Tuesday, May 17, 2011

New "skills" scholarship: "The Human Touch: Clinical Teaching of Elder Law"

This article is by Wake Forest Professor Kate Mewhinney and is available at 40 Stetson L. Rev. 151 (2010).  From the introduction:

Many of the fundamental skills needed to represent older clients are best learned when law students work with actual clients. To describe a client's options, the students first learn the options and then explain them in their own words. The legal concepts tend to sink in better. While doing this, the student addresses the client's intellectual and emotional responses. Being focused on the client's needs and engaged on many levels allows students to experience one of the most rewarding parts of being a lawyer. Clinical teachers get to help students find this moment, when they, too, can enjoy the satisfaction of solving problems for real people.

An Elder Law clinic also gives law students several other challenges. They get to negotiate the pervasive ethical issues that arise when working with older clients, especially those who are frail. The students practice calibrating their interview styles based on a client's education, mental capacity, and physical limitations. They have to figure out a complex universe of healthcare programs and providers, with its own jargon and dogmas.

The teaching of Elder Law is becoming a common element of many law schools' curricula. Most courses are still doctrinal or lecture based, but there has been a steep increase in the number of clinical courses focusing on Elder Law. The growth in Elder Law teaching coincides with a long-overdue trend toward providing  students with more experiential learning opportunities.   Law schools have been criticized for emphasizing doctrine and teaching it in a fashion that fails to develop skills in solving problems, professional ethics, and good client relationships.   As a result, Elder Law clinics tap into a "hot area" of law while helping schools meet the accreditation requirements for hands-on learning.

This Article centers on one program, Wake Forest University Law School's Elder Law Clinic, which is entering its twentieth year of operation. Our clinic lays no claim to being the oldest or the best Elder Law clinic. It has some unique elements, though, as do the twenty or so other Elder Law clinics in this country.

I hope that this Article will spark more conversation among Elder Law clinicians about how to improve our teaching and our community service. Clinicians are busy with the demands of being lawyers, teachers, and administrators, with one foot in the legal academy and one foot in the practitioner's life. The field of law and aging is particularly in flux. The approach that this Article takes to the clinical teaching of Elder Law ranges from a discussion of our broadest teaching goals to an elaboration of highly focused office policies related to the Elder Law field. Some parts of the Article may be overly specific for some readers, but given the increase in clinical teaching and in Elder Law, these "how to" elements may be useful for other law schools.

Part I offers a perspective on the rich learning opportunities these clinics provide, as well as the challenges of running an Elder Law clinic. Part II introduces the reader to Wake Forest University's Elder Law Clinic, with an emphasis on its partnership with the medical school. Part III discusses the types of cases typically handled by Elder Law clinics. Part IV addresses some of the teaching issues, aside from cases, including credits, student selection, reflection opportunities, and course materials. Part V covers some administrative aspects of running such a clinic, including funding, case management, student and client feedback, curricula, and similar topics.



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