Penn State law clinic marks 30 years, second clinic to open Jan. 11

December 15, 2009

The Family Law Clinic at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law opened its doors in 1979 in Carlisle, Pa. With two students and a handful of clients, the clinic operated out of an office adjacent to Trickett Hall. Now, 30 years and some 3,500 cases later, the clinic continues to fulfill its mission of giving students authentic legal experience and is set to open a second office in State College, Pa., in January.

“For many law school graduates, time spent in clinical learning environments is the most memorable,” said Dean Phil McConnaughay. "Up to 40 percent of our students participate in clinics and externships and the Family Law Clinic offers the benefits of live client interaction and the ability for students to see their cases through from start to completion within their two semester commitment. We’re also able to give back to our host communities through our advocacy work on behalf of clients.” 
Originally started under the direction of Professor Thomas Place and now co-directed with Professor Robert Rains, the clinic gives second- and third-year law students, learning under the supervision of experienced staff attorneys, the opportunity to represent low-income clients in custody, child and spousal support, adoption, dependency and domestic violence cases. Students learn both substantive law and the essential lawyering skills of interviewing and counseling clients, negotiation, drafting pleadings and other court documents, and advocacy. Many of the cases in which students are involved come to resolution within the timeframe of the students’ involvement. The clinic moved into the Dale F. Shughart Community Law Center on Pitt Street in Carlisle in 1992.
While some aspects of practicing family law have changed over the past three decades -- for example, more reliance on mediation and no-fault divorces -- Place emphasized that one thing hasn’t  changed.
“The performance of the students in the clinic continues to be extraordinary,” Place said. “They could choose a less demanding classroom experience, but instead they enroll in the clinic handling up to 10 clients at a time, juggling deadlines and moving cases through the system.”
Students hone skills with challenging cases
“I have been lucky,” said third-year law student Rachel Allen. “I’m in my second semester with the clinic and I’ve handled a wide-range of cases, including protection from abuse, divorce, child custody and dependency. We help people below the poverty level who are not able to navigate the legal system on their own.”
Allen already has accepted a position to start after graduation with the Delaware Family Court which she attributes to getting as a direct result of the excellent reputation the clinic has with the court.
“When you’re in the classroom reading cases, you can become jaded,” Allen said. “At the clinic, you experience the real people behind the cases. It has made me want to do more to help.”
Law School alumni also credit their experience at the clinic for launching them into satisfying careers. Suzanne Shapiro, of the class of 1990, has been an attorney with Saul E. Kerpelman & Associates, PA in Baltimore, Md., for more than 15 years, representing disadvantaged children who have suffered lead poisoning.
Shapiro said that as a result of her time at the Family Law Clinic, she “developed a strong interest and the start of the necessary skills needed to represent underprivileged, vulnerable children in civil litigation and appellate practice.” Shapiro has argued several cases that have set legal precedent in her area of expertise.
“Live client clinics provide a unique learning opportunity,” said Place. “The client’s case provides the context to understand the controlling law. It provides students an opportunity to reflect upon their interactions with the client, get critical feedback on their legal analysis and writing skills, and to wrestle with ethical issues. Most importantly, students gain an appreciation of the human dimension of conflicts.”
New clinic gets under way
The Family Law Clinic in State College, which will open its doors on Jan. 11, in the Bristol Office Park three miles from Penn State's University Park campus, is a boon to both students and the community.
“We have had fantastic interest from the students,” said Jill Engle, clinical supervisor and adjunct professor, who also is a partner in the State College Law Firm Engle and Engle. Cases will be referred from MidPenn Legal Services, which has seen significant caseload increases in recent months.
“It’s gratifying to be able to help the economically disadvantaged in the community with both the expertise we have to offer and the enthusiasm of the students,” Engle said. Engle said the clinic will share some resources and follow the same approach as the Carlisle office, which will include having students continue to support the clinic cases during the summer months.
Brent Frank, regional manager of MidPenn Legal Services said MidPenn is “very excited” about the new clinic.
“Our Cumberland County office has benefited from the existing clinic in Carlisle for many years. Legal assistance to our eligible clients in the area of family law will help stretch our resources as well as open a venue for representation to financially eligible citizens who MidPenn Legal Services in Centre County would not be able to otherwise assist.”

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Last Updated July 22, 2015