Students who are seeking to develop their lawyering and trial skills, while serving clients who would otherwise not be able to afford an attorney, will find a home in the Cornell Legal Aid Clinic. The Clinic has been providing civil legal services to low-income clients in Tompkins County since the early 1970's. It was the first and, for many years, the only clinic program at Cornell. Currently, the clinic offers three in-house clinics: Public Interest 1, Public Interest 2, and Public Interest 3.
"I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to be involved with and assist the Ithaca and Tompkins County communities. I started at Cornell Legal Aid to pursue a mere academic interest, but before long, my work grew into the organizing theme of my law school education." Andrew Evans, ‘06
What to Expect in Public Interest 1, 2, and 3
In the Public Interest Clinics, virtually all the students represent clients at hearings before a trial judge or an administrative law judge. The students take primary responsibility for the representation of the clients, from the initial stage of representation through the fact-finding stage, and, in selected cases, through appeal. In the process, students learn multiple skills, including:
- fact investigation
- client counseling
- case management
- development of legal theories and themes
- recognition and resolution of ethical challenges
- witness preparation
- opening statements
- evidentiary rules
- direct and cross-examination techniques
- closing arguments
- drafting post-hearing memorandum
Public Interest 1 (PI 1) is the introductory course. It is open to second and third year students and is offered both semesters. In addition to their representation of clients, students also take a weekly seminar in which they learn the theory behind various lawyering skills, and practice those skills in simulation exercises.
"I highly recommend the public interest clinic--and clinical participation in general. Traditional law school classes teach you valuable research, analytical, and argumentation skills. But clinics teach you how to deal with real people, with the inevitable messiness that comes from human conflict, and those insights form an essential component of our legal education." Sathya Gosselin, ‘07
Public Interest 2 (PI 2) is offered in the fall semester, and Public Interest 3 (PI 3) is offered in the spring semester. Public Interest 1 is the prerequisite for both PI 2 and PI 3. However, it is not necessary to take PI 2 before taking PI 3. Both PI 2 and 3 have classroom components that build on the classes in PI 1. The PI 2 and PI3 students also assume responsibility for supervising and mentoring PI 1students. This provides the opportunity to not only learn supervisory skills, but to also be exposed to a larger number and variety of cases.
"While much of law school can feel highly theoretical, the Public Interest Clinic is a great opportunity to get hands-on legal training. Meeting face to face with clients and drafting legal documents developed my skills and offered rewards that I just couldn't get from a typical law school course." Justin Pfeiffer, ‘07
Faculty Supervision and Mentoring
All the legal work done by Public Interest Clinic students is supervised by faculty each of whom has over 20 years of lawyering and teaching experience. From the classroom lectures and demonstrations, to simulation exercises, to real practice settings, clinic faculty guide the students as they develop and improve their lawyering skills. The faculty interact regularly with students, both in scheduled meetings and in multiple “drop in” conversations. Although these meetings often focus on the cases and issues arising from them, they also play another role: fostering critical reflection.
One of the most important goals of the Public Interest Clinics is the development of lifelong reflective learning skills. The seminars, and the individual and group meetings between faculty and students, provide opportunities to discuss many issues that become evident and profound:
- The lawyer’s role in our legal system
- The role of the legal system in our greater society
- The forces that act upon a lawyer, such as professional responsibility, client interests and demands, the lawyer’s own ethical and moral beliefs, expectations of others in the legal system
- The effect of laws and legal procedures on the lives of our clients
- The reality of our client’s lives
- How that reality impacts on our clients’ understanding of the law and their interactions with the law
Through discussion of these, and many other important issues, students further hone their analytical and critical thinking skills, and engage in creative problem solving in their individual cases and in the larger systemic issues they confront.
"My rich learning experience wouldn't have been possible without the close, thoughtful supervision of the clinical faculty, who are always available to help you wrestle with advocacy issues." Sathya Gosselin, ‘07