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Penn State Law Clinic hits 30-year milestone

Penn State University, Dickinson School of Law’s Family Law Clinic opened its doors in 1979 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. With two students and a handful of clients, the clinic operated out of an office adjacent to historic Trickett Hall. Now, thirty years and some 3,500 cases later, the clinic continues to fulfill its mission of giving students authentic legal experience.

“For many law school graduates, time spent in clinical learning environments is the most memorable,” said Dean Philip McConnaughay. Up to 40% of our students participate in clinics and externships and the Family Law Clinic offers the benefits of live client interaction and the ability for students to see their cases through from start to completion within their two semester commitment. We’re also able to give back to our host communities through our advocacy work on behalf of clients.”

Originally started under the direction of Professor Thomas Place and now directed by Professor Jill Engle, the clinic gives second- and third-year law students, learning under the supervision of experienced staff attorneys, the opportunity to represent low-income clients in custody, child and spousal support, adoption, dependency, and domestic violence cases. Students learn both substantive law and the essential lawyering skills of interviewing and counseling clients, negotiation, drafting pleadings and other court documents, and advocacy. Many of the cases in which students are involved come to resolution within the timeframe of the students’ involvement. The Community Law Clinic located at the Dale F. Shughart Community Law Center on Pitt Street in Carlisle will continue to handle family law matters for clients in the Carlisle area, while the Family Law Clinic in University Park will handle family law matters for clients in the Centre County area.

Students hone skills with challenging cases

“I have been lucky,” said third-year law student Rachel Allen. “I’m in my second semester with the clinic, and I’ve handled a wide-range of cases, including protection from abuse, divorce, child custody, and dependency. We help people below the poverty level who are not able to navigate the legal system on their own.”

Ms. Allen has already accepted a position to start after graduation with the Delaware Family Court which she attributes to getting as a direct result of the excellent reputation the clinic has with the court. “When you’re in the classroom reading cases, you can become jaded,” Allen said. “At the clinic, you experience the real people behind the cases. It has made me want to do more to help.”

Law School alumni also credit their experience at the clinic for launching them into satisfying careers. Suzanne Shapiro ’90 has been an attorney with Saul E. Kerpelman & Associates, PA in Baltimore, Maryland for more than fifteen years representing disadvantaged children who have suffered lead poisoning. Ms. Shapiro says that as a result of her time at the Family Law Clinic, she “developed a strong interest and the start of the necessary skills needed to represent underprivileged, vulnerable children in civil litigation and appellate practice.” Ms. Shapiro has argued several cases that have set legal precedent in her area of expertise.

Student Interest in Experiential Learning Still Strong

“We have had fantastic interest from the students,” said Professor Jill Engle, who supervises the Family Law Clinic. Cases will be referred from MidPenn Legal Services which has seen significant caseload increases in recent months.

“It’s gratifying to be able to help the economically disadvantaged in the community with both the expertise we have to offer and the enthusiasm of the students,” Engle said. Professor Engle said that the clinic will continue to enlist the aid of students in handling cases during the summer months.

Brent Frank, regional manager of MidPenn Legal Services said MidPenn is “very excited” about the law school’s Family Law Clinic in University Park. “Our Cumberland County office has benefited from the existing clinic in Carlisle [the Community Law Clinic] for many years. Legal assistance to our eligible clients in the area of family law will help stretch our resources, as well as open a venue for representation of financially eligible citizens who MidPenn Legal Services in Centre County would not be able to otherwise assist.”


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