The New Year’s special clinical interview

The special New Year’s clinical interview with John S. Allen, Herschel G. Langdon Clinical Professor of Law from the University of Iowa.

John can you please briefly describe clinical programs at the IC Law School? How long have they been running? 

We have had clinical programs at the University of Iowa College of Law since the 1970s. The types of cases and matters have changed over the years with the specific expertise of the clinical faculty members involved at any particular time. It began primarily as a clinic that assisted prisoners in post-conviction cases, and later expanded to include civil litigation, trial level criminal defense, and transactional services.

Here is a general description of our current clinic that the clinical faculty recently developed for our admissions office as they talk with prospective students:

In the Iowa Law Clinic, students act as attorneys, not interns.  They learn necessary skills that cut across practice areas, from client interviewing and case theory development to cultural competence and resilience.  Students have primary responsibility for the representation of their clients at all stages of the legal process and learn to use and trust their legal judgment.

The Law Clinic functions like a single law firm with six distinct practice groups: Federal Criminal Defense, Civil & Employment Litigation, Estate Planning, Law & Policy in Action, Immigration, and the Community Empowerment Law Project. The Legal Clinic is unique in that students can choose to focus on one area of law or explore different interests by participating in two practice groups.

Federal Criminal Defense.  Represent indigent individuals charged with federal crimes in the US District Courts of Iowa and engage in post-conviction and decarceration litigation in the US Courts of Appeals for the Eighth and Sixth Circuits.  
Estate Planning. Provide basic estate planning and document preparation services for clients and families, as well as interactive workshops on wills, trusts, financial and medical directives, and guardianships and conservatorships.
Law & Policy in Action.  Support community-based initiatives that improve housing opportunities, empower people with disabilities, and combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, through education, training, technical assistance, and research.  
Civil & Employment Litigation. Represent clients in a wide range of civil matters before Iowa state courts and administrative agencies, with a focus on advocacy for workers in employment matters, including race and gender discrimination, wage theft, and unemployment insurance claims.   
Immigration Advocacy. Represent juveniles and adults in deportation/removal proceedings and affirmative applications, including humanitarian relief, legal permanent resident status, and naturalization, and advocate on legal and policy issues affecting the civil rights of immigrants and their communities.
Community Empowerment Law Project. Advance racial, economic, and social justice in Iowa through collaborative representation of organizations, communities, and government entities in transactional and policy matters, including strategic planning, design of advocacy campaigns, and legislative drafting.  

Why is it so important at American law schools to have a respectable clinical program integrated with the law school study program?

The American Bar Association Standards for Approval of Law Schools now require six hours of “experiential education.” I believe that clinical programs are the most effective experiential courses. Prospective students expect that a law school will have a range of clinical opportunities.

If we understand a law school’s primary mission to be to prepare professionals for the actual practice of law, of course we must bridge theory and practice. The traditional law school curriculum as it existed before the clinical movement addressed a narrow set of skills required for the practice of law. It was heavy on analysis, writing, and research, but almost completely lacking in addressing case planning,interviewing, counseling, legal strategy, and the myriad other core skills that make up the practice of law.

I have seen as well a synergy between the classroom and clinical work. Many students find a renewed passion for the study of law when they look at legal doctrine from the perspective of an actual client situated in the world. The law becomes dynamic as it interacts in the actual world. Some would say that law cannot be truly understood except in context.

Clinical professorship is something we do not have in continental Europe. Is clinical professorship perceived as something outside of the regular academic hierarchy? What’s the difference? How many clinical professors do you have at the moment?

The status of clinical teachers in the U.S. academy has evolved and has been an issue that has been at times contentious. Many clinicians now share full tenure and have the same security of position and voting rights as others on the faculty. But the nature of the clinical status varies widely across institutions. Iowa’s clinic was started by fully tenured professors who maintained an interest in practicing law and thought it important that students have an opportunity to share in that practice. As you know, practicing law can be demanding and the client obligations competed for time and resources with demands to continue in traditional legal scholarship. Over time, we developed a “clinical professor” status that does not require traditional scholarship. This has comparable security of position through recurring, presumptively renewable long term contracts. We also have voting rights on all issues other than tenure decisions and tenure track hiring. There is some interest in revisiting this status to return clinicians to the tenure track.

Over the years, some law schools have offered little by way of status and security for clinicians despite ABA accreditation requirements that law schools provide similar security of position. There has been increasing pressure to offer the job security which supports academic freedom and to afford clinicians meaningful rights in law school governance.

We are now coming full circle on issues of status. There is a significant movement within the clinical community for traditional tenure. Clinicians have been active scholars. Often this scholarship focuses on clinical pedagogy or on the substantive areas in which clinicians work. There can be no doubt that clinicians have made significant contributions to scholarship about law and about the practice of law and that the academy is richer through their inclusion.

How many cases IC Law Clinics handle per year? Do you have in place some triage rules or you serve anybody who shows up, taking into account that the person in question does not have money to pay for the legal services?

I am sorry that we have not maintained good statistics as to the number of cases that we handle. The Iowa clinic has tended to handle more long term and complex matters so we are not able to handle a high volume of cases. For example, my clinic represents persons in court on employment matters. The typical employment discrimination case might take a year or more to resolve and would involve substantial research, interviewing, discovery, and possibly a trial if the case does not settle. Likewise, one of my colleagues represents defendants in federal criminal cases which are high stakes and require substantial resources. Given the complexity of matters, our clinic probably handles fewer than 200 cases in a year.

We will do intakes for persons whose problems fall within the areas in which we work. We do not have formal income guidelines for our work, but we are always attentive to whether or not the individual would be able to get representation from the private bar or other legal services providers. Free legal services are very limited and we want to make sure that we expand the availability of services within our community with the legal help that we can provide.

Given that we generally are making substantial, long term commitments to clients whom we represent, we are not able to take on all cases and find that we have to be selective. We ask: Can this person get help elsewhere? Is this case within our expertise, or can we acquire the expertise in the course of the case? Does this case present learning opportunities within the capabilities of a relatively inexperienced advocate? Do we have the financial resources to advance the case (e.g. costs for experts, depositions, etc.)? In my clinic, the clinic law students participate in the decision about whether to take a particular case. I think that this is an important learning opportunity and helps raise an awareness of the significant gaps in the availability of legal services for low income persons in the U.S.

Court representation is something we cannot do here because the Legal Aid Act forbids us to take cases to courts. But the court rules allow clinics to take cases to court everywhere in America, am I right? Students are not allowed to stand alone before courts but only together with someone holding the bar exam, right?

Yes, I think that every state allows student representation in court, though there is variation among the states as to the scope of that authority. Student practice rules all require that the student representation be under at least the general supervision of a licensed attorney, and some rules require the presence of that attorney at all times.

In our clinic, we are present for all court proceedings. The student takes the lead role in most cases, but there is always a faculty member there to assist. Our students have appeared in state and federal courts at both the trial and appellate level.

Did you have a lockdown in Iowa this year? Have you been operating normally during these corona times….deadlines are big problems when it comes to any kind of legal aid. What can you tell us about recent clinical activities – did you come up with something new, some new focus areas, something that relates to the issues that came up during the pandemic?

The last year has been a difficult time for our judicial system. Jury trials were delayed throughout the spring into the summer. We restarted them in July, but shortly thereafter we had to stop again with rising rates of infection. We have done hearings, depositions, and other proceedings by telephone and by Zoom.

We do employment cases in my clinic. The U.S. started a new set of unemployment benefits for persons affected by the pandemic, which included workers in the gig economy and other self-employed workers. The statutes were drafted quickly, there are no implementing regulations, and of course no judicial interpretation given that the programs are new. My clinic students represented persons in appeals regarding eligibility for these benefits. Many of our clients have been truly desperate because of the loss of work. I feel that we have been successful in our efforts and the students have been very grateful for the opportunity to help people in need during this time.

My colleague Alison Guernsey, who does federal criminal representation, has been working with clinic students on behalf of inmates in federal prisons to get “compassionate relief.” Our prisons and jails have had terrible problems with the spread of the virus. Prof. Guernsey and her students have worked to get release for inmates with underlying health conditions that put them at significant risk. Another colleague, Len Sandler, has been working with clinic students to write wills and other planning documents. The pandemic has prompted many people to look at their estate plans.

OSIJEK PRO BONO, January 2021.