WASHINGTON — George Mason University law student Matthew Long still has three months of schoolwork before graduation, but this week he and two classmates had a case before the Supreme Court.
The group of students is part of a new class dedicated to Supreme Court work at the Fairfax, Va., school. Nationwide, more than half a dozen law schools offer similar courses.
The students don't get to argue the cases. They aren't even lawyers yet. But students participating in the so-called Supreme Court clinics get do everything else: research issues, draft briefs and consult with the lawyer actually presenting the case to the high court.
"We're all very much aware that you can go your entire legal career without ever being on a case before this court, and it's unbelievable that we'd have this experience as law students," Long, 26, said as he stood outside the Supreme Court after Monday's arguments in a case about a man in prison for murder in Colorado and time limits involved in his case.
Stanford University started the first Supreme Court clinic for students in 2004 and is still involved in the most cases. But schools with clinics now include Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Virginia and the University of Texas. In the past three years, clinics report that students have been involved in about 1 out of every 6 cases argued before the court. This week, students are participating in two of the court's cases.
"We now run into situations more often where we contact somebody, or somebody contacts us, and they are talking to other clinics as well," said Jeffrey Fisher, the co-director of the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, who will argue before the court Tuesday as part of a case his students worked on.
Fisher and other instructors who run law school clinics say their classes have helped raise the quality of arguments before the court and clinics offer something big law firms can't. They are willing to get involved in disputes against big businesses, for example. And enthusiastic students can take on time-consuming tasks that would run up costs for a law firm, such as reviewing every state's policy on an issue or scouring hundreds of pages of law for the way a single word is used. There's another factor that can make clinics attractive to potential clients: Their help comes free.
Students don't do the work alone.
Each clinic is supervised, usually by a professor or a lawyer at a firm with extensive Supreme Court experience. Students, for their part, may work to identify lower court cases that they believe the Supreme Court will be interested in reviewing. When a clinic takes a case, students may then draft petitions asking the court to hear the case and, if the case is accepted, research and help craft legal briefs for the court.
"One thing we've told students from the very start is, 'You should approach this like a job,'" said Thomas McCarthy, a partner at a Washington law firm who graduated from George Mason and now oversees its clinic with a colleague, William Consovoy.
Clients, meanwhile, have been happy with the help. Texas resident Doug Spector sued a cruise ship company in a case that reached the Supreme Court in 2005. He said he viewed the Stanford students who worked on his case like medical students who study under and assist a doctor.
Colorado Solicitor General Dan Domenico, who got help from George Mason's clinic for his case this week, said using the students' assistance doubled the manpower he had on the case, and he ultimately wound up giving the students and their professors more work than he anticipated.
"I think these clinics can really provide a service to those of us who don't spend the bulk of our time concentrating on the Supreme Court," Domenico said.
What matters to the clients most, though, is winning their case. Fisher, the co-director of Stanford's clinic, argues in an upcoming law review article that parties who have the help of a clinic or law firm that specializes in Supreme Court advocacy are almost twice as likely to win their cases than parties that don't.
Still, clinics have potential pitfalls. New York University law professor Nancy Morawetz has pointed out that the increased competition between law firms and clinics for the 70 to 90 cases the court hears each year can have negative consequences. The rush to land clients can mean less time by those law firms or clinics spent assessing a case and more reluctance to coordinate with other lawyers, she wrote in a recent law review article.
"It has an ambulance-chasing quality to it," Morawetz said of the competition for cases.
Morawetz said clinics can offer immense value, but she also questions the wisdom of focusing on the Supreme Court, an institution students already spend a lot of time studying in law school.
For law schools with clinics, however, there's a prestige that comes with being able to say their students worked on a case before the high court. And the experience is unique.
"There's no other place in the legal curriculum where students are put up against the best people in the country on the most cutting-edge issues of law," said Dan Ortiz, a law professor at the University of Virginia and co-director of its clinic, which was involved in four cases before the court in the last year.
Students uniformly praise the experience as one of the best they've had in law school, a chance to polish their legal writing and persuasion skills. Winn Allen, who participated in the University of Virginia's clinic during 2007 and 2008, said it was satisfying to watch a case he'd worked on be argued before the court and seeing the justices grapple with the same issues students had. Rose Leda Ehler, a student currently in Stanford's clinic, called the clinic "the most useful experience" she's had in law school.
Corey Carpenter, 25, one of the students involved in George Mason's clinic, said he does see one potential downside in participating in the clinic: going back to ordinary cases after getting a taste of the Supreme Court.