Big Mac Attack on Clinical Legal Education
Heather MacDonald, a conservative writer, has launched an attack on clinical legal education. An abbreviated form of the screed surfaced in the Wall Street Journal last week, but a more complete version just came out in the City Journal. Basically, MacDonald argues that law school clinics are stuck in the 1960’s, training students to be social activists, pursuing a left wing agenda on just about every issue.
MacDonald’s claims surely excited some conservatives – and why not? What is juicier than proof, proof, of a vast left wing conspiracy. MacDonald announces a couple of big non-news stories: law school faculties are generally liberal, and clinicians are even more so. And yes, it turns out that these progressive clinicians tend to direct their clinics to serving poor people and non-profits rather than, say, landlords and state prisons (her suggestions, not mine.) If MacDonald’s point was simply to argue for more clinics doing conservative work, I wouldn’t have a beef with her. (As a hiring chair, I might have trouble finding business lawyers looking to leave their million dollar practices for jobs on the clinical tenure track, but that’s another matter.)
While I could spend a leisurely afternoon picking at MacDonald’s piece like so many baby back ribs, my main problem is with MacDonald’s use of a narrow and atypical data set upon which to base her claims. She focuses overwhelmingly on boutique clinics at Harvard, NYU, Georgetown and the like (taunting the Harvard Gender Violence, Law and Social Justice clinic for researching “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered awareness”) while offering relatively little insight into clinical legal education at the other 180 or so law schools across the country. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that a conservative would focus only on the top, top law schools. After years of carrying on about elitist liberals, many on the right outed themselves during the Harriet Miers debacle. But MacDonald’s focus on selected clinics at a narrow band of law schools effectively obscured reality: most law schools sponsor law clinics, and most of those clinics are doing routine but essential work for individuals who would otherwise lack effective counsel. At Alabama, clinical students represent indigent criminal defendants, the elderly, victims of domestic violence, University of Alabama students with small legal problems, and non-profit organizations trying to establish themselves in rural counties. I’d guess that most law school clinics look like this.
If assigning a student to represent a poor person in a criminal matter creates a left-wing activist, I’d submit that it is the social reality – rather than the crazy liberal professor – that bears the blame.