Through 24 clinics at the University of Virginia School of Law, students have the chance to practice their hands-on lawyering skills in a variety of ways, from arguing a case in federal court to helping save a client from eviction to assisting asylum-seekers or prosecuting misdemeanor trials, among other options. The semester- or yearlong courses allow students to learn under the supervision of practicing attorneys.

Sarah Shalf

Professor Sarah Shalf ’01, director of clinical programs at the Law School, recently discussed how students benefit from taking clinics and how the process for enrollment is changing this summer for the better.

What can students learn from taking a clinic?

Clinics are a safe place for students to learn how to actually practice law by representing real clients under the direct supervision of a faculty member. Not only do clinics help students decide whether they’re headed in the right direction in terms of their field of practice, but it also gives them more confidence once they enter the workplace — to be able to make the decisions that they need to make, and also to work in teams so that they can work collaboratively.

These skills — working with clients, time management, and project or case management — are going to carry forward into practice regardless of what field you enter. It will help you be a step ahead of those who haven’t done clinical work.

Can you describe the variety of clinics available?

We have 24 clinics that include both civil and criminal work. Students can choose from clinics involving litigation, policy or transactional work. Many involve direct individual client representation, and others are project- or community-focused. Though several clinics involve local clients who need our services, we also have some national-scope clinics — our Supreme Court Litigation and Appellate Litigation clinics take on cases from all over the country. So we have a mix of broad national programs and also very local programs so that students can really get to know the community and support people living in the state of Virginia.

Do clinics require more work than regular classes? How are they graded? Are there any limits on how many clinics you can take?

The work-to-credit hour ratio for clinics is the same as for other courses — 42.5 hours per credit hour over the semester — but many of the clinics are 4 or 5 credits per semester. So the typical workload is 10-15 hours a week. Many of the clinics are graded honors/pass/fail to give students space to learn and work as a team with the other members of the clinic without an impact on their GPA. Students can ordinarily take only one clinic at a time, but they can take as many clinics as they like over the course of their 2L and 3L years.

How is clinic enrollment changing, and how will the changes benefit students?

We heard from students that the clinic enrollment process was confusing, and that students were concerned about whether they would be able to fit the clinic work in with their regular coursework. So, we simplified the process in a way that allows students to first enroll in a clinic, and then to build their course schedule around the clinic.

Students will have the opportunity to rank all of the clinics they are interested in and we’ll run a clinic lottery before the regular course lottery. You’ll still submit applications for some of the clinics as part of the process, and the directors will select who is eligible for those clinics before the lottery is run (the rest of your rankings will move up if you’re not eligible). Clinic seats that are still available after the clinic lottery process may be released to students later in the enrollment process.

Did you take a clinic in law school? What was it like?

I did take the Prosecution Clinic — one of about 10 clinics we had in 2000-01 — even though I knew I was going to a commercial litigation firm, because I wanted to have experience in court on my feet, and I had worked on the defense side before law school. So I drove up to Harrisonburg every Friday and handled everything from DUI to child abuse cases.  I didn’t have internet at the office, so I had to do all my research before I went! But it was great experience, both in terms of skills and confidence, and to have the experience of being an attorney on the criminal side, to be sure that I was on the right path with civil litigation.

What’s some of the notable work students have done in UVA Law clinics in recent years?

Just to name a few from the past couple years, students in the Appellate Litigation Clinic won a decision that set precedent for when a manager’s child is involved in workplace harassment; the Innocence Project helped pardon six clients and also helped them obtain more than $6 million in compensation for their wrongful incarceration; the Decarceration and Community Reentry Clinic helped a client restore his civil rights; the State and Local Government Policy Clinic has helped legislators pass bipartisan laws affecting issues ranging from child literacy to criminal justice reform; the International Human Rights Clinic journeyed to Peru to attend the Organization of American States’ 52nd General Assembly; the Environmental Law and Community Engagement Clinic has been working on a project for clients hoping to stop a landfill near a historic Black schoolhouse; and in 2021-22 alone, the Housing Litigation Clinic represented or provided advice to nearly 40 families facing eviction, discrimination, poor living conditions or illegal fees. Students in the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic are awaiting a decision on their case that was argued Nov. 1, Jones v. Hendrix, right now.

There are so many opportunities available for students to practice their newly earned legal skills — I hope you take the plunge!

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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