University of Iowa School of Law Offers Unique Clinical Program
by Anayat Durrani
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Unlike some law schools, which may offer one or two clinical programs, Iowa features at least eight different ways in which students can learn first-hand how to be an effective advocate in the school's "law firm, the legal clinic." According to Professor John Whiston, a faculty member for the Clinical Program who oversees the criminal defense and civil rights litigation practice areas, "All clinics are hands-on. Our clinic operates on a law firm model, that is, there are not separate clinics for domestic violence or bankruptcy, etc. Instead, a student would be working in several areas for several faculty supervisors." In addition, students receive 9 hours of credit for a semester, a significant amount, which reflects the time commitment and level of participation required.
Each semester, faculty members supervise about 35 students. The program areas include Consumer Rights, Criminal Defense, Domestic Violence, Disability Rights, Human Rights, Immigration, Non-Profit Organizations and Externships.
The clinc at the law school is very popular. As Professor Whiston, stated, "Each semester we have room for approximately 25 students in the in-house clinic and 10 in various externships. The clinic is usually oversubscribed and so students are chosen by a lottery mechanism."
Professor Barbara Schwartz, who oversees the immigration and criminal defense working groups noted that there is a full clinical program in the summer, so students have at least four semesters during which they are eligible to sign up for the lottery. She confirmed that there are about 45 students in all the clinical programs each of the three semesters.
Professor Schwartz stated that "popular practice areas vary from semester to semester." Depending upon student interest, hot areas constantly change. This semester there are still a variety of popular areas. Professor Whiston reported, "The in-house clinic is the most popular and the areas of practice most commonly requested are immigration, criminal defense and assistive technology."
Students benefit from the level of responsibility and experience they gain. Professor Schwartz states that students work on both complex and simple cases, and can work in one or more working group if they choose to get a broader exposure to different types of legal work. "Students have a lot of autonomy," she said.
It is not uncommon for them to appear in state and federal appeals courts, states Professor Schwartz. "They do trials on their own, they participate in every aspect of representation, with supervision from full-time members of the faculty.
In the consumer rights area students represent clients on a variety of issues, including helping them seek bankruptcy relief, and enforcing the protections of federal and state consumer credit legislation. Officials say the students help individuals who would not otherwise have counsel recover from the financial disruption caused by unexpected financial hardship or to contest questionable practices of creditors.
Iowa officials cite one case in which a local bank had arranged a bogus sale of a roommate's automobile to a client and also persuaded her to assume the roommate's liability on a credit card. When the roommate who still had title to the car returned, the bank left the client in the lurch without transportation and also brought an $18,000 collection action against her. With the assistance from the students in the clinic, officials say, the client escaped liability on both debts.
Those more interested in trying out their courtroom skills can gravitate toward the criminal defense specialty. There, students help defendants charged with such serious and aggravated misdemeanors such as operating while intoxicated, possession of controlled substances, and theft and assault. In one case, officials note, a client was charged with third degree theft, which caries a sentence of two years. Under the supervision of a professor, the students conducted a suppression hearing and a two-day jury trial with expert medical testimony. Although the trial ended in a hung jury, officials say, the students succeeded in having the retrial proceedings dismissed on speedy trial grounds.
The criminal defense area affords students a high level of responsibility, usually reserved for junior associates. "Students handling criminal defense cases will interview and counsel clients, file pleadings, represent defendants at suppression hearings, trials, and sentencing. In my prison cases, students have met with clients at various prisons, written briefs, presented evidence, tried cases and argued cases orally to the Iowa Supreme Court and the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals," said Professor Whiston.
One of Iowa's most noted practice areas is disability rights. There, students help disabled individuals secure equipment needed for school, work or at home. The students also work with community groups to improve the lives of persons with disabilities. The clinic has been involved in successful campaigns to enact assistive technology consumer protection laws and small business tax credits, to make Iowa City's park trails and facilities accessible to the disabled, and to have Iowa City fund, build and sell a single family home that showcases universal design features.
The program was recently bolstered by a $1.25 million gift from Stanley and Gail Richards, whose oldest son, Scott, was diagnosed as developmentally challenged in 1963. Mr. Richards, an alumnus of Iowa College of Law, is a consultant to and former general counsel and president of General Growth Properties.
"Scott is fortunate to have worked the past 17 years for the same employer and to be able to live independently," Mrs. Richards said in a statement. "Peter Blanck, the disability center's director is a great advocate for Iowans and others living with disabilities. We want to support the center in enabling adults to be gainfully employed in workplaces where their strengths and limitations are understood."
The funding will be used to expand the center's programs and promote awareness of the rights and interests of disabled persons.
For those able to take on the emotionally wrenching cases of domestic violence, Iowa offers a program in which students help survivors of domestic violence gain orders of protection from the courts and contempt sanctions against those who violate such orders.
Often, because of the urgency of the situations, the students have to work quickly to interview clients and witnesses, obtain evidence, and prepare for court appearances, officials say. The cases are often trying and eye-opening for students. Officials note that students have assisted clients whose abusers have burned all their clothing, or displayed intimate photographs of them in public places.
In the spring of 2001, the school initiated a new program in which students represent non-profit organizations. Thus far, the students have advised 17 nonprofit clients, doing everything from drafting articles of incorporation and bylaws to creating nonprofit corporations under Iowa law. Students often attend board meetings of their clients and advise them on general business matters.
"Students feel doubly rewarded because they are learning good transactional legal skills and they are working with members of the local community to help them accomplish their dreams for a better world," according to a university statement.
In recent years, immigration issues have reared to the forefront of Iowa's clinics. Students work on issues of asylum, removal defense and family-based immigration, as well as in securing protection for foreign nationals from human rights violations in their home countries. The clinic has represented about 200 hundred clients, officials note, including those from Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, the Congo Republic, Senegal, Somalia, Angola, Sudan and Viet Nam. Of the cases that have been completed, officials say, every client has been granted relief.