As a clinical teacher for over 20 years, I have often felt that students could be better prepared for the clinical experience if they first had some foundational understanding of the role of lawyers. Having taught legal writing to first- year students for two years prior to becoming a clinical teacher, I had some appreciation for the steep learning curve in the first year of law school. However, when learning how to “think like a lawyer” is too narrowly defined in the first year, clinical professors are often faced with teaching students the context necessary for understanding how to represent clients in real world situations. For example, students often come to clinic failing to appreciate the significance of “facts” and the challenges involved in establishing “facts” in a real situation. They also find it difficult to understand the importance of things “extraneous” to what the law says, such as historical context, political realities and the perspectives of judges.
In the fall of 2011, for the first time, I taught Introduction to Civil Procedure and Legal Analysis and Writing (LAW) to a class of 25 first semester law students. Maryland provides all first-year day students with a small class that integrates LAW with a substantive first year course, which enhances students’ ability to develop legal analysis skills. The questions I was interested in exploring, from a pedagogical perspective, were which of the “real world” lawyering experiences could I introduce to the first-year students and what costs?
For one memo assignment, I decided to use a case involving employment discrimination that student attorneys in the AIDS Legal Clinic previously handled under my supervision. The case raised a venue issue in state court that would fit in well with my goals for the course.
Clinic students had filed the case in Baltimore City rather than Baltimore County because of our belief that a Baltimore City jury would likely have more empathy for an employment discrimination plaintiff living with HIV who was also in long term recovery from drug use. Our client believed and we alleged that he had been fired from his construction job because of his HIV illness. Apparently, the employer agreed with our assessment of the two forums, because it immediately filed a motion to dismiss on grounds of improper venue, and sought to have the action dismissed or transferred to Baltimore County.
In their memo assignment, students were told to assume that their law firm was representing the plaintiff in this case, and that they received the defendant’s motion to dismiss for improper venue. Their supervising attorney had asked them to write a memo regarding the venue issue assessing whether they were likely to defeat the motion and keep the case in Baltimore City.
Choice of venue issues can be confusing to first-year students, and this case was helpful in explaining, by contextualizing, why venue matters, and how a judge might view the merits of this motion. In preparing their memos, students had to read the complaint, motion and memorandum in support as well as affidavits filed by both sides with regard to the venue question. They had to struggle with questions of statutory interpretation by the courts on the relevant venue provisions. They had to decide what facts to rely on in their memos. And though the students were a bit worried when first faced with this writing problem that appeared to be more complex than the writing assignment given to their peers in in the other sections, they ultimately did a great job, and learned why Civil Procedure matters.
This fall, I am again teaching the Civil Procedure/LAW course. I plan to more fully integrate other aspects of lawyer role and responsibility, again using clinic cases to teach various aspects of lawyering, including the complexity of developing a relationship with a client, and the ethical issues raised by the adversary system that are not addressed in the Rules of Professional Conduct. Teaching this course continues to be a work in progress, but illustrates the importance of integrating the lessons of clinical legal education in the first-year curriculum.
Deborah J. Weimer, Carole and Hanan Sibel Research Law School Professor