), Professor Rebecca O’Neill (Civil Practice), Professor Joanna Wells (Juvenile Justice), and Professor Gail Thomas (Domestic Violence). The group enjoys sharing that some of them have been working with the clinics for longer than some of their current SIU Law students have been alive.  Professor O’Neill chuckles when responding to why the faculty devote themselves to the clinic for so many years: “Because it’s wonderful.  It is so fulfilling to be able to provide legal services to people who really need it.  And the students who work in the clinic experience that.  There is great joy in using your skills and your profession to make such a huge impact on people’s lives.  Students feel that, and it’s important.”  Her colleagues agree about their passion for providing the necessary and free service and facilitating hands-on legal knowledge and experience for about ninety SIU School of Law students per semester.  Professor Parsons proudly shares that most of his students come to a revelation at some point during the semester and report “law school finally makes sense now” because they have had the opportunity to use their content knowledge to help real clients in real situations. 

For many students, this may be their first real-life application of their legal knowledge as well as the first time that they have actually worked with actual clients facing lifechanging situations, which can be both scary and overwhelming for aspiring attorneys.  Professor Wells emphasizes the merit in having her clinic students observe court: “Watching the court process and how attorneys interact with each other and how attorneys interact with clients, with the judge, and with court staff is not like the movies or tv.  It’s very different, and I think it gives them a very valuable lesson in how to be a lawyer.”  Familiarity with the court process is just the first step in the students’ journey to success.  As Professor O’Neill relates, it can take several years for new attorneys to acclimate to legal practice before they are able to expertly apply their content knowledge to the myriad client situations they face.  She continues, “you do not learn how to practice law until you actually practice. And that is the absolute truth.”  Working in a clinic provides students with a head start on the difficult work of becoming an attorney.  Students gain not only experience with the legal process but also satisfaction from their important clinic work.

In fact, many students find themselves compelled to return to the clinic and choose to enroll in clinic hours for multiple semesters to continue their valuable and satisfying work.  Students typically register for three hours in their first semester at a clinic, and their subsequent semester hours can vary from two to six.  Students can take up to twelve clinic hours to count towards graduation, and each credit hour yields about forty-seven hours of work, including class time.  The clinic hours include a substantive class component where students learn about the concepts they will apply.  A student’s hours and involvement typically determine the grade (S+, S, S-, or U).  Each of the clinics approach class a little differently based on the clinic emphasis.  In their first semester, students often experience a tremendous learning curve from the necessary documentation to the court process itself, so students often sign up for subsequent semesters to begin practicing law after obtaining their 711 license and see some of their cases evolve toward completion.

Each clinic operates the course in accordance with the specialized skill set the students need to develop.  Professor Parsons conducts VLAP as more of a doctrinal course with cases assigned and briefed in class and extensive reading from the Veterans Benefit Manual.  Professor Wells includes a multi-disciplinary approach to the discussion-based Juvenile Justice clinic course in which students learn to focus on the clients using child development, psychology, sociology, and mental health.  Professor Thomas welcomes guest speakers into her Domestic Violence clinic to help students see how pervasive domestic violence is and how many people are working in different capacities to advocate for the victims.  Professors Erbes and O’Neill integrate both lecture-focused and discussion-focused classes in their civil practice clinic.  No matter which clinic students are involved in, students interview clients and engage in the legal writing of drafting documents and correspondence with other attorneys, the court, and clients.  Professor Erbes proudly shares, “Universally, students tell us that this was their favorite class in law school.”  Not only are the clinics favorite courses, but they help students transition into their legal careers.

In the professors’ experience, future employers appreciate the students’ clinic experiences.  Many attorneys have their own memories about how their clinic work as students played an important role in their professional journey, and they are looking for students who have had similar experiences.  Additionally, the clinic supervisors can speak to a student’s abilities to work with clients and participate in court because the supervisors have gotten to know the students and seen them in action.  Each clinic has unique benefits and challenges.

Civil Practice Clinic

Professors Erbes and O’Neill supervise the civil practice clinic, formerly known as the elder law clinic, that sees more than seven hundred active cases a year.  As such, the Civil Practice Clinic is like a small civil practice within the law school and takes over one hundred types of cases such as estate planning, debt collection, family cases, and advanced directives.  The Civil Practice Clinic gets cases from an intake line and also takes referrals.  Students travel across the thirteen counties they serve to meet their clients where they live, whether that’s in a nursing home or at their local community center.  It’s a crucial part of the clinic that students must meet with their clients to develop and hone their all-important interview skills.  Students learn about a wide range of civil practice cases while still having the safety net of the clinic supervisors.  Professors Erbes and O’Neill love seeing students take steps in the clinic to become the lawyers that the students aspire to be. 

Domestic Violence Clinic

Professor Thomas oversees and manages the Domestic Violence Clinic that averages more than fifty active cases a year, primarily in Jackson, Williamson, and Union Counties, focused on obtaining orders of protection for victims of domestic abuse.  The Domestic Violence Clinic often gets referrals from the guest speakers who work in areas of domestic violence that Professor Thomas brings into the classroom.  Students interview domestic violence victims and provide them legal representation in court in seeking primarily orders of protection, stalking no-contact orders, and civil no-contact orders, but the student experience is so much more than that.  Professor Thomas sums up the complexity that students face in their client work: “we are dealing with them [clients] in a very emotional state.  They have been traumatized.  Sometimes their families are being torn apart.  They’ve been physically abused and mentally abused.  And, for students to be able to develop a rapport and connect with these victims and then go into a courtroom to either watch the process or handle the hearings themselves…it makes the students recognize for the first time what being a lawyer really means and being able to change people’s lives.” Despite students’ initial nervousness, it is a very positive experience.

Juvenile Justice Clinic

Professor Wells oversees and manages the Juvenile Justice Clinic that averages more than one hundred active cases a year to represent abused as neglected children as guardians ad litem in Jackson County.  Students are assigned a range of cases for clients ranging in age from newborn to twenty-one, and Professor Wells admits that the experience is often “sad and jarring” for her students who have often never experienced these aspects of life for themselves.  In fact, Professor Wells believes that no matter what area of law students eventually go into, their work in the Juvenile Justice Clinic makes them better attorneys because of their broad experience with society that they may have not otherwise seen for themselves.  Professor Wells passionately shares that although this area of law is a narrow focus: “Representing abused and neglected children is very foundational for society, and I try to get students to understand how important it is.”  As students gain more experience, they also earn the opportunity to become more involved with the decision-making process and work with other attorneys and social service agencies.

Veterans Legal Assistance Program Clinic (VLAP)

Professor Parsons manages the VLAP that averages more than one hundred active cases a year helping veterans from southern to central Illinois with cases ensuring that veterans receive their entitled government benefits, including but not limited to VA compensation and occasionally petitioning for upgrading other than honorable discharges. The VLAP partners with Illinois Armed Forces Legal Aid Network, which is a state-wide hotline legal referral service, to find clients. As a veteran himself, Professor Parsons calls his brethren “interesting and fascinating clients with a range of challenges.”    All students are welcome to join VLAP; however, Professor Parsons acknowledges, “students who are veterans often find the work interesting because they already speak the language.”  The VLAP is ideal for a student who is interested in a quickly evolving area of practice since cases asserting how regulations are interpreted are decided every week.  Students spend their time and energy working administratively rather than in court, which attracts many students who are interested in developing and honing their writing skills. 

Students’ experiences in the law clinics to understand the court process, work with clients, and craft legal documents have a profound impact on the students and the community.  Often, this is the first time that students have been able to see the ways in which they can and will positively impact lives through their profession; however, it is far from the last time.  All of the clinic professors agree that the students’ work in the clinics creates a working framework from which students begin to develop a comfort zone and grow into the attorneys that they want to be.

If you have questions about the clinics or want to learn more about how to hire clinic students at your firm, please contact the professors via their SIU email addresses.