Science, Health, and Information Clinic

Columbia Law’s Science, Health, and Information Clinic serves the public interest by fighting for—and winning—more equitable access to scientific, technical, and medical knowledge and to the benefits that flow from that knowledge.

The Science, Health, and Information Clinic strives to address legal needs unmet by public interest legal organizations and other law school clinics. Students, under faculty supervision, provide pro bono legal services to activists and organizers, scientific and medical researchers, patient and consumer groups, nonprofit organizations, and other clients. 

The Science, Health, and Information Clinic was founded in 2021 by Associate Clinical Professor of Law Chris Morten.

Exemplary organizations that Chris and his past clinic students have partnered with and represented include Public Citizen, Doctors Without Borders, and the Open Source Hardware Association. The clinic has ongoing attorney-client relationships with PrEP4All, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, T1International USA, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other nonprofit, advocacy, and activist groups committed to equitable access to health care, to technology, and to the fruits of scientific research.

Student Experiences and Outcomes

The Science, Health, and Information Clinic provides Columbia Law students with rich, hands-on lawyering experience representing these clients. The clinic endeavors to nurture ethical, creative, and independent student attorneys prepared to practice in emerging areas of law, science, and technology—areas that are increasingly critical to our economy, our society, and our health. 

Student attorneys:

  • Own their projects and become their clients’ primary points of contact. 
  • Work directly with their clients to help them define and achieve their goals. 
  • Learn to use a wide array of legal tools to meet their clients’ legal needs. These include client counseling; research and advocacy to legislators, policymakers, and the broader public; litigation; amicus briefs; petitions and comments to administrative agencies; licenses and other contracts; and Freedom of Information Act requests. 
  • Are immersed in the many doctrines of law that shape science, health, and information, including intellectual property law, data privacy law, administrative and regulatory law, health law, and freedom of information law. 

In the Field

The Science, Health, and Information Clinic’s “fieldwork” is its work for clients, in the real world of law and policy. Fieldwork is student-led, under faculty supervision. Student attorneys in the clinic fully inhabit the role of the lawyer, gaining real-world experience. For example, they:

  • Interview clients to understand their values and goals.
  • Help clients develop and implement a long-term legal strategy. 
  • Advise clients on key decisions.
  • Organize and lead meetings with clients, policymakers, and civil society coalitions.
  • Conduct factual and legal research, writing, editing, negotiating, filing, planning, oral advocacy, and other day-to-day work the fieldwork project entails. 

Every semester, the clinic takes on a diverse set of fieldwork projects that offers students broad exposure to different areas of science, technology, law, and policy, even as student attorneys immerse themselves deeply in one or two projects of their own. Students are matched to their fieldwork projects based on their personal interests and career goals. 

In most semesters, approximately half of the clinic’s students work with clients on fieldwork projects that involve health and health law and seek to advance health justice. Other students’ fieldwork projects span the wider world of science and technology; they apply tools from intellectual property, data privacy, regulatory, and other doctrines of “tech law” from a social justice perspective.

The clinic is a member of the Free Expression Legal Network (FELN), part of the informal community of “tech clinics” at law schools throughout the United States and Canada, and a partner of the Initiative for a Representative First Amendment (IfRFA). The clinic draws some of its clients and fieldwork projects from these networks.

Every fieldwork project begins from square one and assumes no specific substantive knowledge beyond 1L courses. Students must lawyer creatively and courageously—there is usually no blueprint, no playbook to follow. This can be challenging as well as liberating. Students quickly mature from novices into experts on fast-moving, timely issues. Students set their individual learning goals at the beginning of each semester and reflect frequently on their progress as they experiment, practice, and grow.

Exemplary fieldwork projects and areas of focus are outlined below.

Increasing access to medicines, vaccines, diagnostics, and other medical technologies.

In prior years, students have worked with Morten to:

  • Collaborate with PrEP4All to advocate that the U.S. government bring a first-of-its-kind patent infringement lawsuit against a brand-name drug company to recoup public investment in HIV research.
  • Challenge, on behalf of PrEP4All, a drug company’s efforts to extend its patent monopoly on HIV prevention medication by filing an administrative petition at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
  • Work with PrEP4All to publish a practical white paper that explains how federal policymakers could employ a long-standing but neglected federal statute—28 U.S.C. § 1498—to use privately held patents on the public’s behalf and thereby lower drug prices.
  • Publish a report that analyzes a foundational patent on coronavirus vaccines owned by the U.S. government and advocates assertion of the patent to increase global access to COVID-19 vaccines. 
     

Discouraging harmful uses of science and technology.

In prior years, students have worked with Morten to:

  • Counsel ml5.js, maintainers of an open-source machine learning library, on the development of an open-source IP license and an associated living code of conduct, to discourage discriminatory and other harmful uses of artificial intelligence.
  • Submit a comment to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identifying a gap in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule that subjects transgender, HIV-positive, and other people to discrimination in health care.
     

Expanding open science, data sharing, and public access to valuable scientific, technical, and medical information.

In prior years, students have worked with Morten to:

In the Classroom

Clinic students attend twice-weekly seminars, which bridge theory and practice. Seminars prepare students for their fieldwork and for legal work after graduation. They focus on how to practice law as it exists today as well as how to reshape and use law to make society healthier, fairer, and more just.

The seminars include lectures on substantive law topics (often to provide a foundation for fieldwork); student-led presentations on emerging problems in science, technology, and information; and simulations and problem-solving workshops. 

Many seminars feature informal case rounds where student attorneys share triumphs and challenges in their fieldwork projects and brainstorm through questions as a group. Other seminars focus on lawyers’ rules of professional responsibility and explore deeper ethical questions—for example, what exactly is the public interest, and who speaks on its behalf? Seminars also invite guest speakers, who may be drawn from the worlds of journalism, activism, scientific research, government, and public interest legal organizations. 

Information for Student Applicants

The Science, Health, and Information Clinic is a one-semester, 7-credit clinic. Students taking the clinic must register for both the seminar component (3 credits) and fieldwork component (4 credits). The one-semester clinic fully satisfies Columbia Law School’s experiential credit requirement for JD students.

The clinic has two and only two prerequisites:

  1. Students must be curious about science, technology, information governance, and/or health care in some way.
  2. Students must be excited to represent clients who are committed to fighting for the public interest—as defined in diverse ways—in areas of law and policy where corporate and government interests often predominate. 

The clinic seeks to expand ideas of what science and technology law is and who counts as science and technology lawyers. To support that mission, no special degrees or work experience are required, and neither is any experience with any particular area of law. There are no pre- or corequisite courses. (Of course, students with work or educational experience in science, engineering, technology, public health, and health care are welcome to apply.) 

All clinic students, regardless of background, are encouraged to draw on their personal experiences with science, technology, and health care. 

Students in the clinic are paired with clients and placed on fieldwork projects based on their personal preferences. Students can, for example, request a health-related or non-health related project, or litigation- or non-litigation-focused project, and so on.

Interested Columbia Law School students should apply through the school’s standard process for experiential learning courses. The clinic does not normally conduct interviews. Applicants are encouraged to use the standard application form to articulate their personal goals and how the clinic might serve those goals.

To learn more, contact Director and Associate Clinical Professor of Law Chris Morten.

Additional Information for Prospective Clients

Individuals and organizations seeking legal help from the clinic should contact Director and Associate Clinical Professor of Law Chris Morten.

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