WVU College of Law clinical program: Providing would-be lawyers with real-world

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — At age 45, West Virginia University’s clinical law program is rapidly closing in on a half century of service.

And unlike with most of us, officials believe it has a chance to be even more nimble, vibrant and impactful for students — and state residents — in its next half century.

Today, students at the College of Law have access to nine clinics: Litigation and Advocacy; Child and Family Advocacy with Medical-Legal Partnership; Entrepreneurship and Innovation; Immigration; Innocence Project; Taxpayer Advocacy; Land Use and Sustainable Development; United States Supreme Court; and Veterans Advocacy.

Recent WVU College of Law graduate Denali Hedrick, 25, said clinical law was key to preparing her for life as a practicing attorney.

“You have to put all your classroom knowledge to practical use at some point, and I am much more confident entering the field knowing that I already have a year of clinical experience under my belt,” Hedrick said. “Getting to help real people with real problems was an incredible learning experience. There are so many nuances to be aware of and potential hiccups to make, and it’s much better to have those things happen when there is an experienced supervising attorney still triple-checking every bit of work you do for a client,” Hedrick said. ”I got to have more hands-on experiences in the clinic than some newer attorneys do in their first year out of law school.”

Another recent College of Law graduate, Jordan Dishong, 24, said the clinical program gave her real-world knowledge that isn’t available in any classroom.

“Having the clinic experience in my background and experience in the criminal justice system here in Northern West Virginia introduced me to many great lawyers. This network allowed me to find gainful employment in the public interest field that I have a deep passion for,” Dishong said. “I will never forget the clients I had in the West Virginia Innocence Project clinic because they motivated me to continue fighting for justice on the front lines in my newest position at the Harrison County Public Defender’s Office.”

Third-year WVU College of Law student Zoey Vilasuso, 25, will work in the Child and Family Advocacy Clinic in the 2021-22 academic year. “I think a lot of people do pick a clinic that they want to practice that kind of law in. And then I think it’s just such good hands-on experience. All the people that are working in the clinic, the lawyers and the professors, are just such amazing people. They have a lot to teach us, and we have a lot to learn,” Vilasuso said.

‘Premier kind of experiential option for students’

Nicole McConlogue, associate professor of law, is the director of the clinical law program and primarily teaches in the Litigation and Advocacy Clinic.

Clinical law is “basically the premier kind of experiential option for students,” McConlogue said. “Especially over the course of the last 15 years, schools across the country have really started looking at what’s the value that we’re providing, especially when we’re kind of turning these newly minted lawyers out on the clients and on the firms.”

Amelia Smith Rinehart, William J. Maier, Jr. dean of the WVU College of Law, said a good clinical program has two goals: “It trains students to become lawyers, but it also provides a service to the community that it works with.”

“And so I think sort of marrying both the skills portion at the clinics and then the ability to give back is something that really sits in a value place for our students. The most that we can do there is give them the kinds of skills that they’re looking for — whether they’re going out into practice in a nonprofit or they’re going to a law firm — where they’re doing exactly what they were doing in the clinic,” Rinehart said. “They’ve developed the professionalism and skills that they need, and they did it in a place that is coming from a service-oriented institution. The more that we can do that, I think the more the better. And that makes our law school better off, but also makes each individual student better off.”

The economic crash of 2007 shuttered some law firms and left plenty of others struggling. From the wake of that experience, firms are looking for law schools that turn out new lawyers who are “practice ready,” McConlogue said.

“As law firms were folding or were reevaluating what they were able to charge their clients, that’s something that everybody was really starting to look at: ‘Are these first-year associates coming in, are they really punching at their weight?’” McConlogue said.

Law schools are going back to the future, remembering a long-ago past where the path to becoming an attorney involved apprenticeships instead of classroom learning.

“The clinical program has … been a priority here at WVU for a long time. What we want to try and offer for our students is that opportunity to practice, but with a safety net, right? Not where the stakes are as high as they would be if you’re a first-year associate out in a firm, or if you are hanging out a shingle and being a solo practitioner,” McConlogue said. “What we’re trying to offer them is a chance to practice law in a safer environment where they can go ahead and be bold and try things and make mistakes, but there’s that safety net. And that safety net is the supervising attorneys that they work with. Under Rule 10, the [West Virginia] Supreme Court of Appeals allows students to practice in any state court as long as they are supervised by a licensed attorney. And so this is a chance for them to really develop in an atmosphere where someone’s really watching out for them, and the whole purpose of the experience is to develop them into amazing lawyers.

Adjunct guidance from practicing attorneys

WVU has full-time faculty working with the clinical program, while some practicing attorneys supply oversight through an adjunct basis, McConlogue said. She likes that mix, which she added isn’t the norm for all schools.

Students “get exposure to real practitioners, who not only in most cases have thriving solo practices but find the time to carve out to share their skills with the students. Just in the litigation clinic right now, we’ve got a supervising attorney who’s a professional mediator, and so that’s a wonderful way for students to get exposed to that kind of practice,” McConlogue said.

“And we’ve got attorneys practicing in other contexts, as well, so that gives them kind of a broad range of models of what real-life law practice looks like, and some hopefully mentor when they come out, and folks that can talk to them if they do want to go solo about the business management aspect of it, the law practice management aspect,” McConlogue said.

A team of two or three students usually works with one supervisor. They meet weekly for about an hour to talk about their individual cases and to also discuss any general questions about the law, McConlogue said.

“So, for example, one thing that comes up
a lot in law practice is clients that blow off appointments or aren’t responsive. They fill out the initial paperwork, they seem like they’re raring to go to get your help, and then suddenly they kind of go dark, right? And that’s something that attorneys deal with all the time, so that’s the kind of thing that we can talk about together and think about what does that mean and how are you going to respond to that. What are the possible reasons that this is taking place and is there some way that you can help bridge that gap for the client,” McConlogue said.

‘A lot of good results’

The clinics “get a lot of good results, which is wonderful. So just last year, the student team that I was supervising was able to prevail in a family law case,” McConlogue said.

“We were representing the father of two small kids, and his ex was trying to modify their custody arrangement. And this was a very contentious relationship, but the students were amazing in kind of keeping the client calm throughout, because you know exes know how to push our buttons,” McConlogue said.

“And they were really great at working with him and trying to look at the bigger picture and work him through what are his goals — not just, ‘How am I feeling in the…

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