by Associate Dean Stacy Caplow
Fifty years is a milestone by any account. So, reaching five decades of innovative and notable clinical education at Brooklyn Law School, delivered by dedicated and creative clinical faculty,* deserves celebration. The lives of thousands of hardworking law students have been transformed by their clinical education experience, and the clients those students assisted will always remember them. For anyone curious about this journey, as a clinician who has taught at the Law School for most of those 50 years—and steered the program for almost 40 of them—let me be your guide through our history.
A Personal History
In 1976, the Law School hired me, a 28-year-old criminal defense attorney, to teach its first in-house program, a criminal defense clinic in Brooklyn Criminal Court. The Law School had only recently moved away from a New York State–oriented curriculum with no electives, as well as into a new building at 250 Joralemon Street. Students had agitated for an in-house clinic, arguing not only that they wanted practical experience before graduation, but also, in the middle of the activist 1970s, that they wanted programs that addressed social issues. Once they had additional support from a few faculty members, then- Dean Raymond Lisle, a true traditionalist, gave in to their demand. With this major step, Brooklyn Law School became an early adopter of clinical education.

Even with that faculty backing, I always suspected that some of my colleagues did not really understand the program—one of them praised clinics for teaching students what line to stand on to file papers in court. In reality, our students were in the front of the courtroom every day: speaking on the record, representing clients, negotiating dispositions, and even conducting hearings and trials.

The 1980s and 1990s were a period of rapid growth for the program in all respects, accomplished with solid backing from Dean David Trager and considerable outside funding from federal, state, and local grantors, as clinical education found acceptance and support nationwide. We took advantage of that support to grow and experiment, increasing the size of the clinical faculty, providing them with job security, and adding programs taught by enthusiastic adjuncts. We started our flagship Federal Litigation Clinic, provided legal services to the elderly, assisted asylum seekers and consumer debtors, and introduced our students to mediation.

Professor Caplow with students
The new millennium saw even more new hires and extensions into new areas of work, mostly transactional and business related, including the Securities Arbitration Clinic, the Corporate Real Estate Clinic, the Community Development Clinic, and the Brooklyn Law Innovation & Policy (BLIP) Clinic. More recently, we have sustained our momentum, adding the LGBT Advocacy, Criminal Defense & Advocacy, and Disability and Civil Rights clinics.

Even though Brooklyn Law School clinics have been around for 50 years, we are still maturing and growing, attesting to the eternal energy and unceasingly inventive spirit of our program and the people who teach in it. In addition to in-house clinics, our extensive externships take our students throughout the metropolitan area and beyond, where their off-campus work is supported by a creative and demanding seminar curriculum.

Our clinic students are everywhere, impressing judges, co-counsel, and adversaries with their preparedness, skill, poise, and dedication.
Breaking a Path
From the earliest days, Brooklyn Law School’s clinicians have taken leadership roles in the movement to transform legal education. That original generation soldiered for decades to persuade our institutions of the benefits of learning from and through practice. Slowly, resistance crumbled as our voices were heard in law reviews (especially the innovative Clinical Law Review), on academic panels, at law schools outside the United States, and in activities in our respective legal communities.

Like education in other applied fields, such as medicine, legal education now has distinct features—theoretical and practical—that are both separate and overlapping. It is safe to say that, now, no law school can survive competitively without a robust clinical legal education program. Many doctrinal faculty members, once clinic students themselves, recognize the value of more active learning, addressing an issue “in role,” and translating rules and theory into living documents with a purpose.

Yet even after its near-universal acceptance, the value of a clinical education was misperceived as the teaching of only practical skills such as interviewing, counseling, and witness examination. This ignored all of the other learning that was taking place, such as problem solving, planning, case theory development, fact investigation, decision making, resilience, parallel thinking, and dealing with difference. In addition, all students benefit from the experience of taking responsibility while working in a safe setting where they can take their time and learn from their missteps.

Our students do not follow identical career paths; we are not training “housing lawyers,” “employment lawyers,” or “immigration lawyers.” A highly supervised, reflective learning experience is transformative regardless of the specific careers our students pursue. We hope to inculcate solid work habits, encourage questioning minds, and implant values that make our students thoughtful, respectful, empathic, and generous lawyers.

Our Social Responsibility
Our original clinics, like many throughout the country, were founded to provide greater access to justice for the poor and disenfranchised. Today, our programs are much more wide-ranging, presenting opportunities for students to work with a broad array of clients, entities, and nongovernmental organizations, but that core mission has never wavered. Our programs always have been and will continue to be committed to advocating for change in basic human and civil rights.

We try to ensure that every student will have a meaningful educational experience that will further their professional growth. We retain our commitment to both finding legal solutions for our clients and inculcating in our students a lifelong sense of their social responsibility to question what they see and encounter, to advocate to achieve client goals, and to do so ethically.

Regardless of the subject matter of the particular clinic, our students must relate to clients with very different backgrounds and problems, both legal and nonlegal. They are taught to treat our clients with dignity and empathy, and understand circumstances outside of their personal experience. Our students go to prisons and jails, to clients’ homes and neighborhoods, to hospitals and nursing homes. There, they see the origins of legal problems, learn the roles that a lawyer can play, and, sometimes, learn how to step back and help from the sidelines as needed.

Taking Pleasure in the Work
Clinical teaching is the best law job imaginable. We work in areas about which we are passionate and expert, while passing along our knowledge to our students, whom we then can watch develop and flourish. We spend hours with our students (sometimes on our computers in the middle of the night) brainstorming, strategizing, examining facts, learning law, managing systems, working collaboratively, writing, and revising. It is very difficult to delegate the responsibility of a case or project to inexperienced students—perhaps the hardest lesson for a new clinical teacher—but the satisfaction of measuring a student’s progress over the semester is well worth this stress. So is the satisfaction of knowing that we sometimes set our students on the track of “doing well by doing good,” as many of them go on to work in nonprofit settings or perform considerable pro bono work in their private practices.

As the Law School celebrates 50 years of clinical education in 2020, I see a solid, mature program that continues to grow. Students who worked in our earliest clinics in the 1970s and early 1980s might not recognize the variety and sophistication of our programs today, but our core is steadfast. We help ensure that our graduates become conscientious, caring, and competent attorneys, while making the world a better place—at least legally—for the people we help.

Imagining the future is not very difficult, as long as we continue to provide a place for students to learn the skills and values of our profession and to address and respond to the never-ending lack of legal resources in our community in innovative ways. We can celebrate this impressive past and look forward to years more of exciting accomplishments.

* To give our former faculty members, some of whom moved on to teach at other law schools, their due, they include Gary Schultze ’68 (the true parent of clinics at Brooklyn Law School), Natalie Chin, Elizabeth Cooper, Melissa Crow, Ted De Barbieri ’08, Mary Jo Eyster, Hon. Mark Finkelstein, Jane Greengold, Jeffrey Heller, Jane Landry-Reyes ’93, Donna Lee, Andrea Panjwani, Olga Perez, Michael Martin, Dan Medwed, Amy Mulzer, Carmen Maria Rey ’06, Lisa Smith, Dan Smulian, Kathleen Sullivan, Karen van Ingen, and Marjorie White.
Stacy Caplow headshot
Professor Stacy Caplow is the Law School’s first associate dean of experiential education, overseeing all aspects of clinical and experiential education. She teaches courses in criminal law and immigration, and codirects the Safe Harbor Project.

She has been the president of the Clinical Legal Education Association and served on the board of editors of the Clinical Law Review. She is a member of the Judge Robert A. Katzmann New York Immigrant Representation Study Group and has served as a peer reviewer for the U.S. Fulbright Commission. She has consulted on clinical education with law schools in Hong Kong, Ireland, and former Soviet countries.

Caplow previously served as Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Civil Division in the Eastern District of New York, and as director of training and chief of the criminal court bureau in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office. She was also a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society.