Conference Looks At Growing Pains for Human Rights Clinicians

March 6, 2008 (NEW YORK) - When Columbia founded its human rights clinic ten years ago, it was one of a few such clinics in the country. Propelled by growing student interest, the number of clinics has grown since then. On March 1, Columbia Law School hosted the Annual Human Rights Clinicians Conference.
 "What began as an informal gathering of five or six of us, scratching our heads and struggling to define our place in law school education,”, “has become a sophisticated gathering of practitioners exchanging experiences and pushing the field in new directions,” said Professor Peter Rosenblum, who directs the CLS Clinic.
The event was co-sponsored by the human rights clinics at NYU and Fordham. About 35 clinical professors spent the day in engaged discussion; informal panels ran like conversations; discussion was swift and free-ranging.
The theme of this year’s conference was “The Client to Cause Continuum.” “We wanted to get beyond potentially sterile arguments about whether human rights clinics needed to be either client or cause-driven,” said Rosenblum. “In truth, there is almost always a combination of both.”
The first panel raised the difficulties of balancing clients’ needs with “serving the cause,” an act complicated by clients who are often thousands of miles away, have legitimate fears of testifying, or are engaged in struggles entirely separate from the case at hand.  Speakers deconstructed the notion of “the client,” when cases involve individual plaintiffs or defendants, who represent a local organization or community that is part of a larger human rights conflict with differing agendas at each level. Some participants insisted that “the students are our main clients,” while others stressed their allegiance to human rights advocacy in the larger sense, and teaching accordingly.
Student training presents its own complications: teaching the widest possible set of skills while providing students a sense of ownership in their projects, again given distant clients, linguistic and cultural barriers, and students’ practical limits. The consensus was that clients and causes are not an either/or proposition, but a fluid dynamic that, properly managed, enhances pedagogical opportunities.
One of the most engaged sessions addressed the ethical issues that arise in human rights clinical work. Rosenblum said the field lacks a common, coherent set of rules governing human rights advocacy outside litigation. Panelists suggested the uses of different rule models from journalism, social science research, and health and business institutions, as well as employing a variety of written agreements with partnering organizations.
One participant observed that ethical issues can’t be avoided; they should be confronted directly, and students should be involved as much as possible. Carrie Bettinger-Lopez, a lecturer and fellow at the CLS Human Rights Institute, described a complex simulation based on years of work in the Dominican Republic in which she had participated, first, as a student and later as an instructor.
The final panel reflected on the evolution of human rights clinics as part of the rise of clinical teaching at law schools and within the growth of human rights law as an important part of law school curricula. 
Panelists also discussed opportunities to share ideas and learn from other clinics whose areas overlap with human rights, and wondered what role human rights clinics might play in the current move to broaden law school teaching beyond a strict litigation model to embrace other aspects of legal advocacy.
Jim Freeman is a lawyer and freelance writer.