Dean Gillian Lester gave remarks to open the daylong conference.
History in the Making
Four Pioneers Trace the Origins of Clinical Education at Columbia Law School
Four groundbreaking legal educators returned to Columbia Law School recently as panelists to discuss one of the nation’s first clinical law programs. Their stories related a larger battle to change legal education at America’s law schools.
The panel discussion was the first session in a daylong conference, “Origins and Innovations: A Celebration of Clinics at Columbia Law School,” marking 45 years of clinical legal education. By teaching the law and lawyering in context, 10 Columbia Law School clinics continue to answer an often-desperate need for legal services and to cultivate the skills required for students to thrive in the practice of law.
The November 13 conference began with remarks by Alexandra Carter ’03, the director of clinical programs at the Law School (and a “proud alum” of the Mediation Clinic), and Dean Gillian Lester, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law.
“The development of clinics at Columbia Law School was a true breakthrough in legal education,” Lester said. “I can’t overstate this point. Clinics provided a laboratory for students to explore the practical aspects and the challenges of lawyering.
“Since those early clinics were established nearly five decades ago, Columbia’s clinical programs have continued to lead the way forward, and to do so at the highest levels of excellence and innovation. Not only have we established first-of-their-kind clinics in a number of cutting-edge areas—HIV/AIDS, gender and sexuality, the digital age—we continue to recruit clinicians of the highest caliber, all while staying true to the original mission of providing students with real-world experience,” she said.
A Breakthrough in Legal Education
The “founding four” clinicians were introduced by conference organizer Carol B. Liebman, a clinical professor at Columbia Law School who shortly after joining the faculty in 1992 co-founded the Mediation Clinic—which was among the first clinics on this subject in the nation. “But George Cooper really is the founding father” of clinical offerings at Columbia, Liebman said.
Cooper, who taught at the Law School from 1966 to 1985, had been hired as a tax specialist. “Dean [William] Warren thought I would help build a super tax department at Columbia,” he recalled. “He did not understand that he had hired a mole. Despite my tax expertise, what I really wanted to be was a civil rights lawyer and a reformer. But I had no idea I was going to participate in any curricular reform.”
His timing turned out to be fortuitous. “By 1968, the country was on fire,” said Cooper. Eight days before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Columbia students began to protest a University plan to build a multistory athletic facility in Morningside Park. Student protests mixed antiwar activists with opponents of the gymnasium.
(left to right) Professor Carol Liebman, George Cooper, Michael Meltsner, Philip Schrag, and Harriet Rabb ’66 speak as panelists.
“Because the University was taking part of a city park, they cut a deal to build a small gym at the bottom of the hill for the community,” Cooper said. “The symbolism of this—a big gym for us at the top of the hill, a little gym for you at the bottom—did not seem to be in the awareness of the Columbia administration, particularly the three-piece-suited Grayson Kirk, who was then president.” After an eight-day, five-building takeover by students, Kirk was eased out. “Efforts to repair relations with the community were now on the front burner,” said Cooper.
Cooper saw an opportunity to provide legal services to those living in the Harlem community. “We also wanted to reform legal education,” Cooper said. “Legal education was still stuck in an 1880s model of large classes and Socratic case-method dialogue. Nobody would suggest that for skills training. Medical schools had known [about the benefits of clinical instruction] for decades; it was time for law schools to move into the 20th century.”
Michael I. Sovern ’55, currently the Law School’s Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and president emeritus of Columbia University, had just been named the dean of Columbia Law School. “He was a true believer and a big supporter of reform,” said Cooper. “The stars were aligned, and when we submitted a formal proposal to create the Columbia Legal Assistance Resource in 1969, no member of the faculty—not even the most conservative—wanted to go on record opposing it.”
Michael Meltsner was the first clinician hired by Cooper in 1970. A graduate of Yale Law School, Meltsner ran Columbia’s first poverty law clinic. He had been an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where he worked on cases that led to the integration of Southern hospitals and the Supreme Court’s 1972 moratorium on the death penalty. He also represented Mohammad Ali in the lawsuit that allowed the boxer to return to the ring after refusing to serve in the military. From 1979 until 1984, Meltsner served as the dean of Northeastern University Law School.
“Clinical legal education was forcing a deeply ideological divide in law schools,” Meltsner said. “I still remember the skepticism of some on the faculty. They didn’t really know what we were doing.”
And, in some cases, neither did the clinicians. While Meltsner admits to, in some instances, “making it up as we went along,” he also fondly recalls “the pleasure and the novelty that the first clinicians brought to legal education.”
“After all of these years, I still remember the excitement of working with the people on this stage, and the students were truly remarkable, as demonstrated by the incredible, brilliant careers they’ve had,” Meltsner said. “When we started, there were less than 50 clinical law teachers in the United States. When I looked at the [Association of American Law Schools] directory last year, I counted 1,452.”
The third member of the “founding four,” Philip G. Schrag, now directs Georgetown’s Center for Applied Legal Studies. He had been an attorney with Meltsner at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, and he would later work for the Carter administration as deputy general counsel of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Schrag noted that the Ford Foundation was an overlooked player in the development of clinical legal education at Columbia Law School and elsewhere. “Over a 10-year period, through a Ford spin-off called CLEPR, the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility, the foundation gave $11 million to law schools to create clinical programs,” said Schrag, whose recollections then took the form of rhyming couplets:
“They knew how to change things in a flash. / All they had to do was offer cash.” Cooper “went to CLEPR for its funding cycle. / Within a year, his faculty had Michael. / I came next, while CLEPR paid the tab. / Columbia kept going, adding Rabb.”
(Read Philip G. Schrag's entire poem titled, “45 years of Clinical Education on Morningside Heights.”)
At Cooper’s invitation, Harriet S. Rabb ’66 joined the clinical program at Columbia Law School in 1971 and taught the Law School’s clinical seminar on fair employment law with him. “I later co-taught that clinic with Howard Rubin ’72,” she said. “For many years, we were a great team. The cases we brought were largely class actions for working women.”
In 1972 Rabb became the assistant dean of urban affairs, the first woman dean at Columbia Law School. “Earlier that same year, the first woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, and the first African-American, Kellis Parker, became members of the Law School faculty. Things at Columbia were going to change.”
Significant Class-action Lawsuits
In bringing class-action discrimination suits against employers, Rabb was portrayed in the press as “the notorious radical feminist whiz-kid and conqueror of corporate giants,” said Liebman, reading from one account. “So the Notorious RBG has nothing on Harriet. But Harriet’s not only a conqueror—she’s also a builder. She co-founded and co-directed five different clinical offerings: The Employment Rights Project, the Big Apple Clinic, the Immigration Law Clinic, the Education Law Project, and the Fair Housing Clinic. She presided over the growth of clinics at Columbia for 20 years, before leaving to be general counsel of HHS in the Clinton administration, and she’s currently vice president and general counsel at Rockefeller University.”
Harriet Rabb ’66 discussed Columbia Law School's achievements in clinical legal education, including a 1972 discrimination case.
Rabb took obvious delight in recalling the clinics’ significant achievements. She recounted a 1972 discrimination case involving 50 women at Newsweek magazine. “The settlement one year later secured management’s commitment to hiring and assigning goals and the appointment of a woman to editorial management,” she said. “We’re lucky to have the lead plaintiff here.” That plaintiff, Lynn Povich, recently wrote a book about the Columbia case, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. Her book is now being turned into a streaming television series on Amazon.
Another 1972 case was filed by the clinical students and Rabb on behalf of 2,200 women employed by the New York Telephone Company. “Women held 98 percent of the lowest management jobs, while men held 80 percent of the top management jobs,” said Rabb. The company settled the following year. One of the named plaintiffs, Jane E. Booth ’76, managed hundreds of telephone operators, but her supervisor told her that women were not cut out for higher management positions. “Jane did well,” Rabb pointed out. “She is currently the general counsel of Columbia University.”
In 1971, Rabb and her students focused on discriminatory hiring practices at New York City’s biggest law firms. “The 50 largest law firms employed 3,900 lawyers; 161 of those lawyers were women,” Rabb said. “Of 1,400 partners in those firms, nine were women.” Women law students at Columbia and NYU decided to record their job interviews and bring suit, if necessary. “We settled most of our claims, but then we took two of the firms to federal court.” Those two firms eventually settled, too, in 1974 and 1977. Rabb recalled two other successful clinic class actions filed by women at Reader’s Digest and The New York Times.
“All these cases engaged students in every aspect of litigation, except for appearing in court as counsel for the plaintiff class,” Rabb said. Other clinics, she noted, were different: Students in the Immigration Law and Fair Housing clinics did it all, counseling their clients and representing them at administrative hearings. Students participating in the Education Law Project researched and drafted papers that were delivered to policy makers.
“When I left Columbia Law School to go into the federal government, the clinical program was wonderfully staffed, offering a wide variety of modes of operation and addressing a wide set of issues,” Rabb said. “Clinical colleagues were finally recognized and well-regarded for their role in our students’ education. So almost a quarter-century of clinical experimentation had proven important to the Law School—and immensely, personally important and rewarding for all of us because of our student colleagues, who taught us as we taught them.”
View a timeline of the history of clinical education at Columbia Law School.