It’s only been around for three years, but the student-run William Mitchell Self-Help Clinic has become a popular place for students to get hands-on experience while teaching people how they can help themselves.
Mitchell students and alumni provide people representing themselves in court—called pro se litigants—with access to legal support. Co-sponsored by the Minnesota Justice Foundation.
For two hours every Saturday during the school year, first-through-third-year students work with volunteer attorneys to offer legal help for people who want to represent themselves in court. The clinic focuses on two main legal matters: criminal expungement and family issues such as divorce and child support.
“It’s great experience for students, because you get a wide variety of cases,” says clinic director Jeff Pabarcus, 3L. “And for 1Ls, it’s a chance to get experience you can’t really get anywhere else. It’s also a great way to meet other students and network with attorneys.” He adds that some students have ended up clerking for attorneys they met at the clinic.
In the Self-Help Clinic’s first year, 2009-2010, 20 students worked on two to three cases a week. Now there are 35 students in the clinic, with 10 more on the waitlist. Last year’s clinic averaged 10 cases a week.
Because law students are not yet lawyers, they help clients, or patrons, with paperwork, help them set up court dates, and connect them with legal resources, with the volunteer attorneys providing the official legal advice.
Pabarcus says the practical knowledge and the fact that it’s not a huge time commitment are both part of the clinic’s appeal for students, as well as the welcoming atmosphere.
“We work on serious issues, but try to keep it a friendly environment,” he says. “It’s not seen as a job or a chore.”
The clinic finds a lot of its patrons through word-of-mouth and by sending its brochure to various law libraries. The word gets out when you’re offering a free service that can put people on a path to improve their lives.
“You’re doing a public service while you’re getting real-life experience,” says Pabarcus. “Plus, 99 percent of the people are super grateful for your work. It reminds you why you went to law school.”