WVU Law Clinics offer legal counsel
Published: Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, June 6, 2012 00:06
At the West Virginia University College of Law, students are participating in a unique kind of work-study program.
"People’s lives are affected by what we do everyday. That’s a lot of responsibility," said law student Brad Garner.
Garner is a part of the Clinical Law program, where third-year law students can serve as attorneys free of charge for clients who don’t have access to legal services. With the supervision of professors, law students work on real cases with real clients.
"It’s not like these are theoretical clients in mock courtrooms. These are real people with real problems," Garner said.
For 35 years, the Clinical Law programs at the College of Law have been providing legal services to needy members of the community, all while giving students valuable work experience.
"From having done this, I feel much more prepared than someone who has just done a research internship," said WVU Law Clinic student Charles Pinkerton.
"From helping someone get a visa, to helping someone escape an abusive relationship, or working to help put a child in a stable home situation, our students do a lot for the community," said Marjorie McDiarmid, coordinator of the clinical law program. "Being able to help clients to deal with those problems is very rewarding work."
The clinic is divided into focused areas, such as child and family advocacy, immigration law, entrepreneurship law and general civil practice. Currently, there are about 55 students in the program.
Clinical law students work an average of 20 hours a week on cases and must maintain office hours to visit with clients. Clinic students receive course credit but no compensation for their time. They also maintain a regular schedule of law classes.
Clinical law students also become accustomed to large workloads that are typical for real-life practicing attorneys.
"No two days are ever the same. You never know what’s going to be waiting for you when you come in," said clinical law student Harold Carpenter.
Third-year law students under the supervision of a professional are permitted to serve in any court in West Virginia, including the state Supreme Court. James J. Friedberg, former director of the Immigration Law Clinic, believes students need the experience with real cases.
"These clinics have a teaching impact that a mere book cannot. When you’re dealing with a real-life client, you have certain obligations you must meet," he said.
These obligations include confidentiality, diligence and ethical behavior. The students’ responsibilities are much different than in academia, Friedberg said.
"It’s not like messing up a course. Maybe the teacher will give you a lower grade or fail you, but you haven’t done anything unethical," he said. "That sense of ethical duty is something that’s hard to teach without having real-life clients."
Pinkerton and Garner have both felt the weight of responsibility of real cases.
"When you get to know these people and their families, it becomes more than just a project you’re doing for school," Pinkerton said. "Ultimately, you have an effect on people’s lives, and you don’t want to screw up."
"It weighs really heavy on you, but I don’t think there’s any better way to gain this experience," Garner said.
"You have to deal with unexpected problems and you have to put in unexpected hours. It’s not the same as other academic courses," Friedberg said.
The Immigration Law clinic deals with cases concerning citizenship, immigration and even political asylum. Clients have come from all around the world.
"Sometimes our cases might be as sexy as a political asylum case, where we’re trying to prevent someone from being sent back to a torturer. Other times they might be as mundane as helping a couple of graduate students get green cards," Friedberg said.
Friedberg said serving the clients is always rewarding, regardless of the case.
"Seeing the joy that students have in learning that they can use their skills to make somebody’s life significantly better is great," he said. "When we succeed in something like this, we’re very gratified."
Garner is appreciative of the opportunity to work in the clinic.
"In my opinion, this is the best part of law school. Some people do research internships, where they do research all day and get published in a journal, but I don’t feel like they get the whole picture. In those situations, you never have to look a judge in the face in a crowded courtroom and tell him he’s wrong. We do that here," he said.