A Commentary on Clinical Education at HLS


This week students will honor two individuals with the Gary Bellow Public Interest Award. Two years ago, I was the alumni recipient of the award, and ultimately, it is that recognition that led to my clinical fellowship at the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center this year. The award, the seventh anniversary of Professor Gary Bellow’s death, and threats of budget cuts to the Legal Services Center (which Bellow founded) have all provided reasons for me to reflect on the current state of clinical education at HLS.

I realize that most students and many of the faculty at HLS today do not understand the importance and impact that Gary Bellow (and therefore Harvard) had on the development of clinical education. This is my attempt to describe the great tradition this institution should strive to foster and build upon.

Gary Bellow was a man of great vision, intelligence, commitment and courage. He understood how to leverage his privilege to help those who did not have a voice. Gary Bellow worked as a public defender, was instrumental in developing federal subsidized legal services programs in the 1960s and advocated for civil rights alongside farm workers, Black Panthers and the urban poor. Gary spoke with janitors, law school deans, scholars and students as equals. He was passionate about providing legal services because he believed in justice. He believed that public service needed to play a central role in legal education and insisted that students learned to be good lawyers by engaging in all aspects of client representation. He believed that students learned best by practicing.

In 1979, Professor Bellow created the boldest model of clinical legal education in the country when he, alongside Jeanne Charn, founded a legal services center – now the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain – where Harvard law students could practice law. Since its inception, the Center’s mission has been to provide quality legal services to the local community by hiring attorneys to train and mentor law students. Those students are given a large amount of responsibility to manage multiple cases, negotiate contracts, represent clients in hearings, go to trial, lobby legislators, conduct community legal education workshops and advise clients in a safe and supervised environment where they are mentored.

The model that Professor Bellow developed and advocated almost 30 years ago is successful today because it serves hundreds of people in the Boston community each year and effectively trains law students to be responsible and thoughtful lawyers. After all, lawyers practice, create, and inform the law; they don’t just read it.

I write today about the great success and impact of the Center, not only as an outgoing member of its staff, but also as an alumna of Harvard Law School, a beneficiary of the Center’s mentoring, and, most of all, as a great believer in Gary Bellow’s vision of the Center as a training ground for the next generation of the legal profession’s leaders. Every day during the past year that I worked at the Center, I had the privilege of seeing Gary’s vision come to life and his legacy live on.

Now more than ever, I believe the Center embodies Harvard Law School’s commitment to facilitating quality legal training for its students. After all, it is one of the most important providers of legal services in the Greater Boston Area. During my time at the Center, I have seen the students and attorneys who work at the Center collaborate with area hospitals, health care centers, state and city entities, community development corporations, tenant groups, nonprofit organizations, businesses and individuals to advocate for children struggling through the education system, families losing their homes, visionary entrepreneurs, disabled individuals, single mothers, persons living with HIV/AIDS, local artists, affordable housing developers and numerous other entities. This intensive interaction with clients, community advocates and non-legal professionals exposes students to interdisciplinary partnerships that are essential in providing solutions to complex legal problems. I have witnessed these relationships contribute to my students’ experiences and also give HLS public prominence and respect within the legal community locally and nationally.

For years, Professor Bellow, with the support of Dean Clark, defended the HLS clinical model from the skepticism of outside accreditation committees and varying models of public interest. While clinical faculties around the country have struggled to avoid compromising their roles as legal services advocates in order to become accepted members of traditional law school faculties, attorneys at the Center have been given the freedom by Harvard to remain true to their calling as champions of legal services. In the spirit of Gary Bellow, Harvard has recognized the importance of experimental learning and has placed a premium on training students, not simply as sophisticated legal thinkers, but as advocates for low and moderate income clients.

As a student of Gary Bellow, he taught me what clinical education at Harvard was about – a truly interconnected dual mission of providing quality legal services to the poor while training law students through real-life experiences. As a fellow at the Center, I continue to see this vision transformed into reality on a daily basis.

However, as I prepare to return to my home state of California at the conclusion of my fellowship, I am leaving with uncertainty about the current direction of Harvard’s clinical program. Talks of budget cuts and rumors of moving the Center from the heart of Boston’s low income community in Jamaica Plain to the privileged halls of campus raise a concern about Harvard Law School’s ongoing commitment to experiential learning through community service. It is also not clear to me who is responsible for setting forth the continuing clinical education agenda at HLS. Without Gary Bellow, who will we look towards to articulate a renewed vision of clinical education at Harvard? Will we remain true to the Bellow model or is this model being discarded? Will clinical instructors be replaced with clinical professors who will trade student mentoring and legal service delivery for academic writing and podium lecturing?

As a current clinical instructor, a former clinical student, an active alumna, a former recipient of the Bellow Award and as a member of the legal profession who still believes law should be about equal access and justice, I urge the HLS community to have an honest and inclusive discussion about the future of clinical legal education at Harvard. Whatever Harvard does with clinical education sends a message that is heard by the legal profession, legal educators and the Greater Boston Community. There will never be another Gary Bellow, but his commitment to delivering legal services to the poor among us is a vital part of the Harvard legacy that should not be abandoned.

Luz E. Herrera, HLS ’99, is a Senior Clinical Fellow at the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center.

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