Lessons from Baltimore and Washington, D.C.: Working with Community-Based Organizations to Build Capacity and Fight for Economic Justice

Document Type


Publication Date


Conference / Event Title

Association of American Law Schools (AALS) 39th Annual Conference on Clinical Legal Education - Clinics and Communities: Exploring Community Engagement Through Clinical Education

Conference / Event Location

Baltimore, MD


#BlackLivesMatter is not only a criminal law issue, but also an issue of economic justice and political empowerment within urban centers that face increasing income inequality and gentrification. This concurrent session will engage participants in the economic justice work of community economic development and transactional law clinics in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Our clinic work with community-based organizations aims to capture and anchor capital that is essential to redressing community members’ economic inequality, via new economic institutions, community-owned institutions, and social enterprises; and build capacity within community-based organizations to further their efforts to increase political and economic power within poor and low-income communities.

Participants will hear from clinical law professors from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. law schools. Our work includes legal representation of community land trusts, limited equity cooperatives, worker cooperatives, nonprofits, social enterprises, churchbased credit unions, and entrepreneurs who are returning citizens.

Participants in this concurrent session will:

  • •Learn about the collaborations between clinics and community-based groups in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. to combat social and economic injustice; • Learn methods to build capacity within communitybased groups;
  • Understand the learning objectives that students acquire from working with community-based groups, which include both lawyering skills and tools to combat income inequality and other economic injustices; and
  • Understand the challenges of engaging in community-based work, and come away with concrete tools for positioning clinics to engage in movement work that is timely but often unpredictable and not neatly packaged for student involvement.


Founding conceptions of clinical legal education situated law school clinics as allies of communities in need. Law students flocked to clinics to engage in lawyering on behalf of people whose needs, while rooted in social and legal structures, might also be ameliorated by legal process. Whether and how law could effectively support communities and endeavor to redress the harms that community members experienced were central questions in clinical education that continue to require persistent examination.

This conference focuses on the role of clinics in communities and the role of communities in clinics in 2016. Drawing on conversations at the 2014 and 2015 conferences on changes in clinical education, we will look both forward and back to ask how the relationship between clinics and communities has developed as clinical education has evolved and as it continues to evolve. We use the terms “clinics,” “clinical programs,” and “clinical education” with the intention of including in-house clinics and externship programs.

The location of the 2016 conference in Baltimore, Maryland is an appropriate setting for exploring these topics. The death of Freddie Gray, a young African-American man, in April, 2015, from injuries he suffered while in police custody, made Baltimore a locus of community action, linking it with other communities (such as Staten Island, Cleveland, Ferguson, Charleston) and a national movement organized around #BlackLivesMatter, also known as the Movement for Black Lives. Baltimore, then, represents a community interacting with law both for better and for worse, and struggling with issues such as poverty, racism, unemployment, inadequate health care, overcriminalization, and poor public education, issues with which many law school clinics have engaged.

In considering the evolving relationship between clinics and communities, we ask: What have we learned about community engagement through clinical education? What is the relationship between them now?

Related to these overarching questions are many others, a number of which fall into these categories:

  1. Partnerships with Communities—How do we define community and community engagement? What communities do clinics and externship programs serve? How should we prioritize? Which clinical program goals do these partnerships advance? What role does social justice play in clinics’ community engagement? What forms of community engagement and collaboration have we used? What is our role in these partnerships—supporters, participants, lawyers? How does the choice of role affect the clients we choose and the pedagogies we use? Can we collaborate across programs to serve communities? Can we develop the flexibility to respond to community incidents and needs as they emerge? How do we partner with international communities?
  2. Clients and Communities—Can client centeredness include a community focus? Does it require it? How can we best respond to the issues affecting our clients and the communities we aim to serve? What program design issues are raised by these questions and how do we address them? What case selection issues are raised by these questions and how do we address them? What institutional issues are raised by these questions and how do we address them?
  3. Pedagogies and Communities–As our pedagogical focus has sharpened, how has it affected the relationship of clinics and communities? Have we developed a pedagogy of engagement with communities? What does it entail? Can we further develop it? How does it link to social justice goals and inquiries? What are the trade-offs? What role does scholarship play in addressing these issues?

During the conference, we will explore these and related questions in a variety of formats, including keynote addresses, plenary presentations, concurrent sessions, poster sessions, workshops, and working groups. In keeping with its theme, the conference will also feature a Clinical Law Review symposium, “Reflecting on Rebellious Lawyering at Twenty-Five,” which commemorates the upcoming twenty-fifth anniversary of Gerald Lopez’s seminal book, Rebellious Lawyering: One Chicano’s View of Progressive Law Practice. All conference registrants are welcome to participate in the symposium.