Asked and Answered

 Michael Bryce on UDM’s Clinical Law Program

By Steve Thorpe

National Jurist magazine recently ranked the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law Clinical Law Program as one of the top 20 in the nation. Founded in 1965 under the direction of Professor Gil Donohue, the program is one of the oldest in the country. Professor Michael Bryce is the current director of the program.

Thorpe: Tell us about the ranking and what it means?  

Bryce: University of Detroit Mercy School of Law was selected by both the National Jurist Magazine and its related publication, Pre-Law Magazine, as one of the Top 20 law school clinical programs in the country.  Both magazines publish news, events, feature stories and other information about law schools.  They also highlight leading programs in legal education, including in lists such as this one.  

The UDM clinical program made the Top 20 list based on a strong team effort to create and grow more clinics and learning opportunities for students.  The clinical program developed clinics in numerous and varied areas of law.  This variety allows students to select clinics that focus on their legal interests and their desired future area of practice.  

The empirical recognition by National Jurist is important because it reaffirms nationally that UDM Law is providing 21st century legal education opportunities for its students, while preparing them for future practice.   It also highlights the importance of clinical legal education at a time when students need to prepare for the new realities in law practice.  And, it is timely as the clinical program now moves to its 50th year.     

Thorpe: Can you give us a brief history of the program?

Bryce: The clinical law program began at the law school in 1965.  It was one of the earlier clinical programs in the country and won awards for its work during the 1967 riots and for its work on LL-Ten legislation in Michigan.    

The clinical program expanded from one clinic in 2001 to ten clinics in 2013.  

The legal areas for all clinics created during those 12 years include: veterans law, immigration law, mortgage foreclosure law, juvenile law, criminal law, elder law, consumer law and environmental law.   In ADR, the Mediation Clinic facilitated the resolution of hundreds of community cases.

In 2004, the UDM clinical program became known for being the first to take a Mobile Law Office on the road to assist clients.  The Veterans Clinic/Project Salute group was one of the first clinics to assist veterans at initial hearings and to later train outside pro bono attorneys to assist veterans (over 1200 trained).  The clinical program also is one of the few in the country to initiate a Mortgage Foreclosure Clinic.  And, the clinical program answered the call of the Michigan Bar Study of 2000 which requested bar associations and law schools to join together and provide legal services to the underserved.  UDM Law has joined in such an effort for nine years with the Oakland County Bar Association and Oakland County Bar Foundation.  

Thorpe: How does the clinical program fit into UDM Law’s overall mission in the community? 

Bryce: The clinical program is central to the law school’s mission.  The mission statement itself identifies “the promotion of justice” and “compassionate service to persons in need.”  Both of these actions are what the UDM clinical program does. 

When the first clinic was established in 1965 it was seen as a bridge from academia to the issues of the urban community in which the law school was situated.  The law school recognized the need to bring legal services to the community and experiential learning to the students.     

Today, the clinical program assists many people in obtaining legal assistance that they otherwise would not get.   The program has received awards from the American Bar Association and different community groups throughout Detroit and Michigan.  But the most satisfying awards are the legal successes achieved on behalf of clients in many different and difficult cases in the community.  

This work is really important for veterans whose VA benefits are denied; for elderly women who unfairly are denied social security disability benefits; for immigrants who could be returned to a country where possible persecution or death may occur; for juveniles who are overwhelmed by the court system; for those persons who are charged with a crime; for parties who wish to resolve their disagreements without going through litigation; and for those who are in danger of losing their homes.  

Thorpe: These clinical programs help citizens, but they also are a boon for law students.  Would you tell us about some of the benefits?  How does it help prepare them for life as a lawyer and advocate?  

Bryce: Law clinics at UDM provide real experience that law graduates need as they enter the practice of law.  Many clinical students learn to conduct productive client interviews.  They learn the importance of trust with a client and the need to develop “people” skills.  Students also develop and improve their skills in drafting pleadings, discovery and legal briefs.  They argue cases in court and at administrative hearings and they negotiate other cases to successful win-win results.  And they do all this under the direct supervision of an experienced practitioner who is a professor at the law school.  

One purpose of clinical education is for students to develop the full panoply of what are known as “MacCrate”  lawyering skills.  These include:  problem-solving, legal analysis and reasoning, legal research, factual investigation, communication (written and oral), counseling, negotiation, litigation and ADR procedures, organization and management of legal work and also recognition of ethical issues for resolution.  These skills are what a practicing attorney should be proficient in.  

Students also learn that law practice can be difficult and that it requires diligence and “preparation, preparation, preparation” to produce excellent work.  By going through the clinical learning process students also develop confidence, which may be the most important benefit of clinical legal education.  

Students who participate in UDM clinics are likely to do pro bono work later in life.  This commitment appears to emanate from the students inculcating the concept of “Men and Women for Others,” into their own world view.  Similarly, clinical faculty pursue the teaching method of “cura personalis,” to work with students.  Loosely translated, this phrase means: “care for the individual student.”  In many ways, UDM clinicians function as mentors to students and directly teach each of them about the law and about law practice.  This occurs through regular ongoing interaction, along with frequent reflection by the students and repeated feedback by the faculty members.          

Thorpe: The clinics got a new physical home not long ago.  How is that helping the program?

Bryce: The new “Firehouse” is really impressive space.  Last year it was selected as one of the 12 finest building projects in the Detroit area by CAM magazine.  The “Firehouse” has a special energy about it that ignites the work and enthusiasm of students and faculty in handling cases.  This energy may flow initially from the inspiration of the late George Asher, to whom the clinic space is dedicated.   

The clients find the space very professional and like coming to meet there.   The students enjoy doing legal work in the clinic to the point of remaining even after office hours are over.   The morale of the faculty, staff and students is heightened by the excellent facilities and modern technology throughout.  And, the new clinic location provides a conduit for potential clients to discover the clinics and receive assistance.  

Thorpe: What do you foresee in the future for the program?  Any additional plans on the horizon?

Bryce: The UDM clinics have traditionally given assistance to underserved clients and will continue to do so.  Nevertheless, certain necessary legal skills may be acquired by students participating in an Entrepreneurial Clinic or an Intellectual Property Clinic.  So, the clinical program is considering two such clinics and will be initiating one of them this year.   

Civil court dockets in the Detroit area have large numbers of family law/domestic relations cases.  Many of the parties in these cases are poor and need representation.     The clinical program is, therefore, investigating the creation of a Family Law Clinic later in the course year 2014-2015.  

Law schools around the country are developing what are known as “incubator” programs for recent graduates.  These programs are designed to assist some graduates in their first-year out and are patterned after the structure of clinics.  Development of a pilot “incubator” program is being reviewed for 2015.  

The Juvenile Justice Clinic at UDM is taught by two professors.  One is a well-known attorney in the juvenile law field, William Ladd, and the other is a faculty member at UDM, Professor Deborah Paruch, who has specific background in the field.  The students benefit from the synergy of thoughtfulness of the two professors.  Their interaction provides an interesting and informative class and clinic.  In light of the success of their “team-teaching,” other possibilities may exist for clinicians or faculty to work with practitioners to further enhance legal learning at UDM.



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