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Published April 03, 2020
The experiential learning programs at the College of Law have demonstrated a remarkable level of resiliency in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak while still offering the same quality services. In particular, the faculty and students in the clinical programs have been incredibly adaptive in a short window of time in order to protect themselves as wells their clients.
Following the University of Wyoming’s guidelines, courses have resumed in an online format for the duration of the spring semester. While the classroom component of the clinics is easily transferred, the application of the clinic work itself poses some challenges. The clinics have made several changes in order to remain productive, while still complying with the stay at home directive.
The College of Law is sensitive to the fact that this situation is unsettling for a lot of people, students included. Students expect to gain experience in a relatively controlled environment with set protocols and procedures. However, the reality of the pandemic has given students a taste of what they are going to have to experience in practice – the unknown. The clinics are experiencing the same struggles as other attorneys, such as trying to not backlog the courts while maintaining services to their clients, and managing their current and future caseloads.
Each clinic is doing things a little differently in order to best utilize their resources and accommodate their volume of work, and each has encountered complications unique to their function. Accordingly, the live client-based clinics such as the Civil Legal Services Clinic (CLSC), Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic (FCLAC), Defender Aid Clinic (DAC), and the Estate Planning Practicum (EPP) have made significant changes in their day-to-day operations.
Confidentiality for clients has posed the most difficult obstacle to overcome. The systems that house the client information are not remotely accessible, thus students have had to adapt. To prevent client information from being stored on personal computers, the clinics are utilizing highly password protected shared drives. Additionally, the clinics purchased a handful of flip phones that students can use off-site to call clients, while protecting their own privacy and contact information.
With a commitment to social distancing, most students have been completely removed from the clinic and have been working from home. Meetings and case-status reviews are being conducted through videoconference and teleconferencing when appropriate, and respective clinic emails are available for students to check remotely. However, access to client information and files makes it impossible to completely restrict building access. The clinics are managing this complication by limiting one or two students at a time with a commitment to sanitizing everything upon entry and exit from the buildings. The clinics are also working very closely with custodial services to disinfect the rooms to allow operations to continue.
CLSC Faculty Director, Professor Danielle Cover praises the work of the dedication and care her students have continued to provide in her clinic. She says, “The students remain committed to the work and have demonstrated amazing flexibility in adapting to the limitations the outbreak has created.”
Echoing her sentiments, DAC Faculty Director, Professor Lauren McLane adds, “Students have really banded together and served as calming voices for many clients during this chaotic time.”
Caseload management has also presented difficulties. The courts have not shut down, and students are getting a front row seat on how to prioritize cases during these kinds of emergent situations. In the circumstance of the Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic, cases have ramped up with the increase in domestic violence occurrences while Americans shelter in place. The FCLAC currently has over 40 active cases, and anticipate a request for more.
“This is a very sobering experience for students and highlights how the clinics are different to law school,” says Professor Dona Playton, Faculty Director of the FCLAC. “Clinic students are faced with rising to the challenges of this crisis and making real-life decisions for vulnerable clients.”
The clinics have been forced to slow their new client intake and acceptance due to drastically reduced man-hours and resources, but are still available to those in need. While they are no longer taking walk-in client visits at this time, they are directing new and existing clients to contact them via phone or email. They will resume regular office protocols once the guidelines are lifted.
Video conferencing has been an amazing tool for everyone during the statewide closure to the public order, and its use has not been limited to the classroom. Many of the clinics have had to utilize video conferencing capabilities to access the courts. Students in the Defender Aid Clinic have already appeared via Zoom in several district courts and the local municipal court. Students in the Family and Child Legal Services are preparing to go to trial in Sweetwater County and are making arrangements to do so remotely.
For other clinics, the adjustment online has been smoother.The Entrepreneurship & Business Law Practicum never slowed down its operations and has continued to work with all of its live clients remotely. Representing the State of Wyoming, the Prosecution Assistance Program (PAP) and the Energy Environmental and Natural Resources (EENR) Clinics are able to accommodate their cases remotely due to a large portion of work consisting of appellate brief drafting. Weekly meetings in Cheyenne for both clinics are now accomplished through video conferencing, with any court appearances headed in the same direction.
However, smoother does not translate to easier or less work. Indeed, the cases continue to increase. Students are drafting documents steadily and in the Prosecution Assistance Program have assisted the Attorney General’s Office and several District Attorneys’ Offices on roughly 20 cases this spring alone.
Even amidst all of the challenges, there are silver linings to be had. Students and faculty continue to find the bright side in the situation.
“We are taking advantage of the opportunity to delve into our waitlist of cases that need in-depth analysis and research as well as our innocence work,” adds Professor McLane. “It has given us the opportunity to examine our mission statement and be certain that our time and caseload is aligned with what we stand for and what is best for our clients.”
The students and faculty of the College of Law have proven to be irrepressible in the face of adversity. We have no doubt that we will emerge on the other side of this pandemic stronger, and more dedicated than ever. We are extremely pleased with the versatility and ingenuity of our law family, and are grateful that they have stepped up to continue to serve our students, and the state of Wyoming.