It could be considered just a public relations gimmick — this RV with "University of Detroit Mercy" printed on its side. It travels the state carrying law students and their faculty advisers who work with clients as part of the school's free legal services.
But in the grand scheme of legal education, it's part of the growing national trend of law schools providing — and sometimes requiring — more clinical experiences for students.
"Clinics of various types are growing, as are pro bono experience opportunities," says Carl Monk, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools.
Through clinic work, students gain experience on actual cases, applying what they learn in textbooks to real clients. And the law schools provide a public service: legal representation to clients who may have been refused by other attorneys or can't afford services.
Those services can be expensive to provide. One faculty member may supervise just eight students in a clinic class compared to lecturing to 100 in some required courses. But the experience the students gain and the contribution the clinics make to the community can be priceless. University of Detroit Mercy law dean Mark Gordon declines to provide exact costs." Where we're learning everything in law school is in externships and things like this," says Kellie Bylica, a University of Detroit Mercy law student. "All the class work comes together." She wonders how anyone can be successful being "dropped into" legal work without this kind of experience.
In Michigan, all six law schools offer clinics in a variety of specialties, all focusing on low-income clients who may have no other access to legal resources.
For example, at Michigan State's College of Law, students provide legal representation in tax courts for non-native English speakers. In the University of Michigan Law School's Child Advocacy Clinic, students represent abused and neglected children. At Cooley Law School, students work with the state's Innocence Project on wrongful conviction cases.
"We're the last resort for most people," says Tammy Kudialis, a Detroit attorney who supervises the University of Detroit Mercy's urban clinic. Kudialis also is the school's adjunct faculty member who directs the Mobile Law Office, the official name of the school's RV.
Law school clinics in Michigan have been around for about 40 years. A state Supreme Court order in the 1960s allowed schools to set up such programs and required students to be supervised by a member of the state bar. The programs had to provide free legal services to indigent people.
Wayne State's Free Legal Aid Clinic was among the first, says David Moss, director of clinical education and associate professor of law. Students founded it as a nonprofit organization and obtained office space on Trumbull Avenue, where they began working on family law cases. According to legend, Moss says, it was the only building in the immediate vicinity untouched during the 1967 riots because people knew and respected the clinic's work.
The Free Legal Aid Clinic eventually received space on campus, and the university also provides financial support through work-study positions. Students — about 25 during a regular semester and 35 during the summer — can earn credit for one semester and then continue to work at the clinic for $10 to $12 an hour through on-campus work-study.
Wayne State also has clinics dedicated to issues involving civil rights, criminal appeals, disabilities, small businesses and nonprofits.
"They actually have clients. They're working on problems where there are real solutions. But if they make a mistake, there are real consequences," Moss says.
Students at University of Detroit Mercy now have seven clinics to choose from including an environmental law clinic that started this semester. The RV is used for the school's urban law clinic (which specializes in elder law), its immigration clinic and its veterans' law clinic, which recently received a grant to do work throughout the state.
The RV's sink is covered over to make more desk space. Its bed was replaced with a table and chairs for more conference room space. It travels throughout the state for veterans work but makes regular every-other-Wednesday visits to the Oakland County Law Library in Pontiac. Prospective clients may request help that can be done that day.
"We try to resolve the issue while we're here. Whatever we can do while we're here we do," Kudialis says.
Other clients' problems may become part of the clinic's caseload.
A Clarkston woman, who asked not be identified, visited the University of Detroit Mercy clinic last week.
"I didn't know what to expect. I'm not used to the legal setting," she says.
She learned of the clinic while doing research at the library and tried to get help with a dispute she's having with a contractor who refinished her basement.
"The shower just doesn't work. You have cold water but no hot water," she says. And she was charged for materials the contractor didn't use.
She met with Bylica for about a half hour. The third-year law student, with supervision from Kudialis, agreed to review the woman's case and decide whether it matched the clinic's criteria.
The woman was hopeful her case would be taken on, but said just having someone listen to her story had already helped her.
"You get some comfort from talking to a real person," she says.
The law school attorneys and students accept clients based on income criteria — they must earn less that $15,000 a year — and take only certain types of cases. For the urban law clinic, clients are the elderly, says Kudialis, and their cases mainly involve consumer fraud, mortgage fraud and identify theft, as well as Social Security, disability and Medicare issues. Clinic visitors with other issues are referred to other law school clinics, private attorneys, social service agencies or given other resources.
Because the clinics have strict criteria for what cases they accept, some worthy cases may be bypassed.
On one recent morning, a man who said he had suffered police brutality was referred to the ACLU — the urban law clinic doesn't handle those types of cases. Then, an undocumented immigrant from Senegal asked the immigration clinic students and their supervising professor for help for herself and her daughter. The child's father, she said, wanted the 4-year-old back in Africa for a female genital mutilation ceremony.
"That's a tough case," says David Koelsch, the director of the immigration law clinic. But because the woman already had an asylum claim pending with another attorney, the clinic could not represent her.
Moss says the "cherry picking" aspect of clinic work is tough — clients may have nowhere else to go, but because the clinics exist in the context of legal education, they operate with strict guidelines for case selection. Clinic advisers will sometimes pick cases that fit with the course curriculum or others that demonstrate a specific legal concept.
"We may only be able to take a small fraction of the cases," Moss says. "You're going to have a lot more requests than what you can actually represent."
But despite any shortcomings, Moss believes clinics will continue to grow in popularity at law schools. He's seen at least a 50 percent increase in enrollment in the decade he's been at Wayne State.
"Students want to do something different. They're bored in class. Clinics are different. They're exciting. They're reinvigorating for students," Moss says. "Clinics give them the chance to do what they came to law school to do: make a difference."