Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Legal clinics doing worthless work? Not my UT experience.

Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit and University of Tennessee Law Prof, links to an article by Heather MacDonald that says that law school clinics are stuck in the 60s. Ms MacDonald says that law students are spending their clinic time pursuing "liberal" ideology rather than representing poor businesses. The Instapundit defends the UT Legal Clinic, saying that they do represent businesses that the pros won't (here's a link to their business work) .

It's now been ten years since I was a client of the UT Legal Clinic, but I'd like to defend them, too. I didn't have a small and struggling business. But I was a struggling graduate student, facing potentially enormous legal bills and a huge court judgment, where my best possible scenario - my winning position - was to shell out money for my defense.

When I was a Fort Sanders resident, a friend of my roommate and mine (B) fell down the rather decrepit outside stairs to our apartment and broke her jaw. In several places. Badly. She shattered all of her back teeth. None of us saw it. We only left the apartment to find her motionless on the ground, her face in a pool of blood. We thought she had broken her neck.

We lived on Highland at the time right next to the fire house. We were friendly with the firemen, so instead of calling an ambulance, we ran over to them, knowing they were first responders. They were fantastic (three cheers for the Knoxville Fire Department). They radioed an ambulance, which to this day I think resulted in faster service. The firemen put her on a back board and provided first aid and the ambulance seemed to get there really quickly, even during a crisis when times seems to expand.

My roommate rode to the hospital in the ambulance while I followed. I dug through B's purse to find her insurance card and fill in as many forms as I could. I called her parents. It was about 11pm, and they hung up on me, saying B was always a bit clumsy. I called them again. When they got to the hospital the first thing they asked was did our landlord have insurance. I swear I could see the dollar signs in their eyes.

B and her parents sued our landlord. In a quirk of Tennessee tort law, defendants can enjoin others who they claim share liability. Our landlord enjoined us. B and her lawyer could choose to add us to the suit or not. They chose to add us and so we were sued for half a million dollars.

My roommate (and now co-defendant) and I were both graduate students at the time with no income beyond our stipends. We used the UT Legal Clinic for our defense. Yes, there were some difficulties, our case stretched on and our original "lawyers" graduated. Some of the student lawyers were a little arrogant and dismissed the idea that I might have any legal understanding or legal research skills (I know how to look up case and statute law!) and had a tendency to want to make decisions without us. But the oversight from the Law profs was good, our second set of student lawyers were keen, and they got us summarily dismissed from the suit (we were not legally liable for the condition of the stairs).

They advised us to refuse subpoena to testify after we were dismissed from the case, which we did. B and some others, were angry about this, and I'm sure it hurt her case. But, they had a choice about whether to sue us, and the legal clinic felt that we might open ourselves to a charge of perjury if any of our testimony was inconsistent with our depositions. (We had no intention of lying, but memories fade.)

The UT Legal Clinic provided our defense at no cost. We only had to pay for our depositions (which is not cheap, several hundred dollars each). And when I went to settle the bill for that, it turned out that an anonymous donor had covered it. (I don't know if that was B and her lawyer hoping we'd be in a better mood, or an alumni fund, or some previous client, but whoever it was, thank you.)

So to Heather Mac Donald who says that legal clinics are spending too much time pursuing stupid left wing suits, I say, thank goodness for the UT Legal Clinic. Y'all saved our skins.


Anonymous said...


Thank you legal clinic is all I can think to say but your story has me asking one question that you may or may not want to answer: How did this affect your relationship with this friend who broke her jaw and shattered her teeth. I think I would be quite unsympathetic after being named in a suit after being one of the people who helped her during the incident.

Vol Abroad said...

We are no longer friends. She is not friends with my ex-roommate either.

Me and my roommate are still friends, I saw her recently.