Legal Clinics Under Attack

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Written by:  Steven Bender

Within the last week SALT defended the Maryland law school environmental clinic from legislative attack seeking to condition release of public funds on disclosure of client names and other confidential information. SALT’s efforts are described at This weekend the New York Times detailed the current legislative and judicial onslaught against law clinics across the country.

These attacks, however, have a long history that probably dates to the inception of the environmental law clinic. It did, at least, for my school that faced over a decade-long battle in the 1980s and early 1990s, mostly at the hands of wealthy timber interests incensed at lawsuits to control their logging. With the aid of politicians, these industry leaders eventually prompted the University of Oregon School of Law’s environmental clinic to move off campus. The battle survived at least two deans. Directing their strategic efforts at the University President, the state Attorney General, the State Board of Higher Education, and the courts, the timber leaders found success by pointing their axe at legislative funding for the entire law school. Midway through the controversy the New York Times picked up the story of state timber leaders tackling a clinic one described as a “radical cell that has established itself at the University of Oregon.”

Along the way, Oregon’s Department of Justice issued an opinion that despite representing private plaintiffs, the environmental law clinic delivered a substantial public benefit. The clinic survived judicial challenge when defendants deposed its clinicians, students and even the law school dean on clinic finances in an effort to disqualify it as a plaintiff. After years of bellyaching about pulling donations from the University, the timber critics hit pay dirt when they began targeting public appropriations for the entire law school that threatened its existence. In 1993, the law school announced a change of venue for the controversial clinic—it would now be located off-campus run by a non-profit public interest law firm, the Western Environmental Law Center that survives today to host law students for academic credit. The law school’s then dean explained the clinic’s removal as addressing the problems attendant to having what he called a working law firm located within the law school.,6228600.

Now almost a couple decades later, at least one new clinic—a business clinic—operates within our law school serving outside clients in less visible transactional work. And the ringleader of the Oregon timber barons leading the charge against the environmental law clinic in the 1980s, quoted above for his accusations of the “radical cell” at our law school, has since received the University of Oregon’s President’s Medal and later this month will be honored by the University in an alumni Business Hall of Fame dinner. Apparently the money tree was spared the logger’s axe.