The Thurgood Marshall School of Law has continuously operated a legal clinic since 1960. However, experiential education has been a part of the law school’s curriculum since 1948. Indeed, Thurgood Marshall has the distinct privilege of having the oldest clinical program in the City of Houston and among the oldest in the State of Texas.
The first clinical course—Legal Aid Clinic—was offered in 1948, under the instruction and supervision of Professor Roberson King. It was a one credit course, devoted to responding to prisoner letters. Students were responsible for conducting research of relevant laws and issues and drafting responses, which were then reviewed by Professor King. The course was an elective, limited to upper level students, but it provided students an opportunity to enhance research and writing skills. It also exposed students to issues within the criminal justice system and real life clients and cases. In 1951, the Legal Aid Clinic course was removed from the course catalog in lieu of practice or simulation courses.
In 1960,the law school re-instituted the Legal Aid Clinic and it was the first university run Legal Aid Clinic in the City of Houston. It provided both training to students and pro bono legal services to the indigent. By the late 1960’s, clinical opportunities at the Law School included both the Legal Aid Clinic and “clinical partnerships” with the US Attorneys’ Office and the Houston Legal Foundation.
In the early 1970s, the law school was awarded an eight semester grant from the Council on Legal Education and Professional Responsibility (“CLEPR grant”)—the first HBCU law school to receive a grant. As a result of this funding, the law school obtained off-site space, hired additional staff and instituted the “Criminal-Post Conviction Remedies Project.” In the mid-1970s, the law school obtained additional funding from various federal agencies, enabling the creation of two additional clinics—the Preventative Law Center and the Southwest Institute for Equal Employment. The mid-1970s also saw a substantial increase in internship opportunities in both Civil and Criminal—with placements at Gulf Coast Legal Foundation, Harris County District Attorneys’ Office, US Public Defender, and Centro De Immigracio de Houston. The law school was also at the forefront of requiring a class or seminar component along with clinical offerings, where students were taught various lawyering skills.
In 1975, then Dean Otis King provided testimony to the Texas House of Representatives on the importance of clinical education. His comments were buttressed by the Chief Justice of the Texas State Supreme Court, Justice Joe Greenhill, who strongly encouraged state funding of law schools to support and advance clinical education. In fact, Justice Greenhill remarked: “You may want to consider this in your deliberation as to law schools so that at least those who want to go into the courtrooms will have the opportunity for proper training. Otherwise, they get on-the-job training at the expense of their clients and the judicial system.” As a result of King and Greenhill’s testimony, the state added a line item in the university’s budget, specifically for the law school’s legal aid clinic. This expanded funded allowed the law school to continue to grow its clinical program.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a substantial increase in clinical offerings at the law school. The Community Legal Services clinic was staffed by three full-time clinicians, offering services in social security disability and unemployment compensation. However, the clinical program also housed a Tax Clinic, Elderly Law Clinic, and School Law Clinic. The 1990s saw the introduction of the Homeless Law Clinic, the AIDS Clinic, Juvenile Law Clinic, and the Environmental Justice Clinic. While other clinics in the city of Houston and State of Texas provided assistance to infected persons through other clinics, Thurgood Marshall’s AIDS Clinic was the only clinic which provided assistance to this target population. Until 2007, the Environmental Justice Clinic (later known as “Environmental Law & Justice Clinic”) was the only Environmental Law Clinic in the State of Texas.
In 2003, the clinical program was re-organized and renamed the Clinical Legal Studies Program. The clinic was restructured to offer more traditional legal services (Landlord/Tenant, Family Law, Criminal Law, and Immigration) and training was designed to prepare students to be solo practitioners or work in small firms. Unlike previous years, all aspects of the clinical program are supported by hard money—ensuring permanence and continuity. Moreover, all of the clinicians are either tenure track or tenured.
Today, clinical professors regularly host workshops or outreach to impacted communities, providing legal advice to indigent clientele and raising the profile of the program, the law school, and the University.
The program is built on a strong foundation of providing quality legal services to the underrepresented, while training the lawyers of the future!
Excerpted from Martina E. Cartwright & Thelma Harmon, Fifty Plus Years & Counting: A History of Experiential Learning and Clinical Opportunities at Thurgood Marshall School of Law, 39 Thurgood Marshall L. Rev. 187 (2014)