Texas Tech’s School of Law does more than prepare students for a legal career.
A start-up grant from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2000 helped launch Texas Tech's Low Income Taxpayer Clinic. Since then, the Clinical Programs have expanded to include eight different clinics, each with a focus on helping an underserved portion of the community receive legal expertise while providing law students with real-world experience.
“The students consistently indicate that it probably is the best experience they have in law school,” said Larry Spain, director of the Clinical Programs. “It's sort of like a capstone-type course, but the clinics are a full-year commitment.”
Primarily consisting of third-year law students selected to work in various clinics by faculty through an application and interview process, the Clinical Programs work with community partners to provide pro-bono legal services covering everything from mediating disputes to providing defense counsel in felony cases.
Over the past five years, the Clinical Programs have provided legal representation on more than 3,500 cases and over 1,400 hours of mediation services.
“It really gives the students the experience of what it's going to be like once they get out into practice,” Spain said. “If students complete the year in the clinic, they're way ahead of other graduates in terms of being ready to practice law because they've had that experience of doing so under the supervision of faculty.”
The commitment to providing a cost-effective service and meeting identified community needs earned the Clinical Programs a 2022 President's Engaged Scholarship Award for Excellence in Engaged Service.
“The law school's Clinical Programs offer an outstanding opportunity for students to gain meaningful real-world experience while still in school,” said Jack Wade Nowlin, the W. Frank Newton Professor of Law and dean of the law school. “Students assume important responsibilities for the representation of clients and the delivery of professional services under the close supervision of faculty who are practicing lawyers.
“We are so proud of this dedication to clients and the community. It's wonderful that these efforts and the Clinical Programs were recognized with the 2022 President's Engaged Scholarship Award for Excellence in Engaged Service.”
Capital Punishment Clinic
The Capital Punishment Clinic consists completely of third-year law students who work with the Regional Public Defender's Office for Capital Cases. The office provides representation for indigent defendants charged with capital murder in Texas. Though the students are not the primary defense counsel on capital cases, they are closely supervised by Patrick S. Metze, director of criminal clinics, and Ray Keith, chief public defender for capital cases, along with the trial attorneys and staff working with the Regional Public Defender's Office. Students gain experience with investigating, interviewing clients and witnesses, and drafting motions and briefs for clients.
Caprock Regional Public Defender Office and Clinic
The Caprock Regional Public Defender Office and Clinic represents clients from 10 counties. Students accepted into the clinic offer legal representation for felony, misdemeanor and juvenile offenses. Judges appoint students in this clinic to cases. With supervision from Metze and Donnie Yandell, the chief public defender, students are tasked with handling everything involved in the cases from initial contact with the client to appearing in court on their behalf. During the fall 2021 semester, the clinic's eight students handled 99 cases, with 24 of those being felonies.
Criminal Defense Clinic
The Criminal Defense Clinic functions much like the Caprock Regional Public Defender Office and Clinic but focuses on Lubbock County rather than more rural areas. Students in the Criminal Defense Clinic represent at least four clients per semester and are fully responsible for their cases from intake to disposition under the supervision of Metze and clinical instructor Dwight McDonald. The fall 2021 semester saw the Criminal Defense Clinic take on 106 cases, including 37 felonies. Of the 106 cases, five were completed during the semester, with two guilty pleas and three cases dismissed.
Civil Practice Clinic
Family law, disability, employment and estate planning are just a few examples of the cases handled by the Civil Practice Clinic. The Civil Practice Clinic takes a limited number of cases, referred to the clinic by Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. Under the supervision of Spain, students are tasked with handling the cases from first contact through appearing in court if needed. Since its creation, the Civil Practice Clinic has earned clients over $800,000 in retroactive benefits and secured more than $35,000 in continuing monthly benefits under the Social Security Act based on disability.
Family Law and Housing Clinic
The Family Law and Housing Clinic represents clients in a variety of civil matters, though the focus is on family law and some housing issues. Under the supervision of professor Wendy Tolson Ross, and working in close consultation with and through referral from Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, students in the Family Law and Housing Clinic handled 14 divorce cases and two landlord-tenant cases during the fall 2021 semester.
The Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic was started in 2000 and is the oldest of the Law School's eight clinics. Working under the supervision of clinical instructor Terri Morgeson, the Tax Clinic works through direct inquiries rather than referrals. It offers support to low-income West Texas and Eastern New Mexico residents who are having issues with the IRS. Since 2001 the Tax Clinic has saved or recovered nearly $1.7 million in tax liabilities and won clients more than $250,000 in refunds.
Opened in 2003, the Innocence Clinic works in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Texas and offers students the opportunity to work in post-conviction litigation. Working under Metze and adjunct professor Allison Clayton, students put in over 800 hours of legal work almost exclusively on homicide convictions during the 2021 fall semester. While working for the Innocence Clinic, students use forensic sciences, track down witnesses and documents, and comb through evidence in their cases.
Advanced Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Clinic
The ADR Clinic's operation is different from the rest of the clinical programs in that second-year students are allowed to apply to the program along with third-year students and the commitment is a single semester rather than a full year. Limited to 18 students, the ADR Clinic works on mediation under the supervision of Spain and adjunct professor Gene Valentini, director of the Lubbock County Dispute Resolution Center. During the fall 2021 semester, over 260 hours of mediation were completed by students with 57% of disputes mediated resulting in a resolution.
The Clinical Programs volunteer approximately 18,000 hours of legal services to the community annually. During the 2021-2022 academic year, 419 cases were accepted for representation and mediation was handled for 176 cases.
And if everything goes to plan, those numbers will continue to grow as they have for 20-plus years.
“We'd like to continue to expand it into other areas,” Spain said of the Clinical Programs' future goals. “All of that really depends on funding issues. There is continually student demand for other areas of practice; for instance, an immigration clinic or a small business clinic.”
More information about the Clinical Programs can be found in their newsletters, which are archived here.