Statement of ABA President Lamm Re: Proposed Legislation Affecting Funding for University of Maryland School of Law
WASHINGTON, D.C., April 1, 2010–Law school clinical programs provide immensely valuable public service in making legal assistance available to members of society who might not otherwise have access to the justice system. At the same time, when law students help real clients confront real problems, they learn about navigating court systems, about how the law works to meet clients’ needs, and about lawyers’ fundamental professional responsibility to advocate for clients who cannot advocate for themselves, even when the clients or their causes might prove unpopular or controversial.
Operating as they do under the direction of licensed lawyers, those clinical programs and the students who work in them are bound by the same ethical constraints that govern lawyers—allegiance to the interests of the client ahead of all others, whether any competing interests flow from third parties or the lawyer herself; protection of client confidences, and exercising independent professional judgment in behalf of the client. These are core values of the legal profession.
Yet there is a proposal before the Maryland legislature to withhold funds from the University of Maryland School of Law unless it reports on clients and cases served by the school’s clinical legal program, expenditures for those cases and funding sources. Backers of the proposal claim a suit brought by the school’s environmental law clinic is targeting an important segment of the state’s agriculture industry.
The proposed legislation is such an intrusion on the attorney-client relationship because of the information that is required to be revealed that it is not tolerable. Clients seeking assistance from law school clinics or other non-profits providing legal services to the disadvantaged —as in the population generally—may be concerned about the ramifications of the release of confidential client information, even if that sensitive information is not formally subject to the attorney-client privilege. This could result in their not seeking and receiving the legal assistance that they need.
Our legal system, and in fact our very democracy, is founded on the concept that all persons and organizations, including government itself, are bound by the law. For the law to have effect, lawyers must be allowed to fulfill their ethical obligations to provide effective representation, to protect client confidences and to resist interference or pressure that seeks to compromise their professional judgment. The proposal currently before the Maryland legislature could make it more difficult for lawyers to comply with these important ethical duties and protect their clients’ interests
As president of the American Bar Association, I urge those who would undermine clinical law school programs to step back and remember that the rule of law cannot survive if pressure prevents lawyers from fulfilling their responsibilities to their clients. I call on lawyers in every state to remember their professional obligation to uphold the independence of their profession, and speak out against intimidation whenever they see it. Just as lawyers who represent unpopular clients are fulfilling the responsibilities of all lawyers, so too are law students who assist clients in clinical legal programs.
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