Clinical education is Prof. Hempel's calling


Rex Bossert

As far as Carrie Hempel is concerned, it was never a question of whether she would teach - only what.

“I wanted to be a teacher ever since I played the part in a first grade school play,” says Hempel, Associate Dean for Clinical Education and Service Learning at UCI Law.

It was at Yale Law School, while taking her first clinical course, that she figured out just what would be her educational calling. “I realized that my dream job would be to become a clinical professor teaching at a law school,” says Hempel. “Working for deserving clients and with passionate clinical professors is what got me through law school - I spent five of six semesters doing clinical work, primarily representing children in custody and education cases.”

Her desire to teach in a law school clinic became a reality when she joined the faculty at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law in 1993, as clinical professor teaching in USC’s Post-Conviction Justice Project. Hempel was hired to create a clinic in which students would assist women prisoners at the California Institution for Women.

Hempel’s USC students represented prisoners seeking parole in administrative hearings and filed habeas corpus petitions for clients denied release. Students also represented battered women who were seeking to overturn their convictions because of the connection between the abuse they suffered and the conviction. She supervised students representing clients in several hundred parole hearings during her 15 years at USC, and in 2008 argued a case before the California Supreme Court that resulted in a decision altering the parole standard in the state, eventually benefiting hundreds of prisoners.

“It was a great way to end my tenure at USC,” Hempel says.

But the offer to help create a new law school was irresistible. “Coming to UC Irvine presented a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be involved in entrepreneurship in legal education,” Hempel says. “One of Dean Chemerinsky’s goals for the new law school was a substantially increased focus on experiential learning, including a requirement that each student participate in a clinic prior to graduation. I couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity.”

Only about 10% of the 200 American law schools have an experiential learning course requirement, and an even smaller number require taking an in-house clinical course, as UCI Law does. The law school has begun its clinical education program by offering eight clinical courses, including four core clinics that fulfill the clinic requirement: Community and Economic Development, Environmental Law, Immigrant Rights, and Appellate Litigation - the last focusing on cases before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Hempel anticipates the addition of one or two more core clinics in the 2012-13 academic year.

In addition, second- and third-year students are participating in elective clinics in Family Violence, International Human Rights, Legislative Advocacy, and a Civil Rights Clinic taught by attorneys with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Clinical courses provide valuable, hands-on training because they allow students to represent actual clients in a context where they can carefully reflect on their work under the guidance of experienced lawyers who are also experienced educators.

Says Hempel: "Clinical experience is important because it gives students an opportunity to practice law in an environment where they can explore professional identity issues, address real ethical problems, and learn skills they’ll use throughout their legal careers."

Being able to craft an entire experiential learning curriculum from scratch has brought the added benefit of more strategic thinking about clinics from the start, she says. "What is really great about starting from the beginning is that we have the opportunity to create a combination of clinics that will provide the best choices for the largest number of students."

While the majority of law school clinics represent clients involved in litigation, a large percentage of U.S. law school graduates never practice in a litigation context. Recognizing this reality, one of Hempel’s goals for the clinical program is to provide roughly the same number of opportunities for students to represent clients in transactional work as in a litigation context. As a start, more than a third of the students in the first graduating class are participating in the Community and Economic Development Clinic, which represents clients in transactional matters.

Hempel co-teaches in this clinic with Prof. Bob Solomon, who once taught her trial advocacy when she was a law student at Yale. Hempel says, "after representing clients in litigation for over 20 years, partnering with Prof. Solomon in the CED clinic provides a wonderful opportunity for me to venture into a new practice area and supervise students primarily working on transactional projects. Representing CED clients allows students to experience the satisfaction of helping people actualize their goal of building something, often in the context of improving the community."

The CED clinic currently is representing a group of manufactured home owners hoping to purchase the park they live in, and a non-profit organization desiring to purchase a restaurant. The clinic also represents small business owners in various business formation projects, and in obtaining tax exempt status.

Another positive aspect of being a clinical professor at UC Irvine is that "clinical teaching is highly valued here," according to Hempel. "The law school faculty wholeheartedly respects and supports those of us who have dedicated our careers to clinical education." Several faculty who do not primarily teach clinical courses are currently doing so, or plan to do so next year.