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Prof. Vivek Sankaran 

Better Writing, Representation are Twin Aims of New Child Welfare Appellate Clinic

By John Masson
March 14, 2013

Michigan Law's new Child Welfare Appellate Clinic, scheduled for launch this fall, aims both to raise the bar on legal writing and to improve appellate representation of people whose parental rights have been terminated.

The clinic is designed to help students put into practice the lessons they learn while participating in Michigan Law's exceptionally strong legal writing program, said Prof. Vivek Sankaran, one of the new clinic's three founders.

"It's my belief that students don't get enough opportunity to write," Prof. Sankaran said. "I think we have one of the best legal writing programs in the country, but after students take that in their first year, many of them don't get an opportunity to really write in the next two years of law school."

With that in mind, Prof. Sankaran said, he joined forces with Prof. Tim Pinto, who teaches legal writing, and Prof. Josh Kay, who, like Prof. Sankaran, teaches child advocacy, in seeking a grant from the University of Michigan to fund a new four-credit legal clinic with a dual purpose: providing solid practical legal writing experience to Michigan students while simultaneously improving the legal representation of parents caught up in the child welfare system.

A $10,000 grant from U-M's Gilbert Whitaker Fund for the Improvement of Teaching assures funding for the coming academic year, with an opportunity for renewal.

The concept is simple: clinic students will improve their writing, research, and oral advocacy skills by representing parents who are involved in direct appeals to the Michigan Court of Appeals. The students will break into teams of two and, under the supervision of the professors, will review the record, research the legal issues, and prepare a brief and oral argument for the Michigan Court of Appeals.

If the timing works out, Prof. Sankaran said, students will have the opportunity to prepare their cases in their first semester, then argue them before the appeals court, for additional credit, in a second semester.

"The idea was to create an opportunity for students to continue working on their legal writing skills in the context of real cases," he said. "It could be a situation where a child has been removed from the home, or it could be a case involving termination of parental rights."

Officials in Wayne County, where the majority of Michigan's parental rights terminations take place, received the prospect of working with Michigan Law students warmly. The Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Court Administrator's Office also were supportive of the idea.

Prof. Sankaran is looking forward to getting started.

"This is an improvement in our training of new lawyers, but let's not forget that high-quality legal writing is also a problem out in the field," Prof. Sankaran said. "Many lawyers just don't know how to write an appellate brief, and we want to help fix that."

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