1000 E University Ave
Dept. 3226, Bureau of Mines
Laramie, WY 82071
Phone: (307) 766-2379
Fax: (307) 766-6729
The sounds here are the same each day.
You hear the shuffling of papers and the unmistakable noise of typing. Telephones are ringing. People are talking. Doors are opening and closing.
“It’s constantly go, go, go,” says Trevor Schenk.
Schenk cranes his neck toward a white board on the wall to point out the list of student assignments. He has four; others have as many as seven.
“On top of that,” he says, “the mailboxes are full of other request letters.”
What’s it like to be an attorney? University of Wyoming law students, like Schenk and his counterparts in the Defender Aid Clinic, learn each day as part of the College of Law’s unique, fast-paced clinical program.
The Student Legal Clinics, which operate pursuant to Wyoming Supreme Court rules that permit third-year law students to practice under the supervision of a UW law professor or Wyoming Bar member, are designed to expose students to a wide range of real experience in the practice of law, including preparing legal documents, interacting with clients and strategizing and arguing cases.
In addition to Defender Aid, UW has Domestic Violence, Legal Services and Prosecution Assistance clinics that allow students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom.
“Law school has traditionally focused on teaching students how to think like lawyers. But there is a huge difference between thinking like a lawyer and being a lawyer,” says John Burman, the university’s Carl M. Williams Professor of Law and Ethics. “You can be a good thinker, but if you don’t know how to do it, you’re not going to be a good lawyer. We teach them how to be lawyers.”
And learn they do.
“You write briefs on our own, file motions on your own, go to court on your own,” says Justin Hesser, who works in the Legal Services Clinic, which deals primarily with family law matters such as divorce and child custody. “You’re always under supervision, but, essentially, you’re handling a case on your own.”
Adds Rennie Polidora, who is among nine students juggling nearly 40 cases in the Domestic Violence Clinic, “It’s nothing like taking classes. This is definitely the real experience. In our classes, we’re learning more about general law but not applying it. When you get in here, you actually draft the paperwork and talk with the clients. That’s when you realize that their situation is unique and personal to them. … There’s no comparison. It’s real and it’s invaluable.”
Unlike the clinical settings, where UW students scramble daily to meet court-ordered deadlines or research their caseloads, Burman’s office is quiet but for the faint sound of music.
It stays that way until one of the university’s aspiring attorneys comes calling for help.
That dynamic represents one of the major differences between UW’s law school and others: The students -- not the faculty -- take the lead.
“In many states, the students help the faculty. Here, the faculty help the students,” says Burman, a UW graduate who was born and raised in the Cowboy State and has taught at his alma mater for the past 22 years. “The idea is we want the students to do the work.
“It would actually be easier to do the work ourselves. It’s harder to get someone ready to do a trial than to actually do one. But, at this law school, there is a very strong commitment to getting our students out on the front line.”
That’s not the only disparity between UW and peer institutions.
The Wyoming Supreme Court’s active support, coupled with its rules that allow third-year law students to practice with supervision, distinguish UW from similar programs at other universities.
Each year, Burman says about 20 UW law students argue cases before the Wyoming Supreme Court. That, he says, is “simply unheard of at most law schools.”
Students in the Prosecution Assistance Clinic regularly appear in Wyoming Supreme Court to represent the state in appeals cases handed down from the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office.
That experience, says Kevin Walton, a student in the clinic, is truly invaluable.
“These clinics are one of the major benefits of going to the University of Wyoming. Everybody has the opportunity to do the clinics and when you do the clinics, you have the unique opportunity -- which you don’t get in many states -- to argue before the Wyoming Supreme Court,” he says. “And I know in some of the other clinics, they’ve argued before the 10th Circuit. There are times when students are going to argue in district court here.
“You simply don’t get those opportunities at other schools, where you may be able to help research a case and that’s it. Here, we write the brief, we argue the case, we do everything.”
There’s something else you may hear inside one of the clinical program offices.
Emotion. What begins as crying or yelling from a desperate client will, hopefully, end in laughing and cheering.
While UW students undoubtedly benefit from the clinical program -- Burman says graduates routinely describe it as the “best experience of my law school career” -- they aren’t the only benefactors.
The Student Legal Clinics, established in the 1970s, provide one of the few resources for low-income Wyoming residents who otherwise would be unable to afford legal representation.
“We are truly the last stop,” Burman says. “If we cannot help somebody, then they’re not going to get any help.”
Sadly, though, UW’s clinical program -- even with as many as 30 students working each semester -- cannot meet the demands.
“We have an extensive wait list,” says Polidora of the Domestic Violence Clinic, which handles primarily divorce and child custody cases with a history of violence in addition to working as Guardian Ad Litem for neglected or abused children. “We can’t possibly handle every call or application that comes into us.”
“We can’t help everybody,” adds Schenk of the Defender Aid Clinic, which deals mainly with post-conviction relief, from constitutional claims to motions for sentence reductions. “I wish we could.”
But, Burman says, UW graduates don’t forget what they learn in the clinical program. That includes a lesson in compassion.
“No one leaves this clinic looking at life the same way,” he says. “They are going to be much more inclined to provide pro-bono or low-cost legal services to low-income people in the future, because we’ve educated them about the need and the incredible benefits that come from representing someone who can’t afford it.
“When you read about a homeless person, it’s just a story. But when you have that person in your office and you’re trying to help them figure out where to sleep that night, suddenly it’s real,” Burman says. “It’s a story to read about an abused woman. But it’s real when she’s sitting across from you and you’re trying to figure out how to help her stay alive because of the threats and danger in her life.”
He pauses and adds, “Reality is perhaps the most important thing that we teach here.”