Law school clinics can change your life.
They provide invaluable hands-on experience, let you test-drive your future law career, and expand your professional network—all while providing critical legal services to real clients. (And earning academic credit!) Keep reading to explore these and other benefits of law school clinics.
“I showed up at law school honestly not really sure why I was there. What saved me were my clinics,” says New England Law | Boston Professor Russell Engler. “I could see myself using legal skills to help people and give them power. That totally got me energized and very happy I had gotten my legal degree.”
As Professor Engler can attest, law school clinics and externships are often life-changing experiences, both for law students and the real-world clients they serve. As Director of Clinical Programs at New England Law, Engler has been guiding students through this rewarding work for more than 25 years.
“Clinics are far and away the best way to learn,” Engler says. “Learning in context is how you learn. Clinics are fun. They get you out into the community, meeting other lawyers and building a network. They help you build your résumé. They help you figure out what areas of law you might want to pursue.”
It’s hard not to buy into his enthusiasm when you discover the many benefits of taking a clinic in law school…
1. Get practical real-world experience
Real-world experience: it’s what you need to be a successful legal professional, and it’s what employers want to see on your postgrad résumé.
In-house clinics are functioning law offices, and clinic students work on real cases. (The clinics at New England law include both in-house clinics and externships.) You’ll come away from your clinics with practical legal skills, like how to interview clients, conduct legal research, and work under court deadlines.
And you can strengthen the skills you've already learned in law school: “For some students what they most need is help on researching or writing. For some students, what they most need is fact investigation. For some students, it's how do you deal with people, clients, the court,” Engler says.
All this experience happens under the supervision of licensed attorneys too, so you have both a mentor and a safety net.
2. Bring your classroom learning to life
The academic foundations are important in law school—but learning about the law and practicing it are quite different. After all, lectures can be abstract, not necessarily realistic, and not always the best way for every student to learn, Engler says.
“Sometimes students really need to see the law in practice to understand it,” he says. “Imagine if you were trying to learn how to play tennis, and you read about it, you talked about it, you saw videos, but you never went out on a tennis court. That would be ridiculous. We would never learn that way.” Clinics make that classroom learning tangible; instead of talking about the skills you need to be a lawyer, you put them into use.
"The clinics and externships are where people are making the transition from legal ideas to actually being out in the world,” Engler says. That’s also why the clinics are open to all New England Law students, including part-time students, and why students can take clinics early and often—as early as the first semester of 2L year, if they're a full-time student.
New England Law students are encouraged to take as many clinics as they can fit into their schedules as well. Because more clinics means more opportunities to prepare for your future.
Related: What Is a Law School Clinic Like? Students Explain
3. “Test-drive” your legal career
“Are you the type of person who is sure you already know what type of law you want to practice? Well, maybe you should take a clinic in that area—and you should take it early,” Engler says.
You might be right; you could find you really do love that area of law, and you can then focus your law school years and career on that legal niche.
Or you might be wrong.
Engler likes to share an anecdote about the year four of his students jumped at the opportunity to take the school’s Environmental Law clinic—and all four finished the semester knowing they did not want to practice in that area.
“As an educator, I think that’s really important,” he says. “Imagine if they hadn’t taken the clinic and had geared their entire law school career to landing a job in which they would not ultimately have been happy.”
New England Law’s clinics and externships, for example, allow students to explore such legal specialties as business and intellectual property law, criminal procedure, family law, health law, immigration, public interest law, tax, and more.
4. Network, network, network
During your clinics, you’ll be surrounded by lawyers who share your interests; you might even work with someone who has your dream job.
Needless to say, law school clinics can provide tremendous opportunities to grow your professional network, from your supervising attorney to the law students with whom you’re working. (They’ll be your colleagues soon enough!).
Even Professor Engler taps into his network in directing the clinics. Heavily involved in the local legal community, including as a member of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, Engler uses his professional network to find and foster clinic and externship placements for his students all the time.
5. Learn professional expectations
“Among the things you have to learn as a professional is not just the substance of what you're doing but how the workplace works,” Engler says.
That’s another area law school clinics are beneficial, as law students learn what those professional expectations are really like. This includes everything from how to dress to how to interact with your boss to where social media fits into your professional life.
“It's part of professionalism,” Engler says. “I view it as part of our job as an educational institution to teach people in all respects. And some people would say, ‘Well, if they can't recognize those basic things, should they be taking a clinic?’ And I would say, ‘Everybody needs to be taking a clinic, to see the law in practice and strengthen whichever skills they most need to strengthen to succeed as a lawyer.’”
Related: Inside My Law School Clinic Experience: Law Students Share Their Stories
6. Gain unique perspective
Working in a law school clinic can blow your world-view wide open, as you meet clients from many different walks of life, often facing life-altering legal struggles. Their cases often revolve around basic human needs, with legal issues related to housing, safety, health, income, and family. That kind of work can be emotionally demanding. But it can also broaden your perspective for the better.
“What people don't realize is how law students actually learn from the clients,” Engler says. “The clients are in some ways the true teachers, and so when you see what people are going through, it’s eye-opening.” This is especially true for law students who haven't experienced many of the things their clients have, like food insecurity, homelessness, and domestic abuse.
“For many, many students, their eyes are opened by how important it is that clients have access to help,” Engler says. “A lot of people don't want to necessarily engage with [the realities], but the system can be pretty unfair when you walk in the shoes of somebody without power and trying to navigate it.”
7. Help folks in need
Last but certainly not least, law school clinics provide free or low-cost legal services to clients who could not afford them otherwise, like single parents, people facing evictions, folks on fixed incomes, and many others. By working in a law school clinic, you can make a true difference in the life of an individual or a family.
“That is a cornerstone of our in-house clinic, which serves low-income, indigent clients in Massachusetts,” Engler says. Serving the indigent is also a requirement to become a certified student attorney under the state’s student practice rule.
Students might also participate in a clinical externship with legal aid programs and nonprofits serving disadvantaged clients as well—organizations often critically understaffed and underfunded.
“It is a win-win,” Engler says. “You're helping to meet a need, and learning to become a lawyer.”
There you have it: a rundown of the key benefits of taking a law school clinic. Want to dig into the clinical experience in even more detail? Learn more about law school clinics and externships here.