The Clinical Splash of Cold Water

Innovation Advancement Clinic
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“I want to do what you do, can you teach me how?”

“Sure. But is that the area of law you really want to do? You should do what you love, and love what you do, otherwise, you’re wasting your time. If you’re ready to cut your teeth and learn how to practice law, why don’t you join my clinic first?”

Jaburg Wilk

“I really want to work with entrepreneurs and learn transactional work. I love entrepreneurship, and would love to start my own law firm, just like you did. How do I join your clinic?”

That particular law student approached me seven and a half years ago, when I first began teaching as an adjunct professor of law as the Clinical Director of the Innovation Advancement Clinic (IAC) at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in Phoenix.

Law students are thirsty. Not simply to learn, but to apply their textbooks principles in practice with real clients.

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Clinical courses are the perfect, safe environment for future lawyers to practice law and apply multiple areas of law for a real client. As a former student in the same IAC class 13 years ago, I can personally attest to the critical thinking skills it imparted to me as a young lawyer. It also injected me with the confidence necessary to launch my own law firm as a newly minted lawyer during the post-credit crash, arm-pit of the legal market in 2009.

As a law professor, particularly in a practice oriented clinic, you must truly believe in the importance of positively impacting every individual law student. I have 10 students every semester and I make it incumbent upon myself to personally get to know each one. Some students are 23 years old and never worked a job in their life. Another maybe a single-mom of two kids, and yet another maybe a former business executive reinventing herself.  Regardless, each law student exhibits the passion to convey their unique talents and contributions to every client’s cause – a feeling that every lawyer within a law firm can relate to.

A law school clinic is the splash of cold water that every future lawyer needs, and one that I am thrilled to provide.

The Arizona Supreme Court promulgated Rule 39(c) to create “certified limited practice student,” which grants clinical students the opportunity to experience limited practice of law under a supervising attorney. The IAC is one such amazing opportunity, spread over six credits within a semester of law school.

“You’re all lawyers for the next 12 weeks, and I expect nothing less than professional work.”  Every single student stops typing, and makes eye contact with me.  “This is the start of your career as a lawyer, it’s not another law class. The Rules of Professional Responsibility apply. Regardless of where you go and what you do once you graduate, I can assure you, your experience with me will be both valuable and memorable. You will learn skills that you can monetize as a licensed attorney. You will encounter and solve issues that some of the most experienced lawyers in town get to experience. What you make of this opportunity to learn and apply new lawyering skills is up to you.”

Anecdotes like this make paying attention for eight-hours on clinic orientation day much easier.

“Emotional intelligence and self-management matter in this clinic. The substance abuse and burn-out statistics are against you – but we’ll talk about how to manage those issues in this clinic.”  My students suddenly realize that they’re in for a treat beyond the coffee and bagels they had at 9 a.m. when orientation began.

“I’ve never taken business organizations, so how am I going to draft an operating agreement?” My response surprises some students: “You’re not required to have pre-existing substantive knowledge. You’re required to ‘know what you don’t know.’ Then, commit to a professional level of diligence to ascertain the answers to the questions you don’t know.”

That’s where the magic happens to law students in my clinic. They commence on a journey of professional development, starting almost literally with nothing, but ending with the ability to present a complex legal issue to an entrepreneur. In some instances, they will acquire the knowledge and skills to address a new point of law, which means they have the same opportunity to become a subject matter expert as a lawyer that’s been practicing for 15 years.  Learning and applying the new Arizona Limited Liability Act when drafting an operating agreement is one example.

I can see the motion sickness from the sea of first year classes on every law students’ face when we first meet. A clinic is the perfect scratch for their practice itch. We begin all projects with the most important tool in a lawyer’s toolkit: questions. Students conduct diligence on each client, starting from the client’s application, and develop a list of questions to ask the client.

“Guys, it’s like deposing your new client – your answers are only as good as your questions. So, hone your questions. Choose each topic and word, wisely.”

Clients are impressed. They are presented with a team of three students and a written agenda, which expressly limits the initial meeting to one-hour (I know what you’re thinking, but no billables here). Each student peppers the client with intellectual questions, attempting to discern where the latent legal issues reside. The shape of a legal issue begins to form in the shadows of the students’ inexperience.

“So, did Jessica leave your venture, or is she still working with you on it, and if she left, did you guys do anything in writing.” The student gazes at the wrinkle in my cheek, as I hold in a satisfaction induced smile. We hold our team huddle after the client departs the room. A measurable synthesis occurs within each student’s mind. But the fear of substantive knowledge overtakes the room.

“Professor, does Jessica potentially own some of the intellectual property as a co-inventor or co-author?” The conclusion of our discussion results in identifying three distinct transactional deliverables, in the form of contracts or advisory memoranda. Students draft an engagement agreement and obtain the client’s approval to move forward.

“By the way, team, who is the client? The individual applicant, his team, or his unorganized group of individuals?” Arizona’s Ethical Rules permit the representation of an “entity to be formed,” which the students quickly learn will become an important practice lesson.

After weeks of sifting through issues, research, frustration, a final deliverable starts to gel. Each student is prepared to present their deliverable after digesting pages of my red lines and comments. That’s where the fun begins.

“Professor, do I need to go through all 29 pages of this operating agreement?” I deliberately dodge a direct answer, in true clinical instruction style – “You drafted it. Use your professional judgment to decide that, but I am pretty sure you’re going to tell me, ‘that’s a bad idea.’” When a student simply reads their contract to a client, or goes on too many tangents, I nervously tap my pen against the desk repeatedly. It’s a smoke-signal that usually works, but sometimes the pen taps go on for far too long.

“Guys, as a lawyer, you’ll never have enough time, enough pages, or enough attention from your client. Be succinct, but be bold.”

Teaching in the Innovation Advancement Clinic is an opportunity to mold future lawyers, indulge them with the realities of practicing law, and provide tangible tools to launch their careers.  Because the clinical setting is more intimate, the experience is mutually rewarding. I’ve even heard from past students about how much the clinic helped them.

It’s emails like that that create the stimulus for my desire to continue to teach future lawyers. The feeling is hard to describe. But I recall feeling the same after winning trial or after closing escrow in a complicated transaction.  Now what kind of a lawyer doesn’t want to feel like that, all the time?

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