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Michigan Law Clinics Help Fill Justice Gap

By John Masson
May 7, 2013

For hundreds of clients who benefit every year from the pro bono services of as many as 17 Michigan Law clinics, it's hard to imagine a more effective combination of the practical and the theoretical in legal education.

And it's much the same for the 240-odd students who provide those pro bono legal services each year, said Michigan Law Clinical Prof. David Santacroce, who also heads the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education, a nonprofit research center housed at the Law School.

But in the case of Michigan's legal clinics, it's not just about legal education, Santacroce said. Just as important is narrowing the justice gap for poor people in southeast Michigan who otherwise wouldn't have a voice in the justice system.

"The unmet legal needs of the poor in civil areas are huge," Santacroce said. "The people who need lawyers the most in society are the very richest and the very poorest. And we provide over 30,000 hours a year in civil legal services to people who otherwise wouldn't have any services at all. That's a major piece of public good, to my mind. It's a community asset."

And it's in addition to more than 12,000 hours of pro bono representation provided by Michigan Law clinical students in criminal matters, Santacroce said.

Nationally, legal clinics at ABA-accredited law schools provided 1.4 million hours of free services in civil matters, and 440,000 hours in free criminal representation in 2010-2011, according to the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education.

It's not just the very poor who suffer from a lack of representation, Santacroce said. If you're someone with a household income of $30,000 and four kids, he said, "you really can't afford a lawyer, either."

That means that in sensitive and complex cases like child welfare matters, landlord-tenant disputes, consumer fraud, foreclosure, and even human trafficking, Michigan residents in serious legal trouble often have no choice but to navigate an arcane system that can vex even those who've spent years mastering it.

And when it comes to clinical legal education, Michigan Law excels.

"We have a teaching-focused, high quality, and, by volume, a very large clinical program," Santacroce said. "Our clinical density—the number of students who take at least one clinic before they graduate—is extremely high."

About 70 percent of Michigan Law students take at least one clinic during their law school careers, Santacroce said.

"We're confident in saying that a student who comes to Michigan wanting a clinic is going to get one," he said.

What's more, he said, clinic students aren't just along for the ride. They handle arguments, depositions, complicated business transactions, and client interactions for the cases they're assigned. Additionally, because it's a learning environment, the student lawyers are typically able to devote more time and resources to their cases than legal services lawyers, who often face overwhelming caseloads.

"Our students have first-chair responsibility. They are the front-line lawyers. It's intense for them. And they do really provide superlative service," Santacroce said. "They're not carrying my bags. For me, at the ideal trial, I never say a word."

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