HLS Center Watches La. Court Case

It seems like a perfect match--Harvard law students in need of real life experience paired with clients who need real world help.

For the last 20 years, Harvard Law School's (HLS) Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center has been the successful matchmaker.

Every year, about 150 students under the supervision of Boston attorneys and HLS professors provide over 2,000 clients with legal aid and representation. The center's clients, usually earning low incomes, often wouldn't be able to afford such representation on their own.

The center covers topics from family law to estate management. It's the largest legal teaching clinic in the country.

But a recent court ruling in Louisiana might put the future of the clinic-and all of its clients-in jeopardy.

After students from a similar law clinic at Tulane Law School in New Orleans went to court to prevent a factory being moved into a low-income area, business interests successfully lobbied for more restrictions on student law groups.

And while these restrictions are not likely to be copied in Massachusetts anytime soon, staff at the HLS clinic say the Louisiana ruling threatens one of the most valuable parts of a legal education: hands-on experience.

"The backbone of becoming a lawyer is, of course, the law school education," says M. Jeanne Charn, director of the Hale and Dorr Center. "But the real world is different than a classroom, and students should be prepared for that."

It all started in 1971 when Charn was hired by the Ford Foundation to build a clinical education program at Harvard, with the help of a grant from the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility, a Ford Foundation subsidiary.

"There was an agenda in the early 1970s," says Charn, a lecturer on law at HLS. "People were concerned about the lack of mentorship and real world experience in law school. So the Ford Foundation sponsored the first wave of these clinics, to inculcate responsibility in law students."

According to Charn, the foundation's goals in establishing this pro bono center weren't always uncommon--in fact, law school itself was once seen as an addition to experience received on the job.

"In the early part of this century, law school was considered a supplement to real life experience," Charn says. "We're trying to bring them both together."

The Hale and Dorr center--named for the prominent Boston law firm which funded its building-is the most extensive branch of HLS' clinical program. About 60 percent of HLS students will participate in the clinical program at some time during their education.

The program includes, in addition to the Hale and Dorr center, five student practice organizations and three specialized placement agencies. While all offer real world experience in particular fields, the Hale and Dorr center is by far the largest, dealing with more than five times more cases that the next largest program.

Students working in this program say they are eager to practice real cases with the support of professionals.

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