Law school students nationwide are facing growing attacks in the courts and legislatures as legal clinics at the schools increasingly take on powerful interests that few other nonprofit groups have the resources to challenge. The latest law school clinic to face Goliath’s wrath is the University of Maryland, which had the nerve to file a lawsuit against Maryland’s largest employer, poultry company, Perdue. The suit accused Perdue of environmental violations.
In response to the suit, Jim Perdue personally went to Annapolis to lobby Maryland lawmakers to cut off funding for the law school clinic. On Friday, Maryland lawmakers debated a measure to cut money for the University of Maryland’s law clinic if it does not provide details to the legislature about its clients, finances and cases.
The measure, which is likely to be sent to the governor this week, comes in direct response to a suit filed in March by students against Perdue— the first effort in the state to hold a poultry company accountable for the environmental impact of its chicken suppliers.
Law clinics at other universities — from New Jersey to Michigan to Louisiana — are facing similar challenges. And legal experts say the attacks jeopardize the work of the clinics, which not only train students with hands-on courtroom experience at more than 200 law schools but also have taken on more cases against companies and government agencies in recent years.
“We’re seeing a very strong pushback from deep-pocket interests, and that pushback is creating a chilling effect on many clinics,” said Robert R. Kuehn, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, citing a recent survey he conducted that found that more than a third of faculty members at legal clinics expressed fears about university or state reaction to their casework and that a sixth said they had turned down unpopular clients because of these concerns.
In Louisiana, the Legislature is considering a bill forbidding law students at clinics that receive any public money from suing government agencies, companies or individuals for damages unless exempted by the Legislature. It is a response to a suit brought by the Tulane Law School clinic on behalf of an environmental group against federal and state environmental regulators, seeking greater enforcement of air quality standards in the Baton Rouge area. the bill was submitted at the request of the oil and gas industry.
In some states, the challenges may redefine the parameters of attorney-client privilege and the role that law students can play in cases. In March, a Michigan prosecutor called University of Michigan Law School students to testify against a man they had been working to exonerate from criminal charges. What are we teaching our students with this type of behavior?
The Maryland law school clinic deserves the support of lawyers everywhere. The clinic is facing off against one of the state’s most powerful political players and the sixth-largest poultry company in the country. I am not arguing the merits of the case, but rather that we cannot stand idly by while law school clinics are bullied by powerful interests. Go Terps!