Ever-Evolving Clinical Education

UW Law’s Clinical Programs Innovate to Increase Student Participation

Long known as a pioneer in the field of clinical education, UW Law School’s robust clinical programs are no stranger to innovation. From the early days of the Frank J. Remington Center and the Economic Justice Institute to more recent changes — like supporting entrepreneurs in the state or addressing increasingly complex immigration needs — the clinical programs have evolved over time. And so, too, have the expectations for clinical programming at law schools throughout the United States.

With American Bar Association rules now requiring each law student have six credits of experiential learning courses before graduation, law schools across the country have re-calibrated their offerings. The same is true at UW Law School. While the existing programs are rich in opportunities in areas ranging from consumer to criminal law, the school is working hard to increase clinical enrollment and offer more flexible options for students.

Reimagining the clinical program offerings began in earnest with the Law School’s new strategic plan, which included an emphasis on increasing curricular opportunities (read more about the plan in the Whole Nine Yards).

L&E clinic students brainstorming by a whiteboard

“As we looked toward improving our curricular offerings on all fronts, we wanted to ensure greater accessibility and more course flexibility for all students,” says Ursula Weigold, associate dean for experiential learning. “By moving away from the one-size-fits-most model in our clinic course structure, we are giving students more choices, with the goal of eventually being able to provide a clinic spot to every student who wants to enroll in a clinic course.”

In the Law School’s traditional “immersion” approach to clinical education, students who completed their first year of law school were required to enroll in a full-year commitment to a single clinic. Students began their clinical in the summer after their 1L year, working full time in the clinic all summer, and then continuing for another two semesters during the academic year, for a total of thirteen–fifteen required credit hours. This model emphasized in-depth learning for a select group of students, as well as — in some cases — the ability to track a case from beginning to end. The downside to this model is that only a fraction of interested students were able to enroll in clinics, due to capacity limits.

“High-quality clinical education requires close supervision and hands-on mentoring, requiring small faculty-to-student ratios,” says Mitch, clinical professor and director of the Neighborhood Law Clinic.

That impacts how many students each clinic can accept.

“As our incoming class size increased substantially, the unmet need for clinic slots has worsened, and students have had to find other options to satisfy their six-credit ABA requirement, even if their first choice would have been a clinic,” says Weigold.

As a unique learning experience — and a cornerstone of UW Law’s law-in-action philosophy — increasing student access to clinicals was a top priority as the school embarked on the strategic planning process. In the clinical setting, students develop a range of important practice skills, such as how to evaluate potential cases for credible legal issues, how to scrutinize client files and legal documents, or how to investigate uncertain or conflicting facts. Students may interview clients experiencing trauma or distress and who may be inexperienced in navigating the legal system.

FJR Clinical Students attending a presentation

“And while students are developing these critical practice skills, they are serving people and communities who urgently need their help,” says Mitch.

“The teaching and learning methods employed in our clinical courses are truly unique,” says Dean Dan Tokaji. “UW Law’s clinics facilitate practical, hands-on learning by allowing students to take ownership of their cases and work closely with real-life clients, including small businesses, prisoners, patients, and others in need of help. That’s why increasing access to this unparalleled learning opportunity is a cornerstone of our new strategic plan.”

Through an in-depth information-gathering process, the school examined the program’s strengths and challenges, researched the norms within the legal academy, elicited internal and external feedback through surveys and listening sessions, and gathered detailed national data on clinical education. A key takeaway: the full-year clinic model is highly unusual, and at other law schools, clinic courses are mainly offered during the academic year with a typical length of one semester.

“We weren’t willing to forego the in-depth learning that a multi-semester experience allows, but we also need to accommodate students interested in an intensive — albeit shorter — clinic course. Our clinical faculty formulated plans that will ensure a meaningful high-quality educational experience while also increasing opportunities and options,” says Tokaji.

L&E clinic students writing on a whiteboard
The Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic provides free legal services to nascent entrepreneurs and early stage companies through the work of law students supervised by faculty and private sector attorneys.

Getting to a solution required ambitious and innovative thinking — something the clinical faculty have in spades, according to Tokaji. Through the spring and summer of 2021, clinicians devoted time and creative thought to how their courses could be restructured to increase enrollment and provide more flexible options.

Starting in summer 2022, students will have more choices than ever, including summer clinic options, along with the opportunity for a paid project-assistant position conducting scholarly research for a faculty member. In fall 2022, students can choose between full academic-year clinics and semester-only clinic courses. Some clinics will change from a full-year to an academic-year sequence, although some students may still have an opportunity to continue their work within a clinic beyond that timeframe, perhaps as an upper-level mentor assisting their clinical professors.

“We are thrilled to be adopting a model that we hope will allow every interested student the incredible opportunity to learn alongside our remarkable clinicians while serving those in pressing need of legal services,” says Tokaji. “Thanks to our outstanding clinical faculty, our students will have access to experiential learning opportunities that no other law school can match.”