Students provide impetus for Paralegal Clinic
Even before he was appointed, Dr. Kurt Hohenstein had already identified one of his top agenda items were he named director of the paralegal program at Winona State University.
During his interviews for the position, Hohenstein heard from a group of students who were emphatic about putting their legal training to good use with local organizations and projects. Hohenstein got the director's job, and he got the students' message. One of his first priorities in his first year has been to establish the WSU Paralegal Clinic, where students will be able to volunteer their time and legal expertise in a variety of community-based settings.
Using a modest grant from Winona State's Learning for the 21st Century initiative, Hohenstein has arranged agreements with three groups: the National Child Protection Training Center, which provides education for child protection attorneys and other professionals; Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, a legal service for low income families and senior citizens; and Latinos Unidos, an agency that assists new immigrants and refugees in Winona.
Students will be able to volunteer at the three southeastern Minnesota organizations during the upcoming academic year. While Hohenstein worked to make the volunteer opportunities available, he makes it clear that the idea for the Paralegal Clinic is student driven. "A core group of students wants to be more engaged," he says. "They want to show the community that they can help, that they can provide something useful."
The Paralegal Clinic fits well within WSU's Learning for the 21st Century. The initiative, in part, promotes active, interdisciplinary learning experiences and collaborative relationships with partners in the larger university community. After two years of study and planning, Learning for the 21st Century is now in the expansion and implementation phase with programs like the Paralegal Clinic.
For students, the commitment will be significant. Winona State's paralegal program already requires four years to earn the degree, while many other programs can take from several weeks to two years. That's because WSU's program, one of the few accredited by the American Bar Association, requires rigorous preparation in technical and professional skills, plus a firm grounding in the humanities. Courses include intellectual and cultural history, political science, constitutional law and sociology.
There's also a required capstone experience. Students must complete a 12-week, 480-hour internship that takes place in a legal setting, along with a portfolio documenting their experiences.
Hours spent in the Paralegal Clinic will be in addition to the capstone experience, and don't carry any formal academic credit. But Hohenstein thinks the time will be well spent, and provide a tremendous advantage for his students.
For example, students will spend time at the National Child Protection Training Center preparing state statute summaries for publication on the organization's web site, compiling information for teaching and seminar programs and researching answers for the thousands of questions submitted each year to the center.
"Our staff is relatively small, so the assistance we get from WSU students is valuable," said Victor Vieth, Director of the National Child Protection Training Center. "In turn, the students are exposed to a national organization, and their work has an impact across the country."
Hohenstein explained that the program's required capstone experience has focused on working in the typical law firm. "The Paralegal Clinic will give students a broader perspective show them that there are more options and other career paths in the legal profession. They're probably not going to get that kind of experience in a typical legal office," he said.
Vieth agrees that students can experience other aspects of legal work. "Some of these students will eventually become involved in child protection law, so they'll be getting valuable experience working on these issues here," he said.
There's the practical side of working, too, that Hohenstein thinks students can learn. "The organization will decide how to use them, not us. We're here for support, but they'll have to be independent. It will be up to the student to arrange the project, negotiate a schedule, all the things that you might encounter at work and in the real world."
Picking up legal experience, such as researching the law, writing briefs or managing cases, and exploring career paths is important. But Hohenstein thinks that his students are really driven to show what they know, and contributing to a good cause. "I've found that students want to show that they're good, and that they can do good things," said Hohenstein.
"The law is not simply pushing papers in an attorney's office," said Hohenstein. "There's a human component, too. They'll face that as they work with real organizations, maybe organizations that they never realized were in the community, organizations that have a real impact on people. They'll connect with people in different populations and situations that might be unfamiliar."
"It's real life. That's difficult to teach in the classroom," said Hohensten.
Hohenstein understands that the Paralegal Clinic is one more demand on students' already packed academic, work and social lives, but he's convinced that most understand that there's a higher obligation in the legal profession.
"Students have to figure it out themselves, to some extent. But we can give them the opportunities to find their place in the world, and not be just a good paralegal, but a good neighbor and a good citizen."