Legal Education Award

Award-winning legal clinic – John Erbes, left, and Rebecca O’Neill, are part of the SIU School of Law Legal Clinic, which is receiving the Illinois State Bar Association’s 2020 Excellence in Legal Education Award. The award honors a law school program that emphasizes real world skill for students. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

June 12, 2020

SIU School of Law Legal Clinic earns ISBA Legal Education Award

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — The Illinois State Bar Association is recognizing the valuable work of the SIU School of Law Legal Clinic at SIU Carbondale. 

The legal clinic, which began with the then-Prison Legal Aid Clinic in the mid-1970s, is the 2020 recipient of the Excellence in Legal Education Award presented by the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Legal Education, Admission and Competence. Presented since 2015, the award honors a law school program “that emphasizes real world skill for students” and is the highest award the legal clinic can receive from the ISBA. 

Cindy Buys, interim law school dean, said she is “thrilled that the essential work of the SIU School of Law clinical faculty, students, and staff is being recognized by this prestigious award.” 

“The award is further recognition of the vital role of the SIU School of Law in the Southern Illinois community and the valuable services we provide,” Buys said. 

John Erbes, clinic director, said the award is significant because it’s an acknowledgement by a statewide collective group of attorneys of the vital role the clinic plays “in teaching students identifiable practical legal skills that enhance and give meaning to their traditional doctrinal study of law, all while advancing access to quality legal representation for clients served by the clinics.” 

Providing services in 13 counties 

Law school students are able to work with licensed attorneys in four clinics honing their skills while helping provide eligible residents with free legal services. The clinics are: 

The clinic is comprised of five full-time faculty and as many as 90 students enrolled in a year, with each faculty member supervising up to eight students per semester. There are also five to eight paid students working in the clinics each semester and during breaks to assist with administrative tasks and faculty research, Erbes said. 

Buys emphasized that those involved “put in countless hours ensuring that the communities in 13 counties in Southern Illinois receive greater access to justice,” The work by students for clients includes: 

  • Obtaining orders of protection for domestic violence victims.
  • Acting as guardians ad litem for children caught up in the juvenile justice system.
  • Ensuring veterans receive their entitled government benefits.
  • Representing the best interests of elderly persons in the legal system. 

The annual number of cases vary by clinic, Erbes said. The Civil Practice Clinic has 700 active cases at times during the year. The Veterans Legal Assistance Program and Juvenile Justice Clinic each average 100 to 110 cases annually and the Domestic Violence Clinic averages 40 to 50 cases a year. 

Valuable service 

The legal services the clinic provides often meet the legal needs of people living beneath federal poverty guidelines and many of the clients would not seek legal representation through private attorneys, limiting their access to equal justice without the legal clinic’s work, Erbes said. Many of the 13 counties where the clinic provides services also have a very limited number of attorneys. 

A large part of the clinic education centers on students reflecting on what they learn, the legal work they performed, and the clients they served. They quickly learn first-hand “how empowering it is for a person to have a lawyer representing them,” Erbes said. A few students have changed career directions and chosen to work at a government agency or non-profit rather than a for-profit firm based on their clinic experiences, but all understand the value of providing pro bono assistance. 

Erbes said many law students have not experienced working with the elderly, people with disabilities, those with psychiatric and medical issues, people who live in poverty, domestic abuse victims, abused or neglected children, or veterans. 

“The clinic experience offers students an opportunity to experience working with these people.  This experience helps students develop a better understanding of people’s needs and behavior all while learning legal skills and substantive knowledge about the laws that impact these people.” 

Nominated by alum 

Mike Maslanka, a 1984 law school alumnus who is with Chicago-based Sacks, Goreczny, Maslanka & Costello, P.C., nominated the legal clinic. Maslanka worked in the law school’s then-Prison Legal Aid clinic as a student. During that time, he became 711 licensed and represented a client in a domestic relations hearing in Madison County Court. 

Maslanka was supervised by then-clinic director Richard Habiger and staff. The benefits of “acting like a lawyer while learning how to be one are innumerable” and “go so hand-in-hand,” Maslanka said. 

“The clinic’s importance stems from the quality lawyer SIU Law can produce,” Maslanka said. “One with book smarts is great. However, one with book smarts plus some hands-on, real-world experience with a client or in the courtroom is a more polished quality lawyer. There is no substitute for this type of apprenticing’.” 

Current, former students also see value 

Kaitlyn Hutchison, a third-year law student, has worked in the clinic for two semesters. She wrote in her nomination letter that the clinic has been the “most rewarding and educational part” of her law school experience. As she gained experience, Hutchison noted she has become more confident in her abilities as a student and eventual attorney, and received the freedom to interview clients, take point on their case and perform document signings with attorneys supervising her. 

“I have learned more in the legal clinic than any class in law school,” Hutchison wrote. “It is not only about the actual black letter law that I learned, but also how to communicate with clients, staff and attorneys; how to stay organized with clients, and how to be responsible and advocate effectively for my client’s needs.” 

Brandon Straub, a 2019 graduate, worked four semesters in the legal clinic and amassed more than 1,000 hours, handling more than 100 client matters. From interviewing clients to learning to manage steady caseloads and time management, the clinical programs help students grow in the skills needed to become great attorneys, he wrote.

“The legal clinics allow future attorneys to learn the fundamentals in the practice of law in a teaching-friendly environment,” Straub wrote. “Had it not been for the legal clinic programs at SIU, I do not think I would feel nor be prepared to practice law.”