Inner Development, Community, Social Justice (Concurrent Session, AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education)

Last, but not least, in this series highlighting lessons from experts in other disciplines relevant to how to navigate the chaotic “new normal”  in legal education: Thursday’s concurrent session organized by Tennessee’s Paulette Williams:  “A Commitment to Inner Development: Connecting the “New Normal” with Clinics’ Social Justice Mission”.

The session brought  Edward Groody and Timothy Dempsey from the Community Building Institute in Tennessee.  The Institute helps social service and criminal justice organizations become more effective by training participants in community building practices.  Taking an evidence-based approach built on motivational interviewing, trauma-informed care, and pro-social supports, community building is a “highly experiential process that helps participants remove barriers to communication and unlearn unproductive attitudes and behaviors.”

Groody began the session with a detailed overview of a four-stage process for building community:

  • Pseudo-community
  • Chaos
  • Emptying/Letting Go
  • Community

That process adds an important step — emptying/letting go — to Bruce Tuckman’s familiar “forming, storming, norming, performing” model of group formation.  My own interpretation of this additional,  third step is that it provides space for  participants to recognize,  and learn skills to address, the emotional issues that so often get in the way of honest connection with others.

Dempsey then shared powerful stories of how that process helps ex-offenders with post-prison re-entry,  allowing them to move past behavioral responses that may have seemed — and perhaps were — functional in their previous lives, but would block their efforts to move forward.   Or, to put it another way, this step acknowledges that in order to take advantage of education or employment opportunities, people need to let go of fears, resentments or trauma.  This is challenging work that is the foundation of many spiritual traditions, but can help build strong connections with others.

Time constraints prevented Paulette Williams from speaking in detail about how she makes use of this process in her clinical teaching work.  I hope she finds other forums for sharing those experiences and insights.

The insights of this community building process struck me as relevant not only to social justice and clinical legal education work, but also to faculty interactions within our law schools.  From another time and place, I well remember a year when every faculty meeting resulted in controversy, usually about something relatively minor that seemed to be a proxy for other, larger, but unacknowledged issues festering beneath the surface.    I suspect that many faculties are experiencing something similar as they operate  in the  current climate of uncertainty and change, too often getting stuck in the fear those conditions foster.  It’s  difficult for me to imagine applying this model in the typical law school environment.  But successfully moving through the “emptying/letting go” phase, as individuals and a group,  could be oh, so helpful!

Law School Clinics and American Law

It is fantastic to see clinical work-product being used in court cases; to have clinical briefs being referenced in front of the Supreme Court of the United States shows the impact that effective experiential study can have and the effects that clinic experience can have on the future practices of these students.

“The April 30, 2013 issue of Law Week (Vol. 81, No. 41: the Supreme Court opinions issue) reports three interesting decisions, but these decisions are also interesting for another reason, visible in the lists of counsel at the end of each case. It turns out that clinical programs were on the briefs for all three cases.

The Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic helped represent Adrian Moncrieffe in his successful challenge to the argument that his conviction for possession of 1.3 grams of marijuana with the intent to distribute (not necessarily to sell) was an aggravated felony barring him from eligibility for certain discretionary relief from deportation. Moncrieffe v. Holder (No. 11-702, decided April 23, 2013)

The Institute for Public Representation, a program of Georgetown University Law Center, helped represent the plaintiffs/petitioners in McBurney v. Young (No. 12-17, decided April 29, 2013), an unsuccessful effort to establish that Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, which offers access to information only to Virginians, was unconstitutional under either the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the US Constitution’s Article IV, § 2, cl. 1, or under the Constitution’s “dormant commerce clause.”

The George Mason University School of Law Supreme Court Clinic helped represent the State of Louisiana in Boyer v. Louisiana (No. 11-9953, decided April 29, 2013), in which the Supreme Court dismissed the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted. Boyer contended that the prolonged delays in his trial were attributable to the state’s failure to fund the public defender system, and that his right to a speedy trial had been violated, but the Court, over a dissent by Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan) did not rule on the constitutional question.

It may be that no member of the clinical community will agree with the arguments advanced by all three of these clinical programs in these cases. That’s fine, and just as academic freedom gives protection to clinics undertaking controversial cases so it gives protection to debate over what cases clinics ought to take. But what strikes me about this issue of Law Week is the unmistakable illustration of the fact that clinics are now a force shaping American law, in many local courts and offices and also in the highest court in the land.”

Stephen Ellmann
Professor and Associate Dean, New York Law School

The original post can be found here.

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