Expanding Our Reach: Direct Client Representation vs. Policy and Advocacy Impact in a Transactional Clinic
The 2016 presidential election was met immediately around the country with calls to action for lawyers to provide legal representation and resources to vulnerable populations that would inevitably be affected by the incoming presidential administration. Lawyers showed up en masse, for example, at airports to offer services to travelers and families impacted by the executive order banning individuals from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country. Those lawyers were not alone. Calls also went out around the clinical community to use clinicians’ positions and resources in ways that further our work on behalf of communities which suddenly found themselves potential targets of a new administration. Many transactional clinicians saw the outcry as an “all hands on deck” alarm and asked themselves how they could help.
Transactional clinics, compared with other law school clinics, face unique challenges in responding to threats facing client populations. Our colleagues in other clinics offer students the opportunity to work on advocacy projects, community education initiatives, impact litigation, or other work designed to achieve outcomes beyond individual client representation. Many transactional clinics, however, are structured entirely around representing individual entrepreneurs, businesses, and charities in a range of legal issues. This focus is the result of two phenomena. First, a disproportionate number of law students plan to pursue a transactional practice after graduation compared to the number of transactional experiences available in law school. Second, all clinical experiences are time-limited, and students generally have relatively little transactional law experience to draw on, limiting the amount of work that a transactional clinic can take on during the course of a semester. Representing individual businesses or nonprofits seemingly restricts the impact of students’ work — they can only represent one or two clients per semester. Many businesses and nonprofits remain unserved.
Every clinic faces trade-offs between directly representing individual clients and taking on projects with broader policy and advocacy goals. For transactional clinics, that trade-off is between giving students hard to obtain transactional experience through representing individual entrepreneurs and organizations and allowing students to assist a wider group through other initiatives. Balancing these trade-offs is particularly important for clinicians interested in leveraging student resources to make their clinics agents of change in a community.
This commentary explores different options for accomplishing these broader goals, trade-offs that these options pose, and how clinicians navigate those challenges. The following summarizes ideas and challenges, and suggests ways to balance trade-offs and further integrate change-making into clinic design. In the wake of the 2016 election, transactional clinicians will undoubtedly increasingly design clinic work around impact. This commentary aims to help those clinicians in that effort.