This year the University Legal Assistance (ULA) program at Gonzaga University School of Law is celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary. The Clinic will mark the occasion with a formal ceremony September 30.
ULA, often simply called “the Clinic,” is a nonprofit program designed to benefit low-income and disadvantaged members of the community, while providing law-school students with hands-on training.
“Mark Wilson and Jeff Hartje started the Clinical Law program here at Gonzaga Law School,” explains Larry Weiser, who now directs the program. “The Clinic first became in-house in the fall of 1975.”
Weiser knows the program’s history because he lived it. He was among the first students to participate in the Clinic, which then was housed in a former elementary school.
“I remember it because I was very excited about doing public interest work,” he says. “I had spent the summer before working as an intern in legal services.
Remembering typewriters and carbon paper
“When we started the clinic, we had to get cases, and we basically just had to start the law firm from scratch. Of course, we didn’t have computers, so it was typewriters, one secretary, lots of carbon copies, and getting clients.”
After Weiser graduated in 1976, George Critchlow and Alan McNeil – whose names and faces will be familiar to current students of Gonzaga Law – enrolled in the Clinic. Over the next few years, they took on professional roles in the Clinic.
Weiser too would return in short order. “I started at the Clinic in 1981 for the Elder Law program. Because I had that expertise, Mark Wilson called me – I remember I was working up in Mount Vernon – and he said, ‘Do you want to work here?’ And I said, ‘I sure would.’ And I just so happened to have been dating [my future wife] at the time. She was in Spokane, and this job offer was in Spokane, and so it all came together.
“When I started working there in January of ’81, we were in this basement and had all these circular offices and were all mixed together with a big conference room in the middle. It was pretty shabby but it worked. At the time, the program was that students came in for 15 credits for two semesters and 40 hours a week. So it was a really intensive learning experience.”
A new concept in legal education
The existence of the ULA was unique to legal education in general as well as the local community. As such, the Clinic had much to prove as it found its feet.
“At that time,” says Weiser, “clinical law was in its infancy so it wasn’t always accepted as part of a law-school curriculum. It was a new idea. And as a newcomer providing legal services and representing low-income people, too, we ruffled some people’s feathers.
“But we always had the support of the administration and the president of the university. The community also always recognized our benefit.”
The jewel in the law-school crown
In 1991, 10 years after Weiser had joined the clinic staff and the same year that John Clute became dean of Gonzaga Law, the Clinic was inspected for ABA accreditation.
“One of the inspectors said that the Clinic was the jewel in the crown of the law school,” Weiser says. “That phrase sort of stuck for a long time, and I think John Clute recognized that we had a good program. One of the first things we got was new carpet, and enough pens and pencils to operate! And, basically, over the time of his tenure, he institutionalized the positions and institutionalized the clinic pretty much how it is today.”
The ULA has come a long way even since the mid-’90s. The Clinic no longer operates out of a basement, and securing an ample supply of pens and pencils is a concern of the distant past.
“We’ve changed from where, in the beginning, we were like a general-practice clinic and we all worked on cases together with the students. In the past, we had maybe five supervising attorneys and 25, 30 students. Now we have 55, 60 students, and there are eight supervising attorneys. And now we have the discrete clinics, specialty clinics.”
They include consumer law, federal tax law, environmental law, Indian law, elder law, business law, and general practice law.
“There are now about eight to ten students enrolled in each clinic and they all work on those discrete areas of law,” Weiser says.
A broader and deeper experience
But, he notes, “the theory remains the same. Some people feel you have to micromanage clinical legal education, and our theory is that we don’t need to. (Students) are given the cases and the responsibility as if they are the lawyer. They do the interview, they do the counseling, they do the legal research, they do the legal advice. If they go to court, they go to court and do all the legal work under the supervision of the supervising attorney. They’ll have a whole caseload over a period time, so their experience is broader, deeper.
“In the medical model, students in their third year are seeing patients and working in hospitals, and they’re expected to use their intelligence and their education to figure out what they need to do on their own with the help of the supervising physicians. It’s that same theory. We’re confident that students have the ability to learn how to practice law in this setting.”
In fact, by remaining true to that theory, the clinic has evolved from an “outsider” organization into an accepted part of the law school. In doing so, it has helped to shape the forward-thinking new curriculum that has allowed Gonzaga Law to redefine legal education.
“Over the last 35 years, we’ve become part of the fabric of the education of the law school,” Weiser says. “And that’s significant. When you come into the law school and you look to the right, there’s the Gonzaga Center for Law and Justice.”
An ideal fit with the new curriculum
“We’ve come all the way from this program where we were able to provide an intensive experience for a small amount of students, to where we can provide a really good practical experience for all the students in the law school – so when they leave here, they have the understanding of the basics of practicing law. Starting this summer, all students as a part of graduation have to either take three credits of clinic or externship. They will have done many things that other students in other law schools will have never done.
“When I talk to some people who’ve been practicing law and I explain the new curriculum,” he says, “they’re just jealous. They say, ‘Gosh, I wish I was able to do that. It would have been a lot easier for me to learn how to practice law if I’d had some of this curriculum.’
“Other schools are sometimes amazed at what we do and how much we do. There aren’t many law schools that have this model of being able to provide a sound clinical legal education to the students and at the same time provide a significant service to the community.”
To pay tribute to these three-and-a-half decades of history, a celebratory event is planned for September 30 at 5pm in the Barbieri Courtroom. The guest speaker will be Ryan Haygood, a dynamic young attorney who works for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has partnered with the clinic on important cases.
“It’s just been such an honor and pleasure to work with the Legal Defense Fund. We were very fortunate to be able to work with them and have students work with them over the years,” says Weiser. “This is the firm that was started by Thurgood Marshall, this is the firm that did Brown v. Board of Education, this is the firm that continues to provide legal services at a very high level in civil rights work.([Haygood) is an up-and-coming lawyer in the civil rights movement, and I think he’ll talk about his recent experiences in the South and the elections and his work in voting rights.”
But even though it’s the ULA that is commemorating the anniversary, the focus won’t rest entirely on the program.
“We have 35 years of clinic alumni who have gone out into the community and been successful in their practice and have benefited from their experience in the clinic,” says Weiser. “These are the people who’ve been here and dedicated their time here to work on cases as part of their legal education. That’s what we’re really celebrating.”