Always looking to build upon the clinic’s success, CCLS faculty have continued to seek ways to develop the skills and added value that clinic graduates carry with them to their employers. The success of CCLS graduates over the years is a reflection that there are some skills such as interviewing, counseling, developing facts and case strategy, negotiating, and oral advocacy that cannot be refined properly in a large, non-clinical class setting. Indeed, more than 10 years since graduating from the law school, Alison Katrivanos (class of 2000), a former CCLS clinic student and a current staff attorney in the criminal defense division of the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County recalls that “one of the best things that the clinic taught me was to feel comfortable in a courtroom. When I first started the clinic, it was scary to walk into court but by the end of the semester, I was comfortable, and that comfort helps me every day.”
In an effort to develop the skills that our graduates will need to deal with the many professional challenges that will face them, CCLS employs a number of different tools used by other clinical education settings, including medical schools. One of the most integral aspects of CCLS’s Families and the Law Clinic curriculum are the clinic’s rounds – a process that shares similarities with grand rounds in many medical schools across the country.
Most students come to the clinic with little or no experience dealing directly with clients or litigating before a judge. Meeting in a collaborative setting each week, the rounds exercises allow students the opportunity to brainstorm different issues and challenges that have surfaced in the scope of their client representation and case assignments.
The case rounds allow students the opportunity for open dialogue about their cases and provide a free exchange of ideas and information between teams. A number of students have commented that the rounds have helped them to overcome some of the initial hesitations they face in meeting and interacting with their first client.
Meanwhile, for the past seven years, faculty in the General Practice Clinic, have used actors to help students develop and sharpen skills needed for their work with clients. Over the years, the hypothetical case scenarios developed by the clinic faculty have included domestic relations and child custody situations, workmen’s compensation claims, a wrongfully terminated employee and a neighborhood squabble. The faculty allow the actors to develop the characters further as the actors choose – often leading to surprising and unpredictable results. As the mock interview proceeds, a member of the clinic faculty observes, along with a few other students from the class. Once the interview session is completed, the faculty member and the observing students provide feedback to the student conducting the interview. The faculty also allow the actor to provide feedback to the student who conducted the interview. For most of the clinic students, this is the final step before they will begin their real meetings and interviews with their real clients for the semester.
Prior to the use of actors for these simulations, the clinic faculty had students who were also enrolled in the clinic serve in the roles. However, this made it difficult for the enrolled students to master their roles as actors, and it was hard for their classmates conducting the interviews to suspend their disbelief momentarily that a student colleague was really one of their clients. The actors have helped to add a level of unpredictability that prepares clinic students for the real thing, including how and when to listen and remain silent and how to ask the hard and uncomfortable questions.
The CCLS Consumer Protection Project received approval this spring to serve as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site through the IRS. Paul Kurth, supervising attorney for CPP, guided the clinic students and other law school student pro bono volunteers through a 10-hour training, culminating in a subsequent online battery of three tests and the eventual certification of each student as an IRS-certified volunteer.
The addition of the VITA program to the array of services offered through CCLS provided clinic students and other law student volunteers with the opportunity to learn and refine valuable skills, while also providing a significant service to members of the local low-income community. The CCLS VITA site operated from February through April 15, on Saturdays and Mondays. Perhaps not surprisingly, the busiest night for the student volunteers was on Monday, April 15, the tax filing deadline.