Review: Preparing Clinical Law Students for Advocacy in Poor People’s Courts

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By Gerry Hess from Gonzaga University School of Law

In this article, Professor Berenson makes a persuasive argument for preparing clinical students to engage in effective advocacy in “poor people’s courts.” This review of Professor Berenson’s article addresses three issues: (1) What are “poor people’s courts”? (2) Why should clinics prepare students for advocacy in those courts? (3) Why should non-clinical teachers read this article?

What are poor people’s courts?

Professor Berenson defines “poor people’s courts” as courts that handle family, housing, consumer, bankruptcy, and criminal cases. Poor people’s courts share five common characteristics:

  • Cacophony. These courts are crowded and noisy, with limited seating and lots of people entering and leaving.
  • High volume. Dozens of matters may be scheduled for the same time so parties may wait extended periods for their cases to be heard.
  • Limited time. Many matters are decided in a minute or two; courts rarely allot ten minutes to a single case.
  • Self-Representation. Many parties represent themselves, some are represented by legal aid or pro bono lawyers, and institutional litigants (such as landlords and creditors) are represented by private lawyers.
  • Informality. Adherence to rules of procedure and evidence often are relaxed.

Why should law school clinics prepare students to represent clients in poor people’s courts?

Early in his article, Professor Berenson summarizes three responses to this question.

First, the skills that students will develop through representation in poor people’s courts will be valuable to them throughout their careers, regardless of their future areas of practice. Second, it is only through direct encounters with the way the legal system impacts the lives of ordinary people that students can gain a genuine understanding of how our justice system truly operates in practice; this understanding places them in a better position to improve that system later in their careers. Finally, in contrast to the common understanding that lawyers cannot make a living representing ordinary people, new and emerging forms of practice suggest that new law graduates may well be able to develop successful practices focusing on the needs of ordinary people, including advocacy in poor people’s courts.”

Why should non-clinical teachers read this article?

This article has lots to offer all law teachers. Here are four examples.

Preparation for Practice. Many legal educators believe that law school should prepare students for practice. Professor Berensen provides a window into one aspect of practice that some of our graduates will encounter. Many of the characteristics of poor people’s courts may be foreign to legal educators who experienced a very different type of practice. So for legal educators who are committed to preparing students for practice, this article provides insight into what “practice” may entail for a number of graduates.

The Justice Mission of the Law School. Many law schools consider access to justice to be part of their mission. Law school clinics that represent poor people are a significant, concrete manifestation of a law school’s commitment to justice.

The Universe of Scholarship on Legal Education. There is a vast body of scholarship on legal education. Even legal educators who read lots of this literature tend to focus in one or two areas, missing the insights and ideas from other areas. For example, classroom teachers who focus on the literature regarding teaching, learning, and curriculum may miss the robust scholarship on clinical legal education. An occasional foray into the legal education literature outside of the teacher’s main interest area can broaden and deepen our understanding.

Adaptable Assignments. This article contains ideas that are easily adaptable to many courses. For example, Appendix A sets out the directions for a courtroom observation assignment that could be used effectively in clinical and externship courses, legal writing and skills courses, and first-year and upper-level required and elective “substantive” courses.

Institute for Law Teaching and Learning