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March 10, 2009

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For future litigators, there are few activities more useful and practical than a clinic. A clinical program is a combination of internship and class that will put you directly into the legal world. Clinic opportunities vary from school to school, but there are many common to most schools. Most students in these clinics are placed with government agencies. A criminal defense clinic, for example, assigns third-year law students to clients in need of criminal defense. A prosecution clinic could place students at a district attorney's or U.S. attorney's office to prosecute misdemeanors. A mediation clinic trains students in the skills of mediation or arbitration. Students participating in a family law clinic might assist clients with divorces or handle juvenile law cases. A civil litigation clinic might have students participate in landlord-tenant or small claims court cases. Other clinics focus on domestic violence or human rights or death penalty issues.

You receive academic credit for clinics. You put in a certain amount of working hours at the clinic office or agency and you might also attend a class. Most clinics are thoroughly supervised by working attorneys as well as a professor or two. In these clinics, students are actually practicing law -- they can appear in court, write memos, counsel clients, gather evidence and information and, in short, make a real difference in people's lives. It is as close to being a lawyer without passing the bar exam as you can possibly get.

Unlike other law school classes, you can't just sign up for a clinic when you register for your other courses. Most schools require clinic applicants to be third-year students, so you'll probably be applying during the second semester of your second year. You usually must interview with the clinic administrators who will want to talk about everything from your interest in the particular clinic to your grades to your pre-law school life experience. Some clinics are more popular than others, because they provide better legal work experience or are administered more efficiently or are simply better publicized. "The criminal defense clinic at our school had dozens of applicants, but the prosecution clinic had about six," says one litigator. "People just weren't hearing about it." Your competition, therefore, may be fierce or nonexistent. Treat your interview with the clinic administrator like a job interview -- prepare to emphasize your strong points and your passion, as well as to explain your weaker points.

It may help to apply for more than one clinic, although some schools place a limit on how many clinics you may apply for. Normally, you are only allowed to participate in one clinic and, truthfully, you wouldn't want to participate in more than one. A clinic is a full-time job in some ways -- you are responsible for a case (usually with a partner) and will be working as an attorney. The intensity of your experience can vary, but you will have more responsibility than you have had in your previous years and it can be extremely time-consuming.

The advantages of clinic experience are obvious. When you interview for jobs, you can tell your interviewer that you have already represented a client in housing court or participated in child custody hearings. You can mention a client you kept out of jail or a thief whom you prosecuted. A clinic will help you stand apart from the other applicants who only have theoretical knowledge and no practical experience.

There is, however, one caveat. Don't enter a clinic just to boost your resume and then let your grades slip. While practical experience is important, the sad truth is that nothing will pull you ahead of the pack as reliably as good grades.

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