University of Memphis Legal Clinic Puts Students on the Front Lines of Practice

November 1, 2019

Every working attorney knows that there is a difference between learning about the law in a classroom and practicing law in a courtroom or other professional setting. While classroom instruction is foundational, the dynamic world of legal practice requires skills that can only be learned through experience.

At the University of Memphis Legal Clinic, law students are given the chance to acquire some of that experience each semester by working on real-life cases in the service of real-life clients while providing essential benefit to the community. Under the supervision of clinical faculty, these students learn to confront and navigate the many choices, issues, and complications that can accompany the practical application of the law. They learn how to interact with clients whose lives will be materially affected by the outcomes of their cases. They learn, in ways large and small, what it is like to be a practicing attorney, building on the base of knowledge they picked up in the classroom.

In so doing, thanks to the unique nature of the University of Memphis Legal Clinic, these students also get the opportunity to help people and communities in need in innovative ways. Whether they are working with senior citizens in the Elder Law Clinic, with pediatric patients from low-income families in the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic, or with concerned citizens and code enforcement professionals in the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic, University of Memphis law students are both preparing themselves for life beyond law school and making a positive impact on the city and its residents.

This was readily apparent to Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Holly Kirby, who recently visited the University of Memphis Legal Clinic and met with students.

"The students who are participating in the University of Memphis Law School's Legal Clinic are making a unique contribution to their community,” she said. “Their hard work provides access to legal services for those in the community who are most vulnerable. They are making a real difference in people's lives. The law students, supervising faculty, and volunteer attorneys working with the Legal Clinic exemplify the highest values of the legal profession."

Elder Law Clinic

Students working in the Elder Law Clinic focus on a myriad of legal issues for people who are at least 55 years old. Clients are referred to the Clinic from Memphis Area Legal Services.

“We do things that you might associate with older clients like wills and powers of attorney, but we also handle just about any type of civil problem that a client may have,” Elder Law Clinic Director and Professor of Clinical Law Donna Harkness said. “As they’re talking to us about a will, they might mention they have had a problem with a repair done around the house, or maybe they got a bill from the local utility company that they don’t think is fair, or perhaps they have been taking care of their grandchildren and want to adopt them. We have had clients, too, who have said I am still married but have not seen my husband for 40 years.”

Even if the legal problem is an easily resolvable one, Professor Harkness said that the experience of working with actual clients is vital for students.

“It’s a good teaching tool for students to get through the process and have that opportunity to appear in court even if it’s an uncontested divorce,” she said. “Just getting it done is sometimes a big deal.”

Other learning opportunities arise when students interact with clients outside of a courtroom or office setting. Professor Harkness mandates that her students make at least two visits per semester to clients at their homes.

“It lets them see the client in context, what’s going on out in the community with people who are aging, wherever they may be,” she said. “It’s very valuable for students to get the feeling of what elderly people may be struggling with.”

These home visits also introduce students to challenges that may go beyond what they have anticipated in a classroom setting. For instance, an elderly person may live with a family member who is used to being by their side. Students may have to deal with the tricky situation of asking that relative to leave so they can speak to the client in confidence. Visits may also reveal that the reason a client did not keep an earlier appointment was because they had no means of transportation or because they are in poor health, things a client may not readily disclose over the phone.

As with all aspects of the Clinic, the benefits go both ways. Professor Harkness said that many clients are deeply moved by the attention and assistance they get from students.

“For older clients a lot of time it means so much to them just to have a younger person focus on them and pay attention,” she said. “They’re used to having people just talk right past them or ignore them. Some of elder law’s core values are to foster someone’s autonomy, dignity, and quality of life and to listen to them and take them seriously.”

At the same time, many students gain valuable practice that will serve them well after they enter the professional world.

“Overall, it’s critical that students get some kind of experiential opportunity before they graduate,” Professor Harkness said. “The idea of just being an advocate and being a problem solver and a counselor—having a client gives you that, puts you in that role where it matters, where it’s not just a hypothetical, where someone is looking to you for guidance.”

Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic

The Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic is a collaboration between the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, and Memphis Area Legal Services that serves low-income pediatric patients and their families.

“The mission of the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic is to address the health-harming legal needs of patients and families at Le Bonheur,” Clinic Director and Assistant Professor of Law Kathryn Ramsey said. “We do that in an interdisciplinary way. We have lawyers, doctors, and social workers who are all working as part of our team.”

The majority of clients that students at this clinic work with are actually the parents of Le Bonheur patients who may have any number of legal needs. These legal needs are summarized by the acronym I-HELP, which stands for Income and Insurance, Housing, Employment and Education, Legal Education and Counsel, and Personal and Family Stability.

Even though most of the clients are parents, all of these issues can have direct and detrimental effects on children.

“When we are talking about addressing health-harming legal needs we are talking about trying to provide legal services that can help alleviate or ameliorate those social conditions that people live in that have a very significant impact on their health,” Professor Ramsey said.

As she points out, studies have shown that only about 20 percent of one’s health is directly related to the medical care they receive. The other 80 percent comes down to social factors like having a safe place to live, access to healthy food, and a stable family environment, among other things.

“Those are all things that very significantly affect overall health and well-being, especially of children,” Professor Ramsey said.

Students in the Clinic are offered a unique weekly classroom experience where they learn from not only legal professionals, but doctors and social workers as well. Professor Ramsey teaches joint sessions with physicians who educate law students about topics like how to read medical records or how to understand certain medical terminology. In turn, Professor Ramsey teaches medical students in the classroom about particular areas of the law.

This classroom work is augmented by the real-world practice that is essential to all of the school’s clinics.

“Most of the students come in having never truly represented a client before,” Professor Ramsey said. “Sometimes they haven’t even met a client before.”

If students have met clients before, it could have been at a previous internship or similar situation where they were simply following the directives of a supervising attorney. That is not how it works at the University of Memphis Legal Clinic, where students are granted the freedom to make autonomous decisions in consultation with faculty members.

“They come in and think someone is going to tell them what to do, is going to tell them how to get from Point A to Point B in this case, and that’s not what I do when I’m teaching,” Professor Ramsey said. “I’ll help them, I’ll ask questions—Have you considered this?, What are the pros and cons?—but ultimately it’s the students who arrive at the decisions. To me that’s one of the really import aspects of taking a clinic. They really get the experience of taking ownership over the cases and developing that judgment they’re going to need when they go out into law practice.”

And even if the student ends up practicing a completely different type of law, Professor Ramsey is hopeful that certain aspects of the clinic experience will continue to resonate with them.

“One thing I always tell my students is that I don’t expect or even necessarily hope that all of them will end up doing the type of work we do in the Clinic for the rest of their careers, but one of things I hope they do take away from it is an understanding of the importance of providing legal services to those who can’t afford to pay for them,” Prof. Ramsey said. “That this is an access to justice issue, and having a better understanding of what that means. Hopefully they will go out in their careers and understand that and be supportive of it.”

Neighborhood Preservation Clinic

Students in the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic represent the City of Memphis in lawsuits directed at public nuisance properties. These are predominantly vacant or abandoned properties that have been found to be a danger to public health, welfare, or safety. As such, they may be structurally unsound, unsanitary, potential fire hazards, or all of the above.

“We are seeking in these lawsuits not to recover money from the owners, not to take the properties from the owners, but rather to have the owner or some other interested party—it could be a lienholder, a bank that holds a mortgage note, some other family member—abate the nuisance under court supervision,” Clinic Co-Director and Associate Professor of Law Daniel Schaffzin said.

The ideal path for abating the nuisance is rehabilitation.

“That can take some time, but we want to try to keep neighborhoods intact,” Professor Schaffzin said.

Once the nuisance has been abated, the lawsuit is dismissed.

Blighted properties are a particular problem in Memphis, and not just because they are aesthetically unappealing.

“Most people agree that these properties look bad,” Professor Schaffzin said. “Often that’s where the understanding stops. The problems that blighted properties cause go far deeper. It’s often what you can’t see. Vacant and abandoned properties, in addition to not being used for their intended purpose, generally speaking are far behind in property tax payments. And, of course, property taxes go to fund so many of the services that governments provide. Emergency services, public schooling, police and fire services, you name it. If a property can be brought back to life, often that means it’s going to go back in a productive way onto the property tax rolls. That’s an important outcome.”

Blighted properties also have a negative impact on property values. Even homes that are not located on the same block or the same area of Memphis can have their property values diminished due to blight elsewhere in the city.

Perhaps a more troubling effect of blighted properties, though, is on the lives of those who see them or live near them every day.

“There is more and more data about the truly harmful psychological impact that living next to or near badly blighted properties can have,” Professor Schaffzin said. “It’s not difficult to find in many cities across the state really problematic properties on the same street as a school or a religion institution or a community social services office. If kids on the way to school need to walk by a property that is a nuisance, that is not being taken care of, what does that tell that child about the community in which they live and how they are valued, if we are allowing these structures to continually produce harm?”

The clinic offers plenty of opportunities for students to get involved in complex cases. Unraveling the history of a property in itself can be a difficult task. Determining the best way to resolve a case can be equally challenging.

Students “spend a lot of their time figuring out what needs to happen to move a case forward,” Professor Schaffzin said. “It’s not the win in our cases so to speak. It’s not getting to the end and being done with the case, it’s often removing that most immediate barrier to progress.”

As in other clinics, in the course of their work students become acquainted with different skills and practices that prepare them for life beyond graduation.

“It provides a setting in which a lot of what they’ve learned in a more traditional classroom becomes crystalized, it all comes together,” Professor Schaffzin said. “They see how legal issues arise in practice. They see how relationships with clients can often affect representation as much as the law itself. They see the holistic nature of what the lawyer does day to day. Oftentimes it does involve intensive research, intensive writing, but oftentimes it involves things that non lawyers and lawyers alike may consider extralegal. And that’s true. Being a lawyer, being a professional requires you to be proficient in many things. Our students, they are reinforced not only in the substantive law and procedure they are learning, but in everything from file maintenance to oral communication to problem solving. It’s just a vast range.”

The fact that their hard work results in the betterment of the City of Memphis as a whole makes the experience even richer.

“The innovation of this clinic we think has really helped to bring positive change in our city, and we want to keep doing more of that while we train the next generation of lawyers,” Professor Schaffzin said.

General Information about the University of Memphis Legal Clinic

The University of Memphis Legal Clinic encompasses five individual clinics in all. The three discussed above are the ones in which students are engaged this semester. The other two clinics, which will be offered in the spring semester along with the others, are the Housing Adjudication Clinic and the Mediation Clinic.

All students involved in the clinics must have completed half of the legal studies necessary to earn their degrees, as required by the Tennessee Student Practice Rule.

Generally, eight to 10 students participate in any one clinic at any given time. They are expected to devote around 15 hours a week to the clinic to which they are assigned, although that number can increase if and when a case demands it.