18 Clinical Opportunities Prepare Students for Practice

The nationally-recognized Clinical Education Program continues to be extremely popular at Washington University School of Law. This year, 80 percent of second- and third-year law students are enrolled in one of the 18 clinics and externship programs at the law school. With programs ranging from environmental law to entrepreneurship and intellectual property, students have the opportunity to learn professional skills and values by working directly with clients, attorneys, judges, and legislators in a substantive area of interest to them. 

While students have a wealth of classroom experience prior to starting in the Clinical Education Program, they often have little or no practical experience with taking depositions, interviewing clients, or working with other lawyers in a professional setting. The experience can be high-stakes, and the Clinical Education Program makes every effort to help the students hit the ground running. The individual clinics and externship programs offer a variety of orientation programs to prepare students for their first days in the office or at court. 

For example, the Congressional & Administrative Law Externship has a one-day orientation on site in Washington, D.C., each semester that includes an ethics briefing, an introduction to the administrative and regulatory framework, and a discussion on professionalism and networking. The Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic meets the Sunday before the semester starts for a discussion of professional responsibilities and working with clients on cross-disciplinary teams and the type of cases and matters typical to the IEC. Similarly, the Children & Family Advocacy Clinic, the Criminal Justice Clinic, and the Civil Rights, Community Justice, & Mediation Clinic also hold orientations to orient students to areas of substantive law and the communities that the students will be working in. In the Clinical Education Program, orientation programs are designed to help law students provide the best legal representation possible to clients, offices, and communities in situations that are new to them.

The Juvenile Law & Justice Clinic (JLJC), directed by Mae Quinn, professor of law, goes a step further to help students identify with their future clients by visiting the City of St. Louis’s Juvenile Detention Center in Midtown. Before this year’s trip, the mother of one of the clinic’s clients came to talk with the students while the client joined the conversation by phone. “It was very emotional, but it was also very informative,” says third-year law student  Meredith Schlacter. “It gave me a hands-on idea of the kind of cases I would be working.” 

While at the facility, the students were briefly locked into a holding cell so that they could experience what their clinic’s clients face upon entering the system—the metal bed with no mattress, the isolation, the feeling of being locked up. They also visited a classroom, saw the units where their clients sleep, and reviewed the “punishment scale”—a list of punishments for various infractions. “It was good to see the places our clients have been so that we can better understand their experiences and feelings,” Schlacter says.

Quinn adds that the visit to the detention center and the courtroom was sobering. “It was eye-opening for them to see the challenges of an under-resourced urban court system and the community it serves,” she notes.

 Another critical issue for the JLJC is mandatory juvenile life without parole sentencing. The United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama last year banned the practice, but many states—including Missouri—are still reviewing and revising their juvenile sentencing laws to comply. Quinn says the JLJC is working to help kids who are caught in the middle.

“The clinic is representing four inmates who were mandatorily sentenced to die behind bars while just children,” Quinn explains. “Briefs written by our students, seeking to have these now unconstitutional sentences corrected, are currently pending before the Missouri Supreme Court. We are also serving in a leadership role across the state to bring together lawyers and other groups, like the Catholic Conference, who believe youth are capable of reform. ” 

In the ensuing weeks of the clinic, students immersed themselves in their case assignments. Working with a partner, each team of students has about seven active cases covering a broad range of youth advocacy matters. All together, the clinic has already handled about 30-35 cases this semester, which have involved students practicing in juvenile court, municipal court, the court of appeals, and more.

“In the clinics, we give students practical experience, but even more importantly, we get students involved in the community,” Quinn says. “That is invaluable—as are the services we provide for our clients.”

As another example of the clinic’s community focus, the JLJC recently helped to organize statewide multi-day juvenile defense training. The event was co-hosted with the Missouri State Public Defender system, the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, and the National Juvenile Defender Center.

“Our students participated in the training program along with about 100 lawyers from across the state,” Quinn says. “They also shared lessons learned from the JLJC clinic orientation while they assisted with the program’s simulation sessions.”