Editorials: Law Student Volunteers And The Unauthorized Practice of Law

The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Law students from all three of Connecticut's law schools currently provide volunteer assistance in the New Haven and Hartford Superior Courts to self-represented individuals seeking domestic violence protective orders. This is a valuable service to the applicants and to the courts, helping to insure that applications for temporary restraining orders (TROs) are properly prepared, and that applicants are informed about what they need to do to have their orders served by marshals and about the court process after the respondents are served.

In performing this service, law students meet with prospective applicants for TROs, explain the process to them, and assist them in preparing applications and supporting affidavits. The students are not authorized to provide legal advice, but they do assure that applicants allege sufficient facts in their affidavits to support the issuance of an ex parte order, answer applicants' questions about the law and legal procedure and, in so doing, may unintentionally cross the line between providing clerical assistance and giving legal advice.

Connecticut's law student internship rules permit law students certified by their law schools to perform a variety of legal tasks "under supervision by a member of the Connecticut bar." However, the volunteer law students assisting domestic violence victims are not supervised by members of the bar, so their volunteer assistance is not covered by the student practice rule.

The Connecticut Rules of Court define the practice of law as "ministering to the legal needs of another person and applying legal principles and judgment to the circumstances or objectives of that person," which includes giving advice concerning legal rights and drafting legal documents. While the volunteer assistance provided by law students in domestic violence cases has been treated as "clerical" in nature, and thus exempt from the prohibition against unauthorized practice of law, the "clerical" exemption may not extend far enough to cover the services that law student volunteers are actually providing to the individuals they assist. For that reason, we recommend that the judges provide a safe harbor for law student volunteers by adding an exception to those already provided in Practice Book Section 2-44A(b) stating unequivocally that the advice and drafting assistance provided to self-represented applicants for domestic violence protective orders by volunteer law students is a permissible activity.

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    As a law student many years ago at Northeastern, I participated in the Domestic Violence Advocacy Project, which was a clinical program, and did similar work helping victims of domestic violence obtain restraining orders. We were supervised by the law professor in charge of the clinical program, who was admitted to practice law in Massachusetts. Our supervision by an admitted attorney was a critical part of the teaching process and provided the support we needed to advocate effectively. Respectfully, this is the piece that appears to be missing here in CT, not an exception to the Practice Book. In my view, if these students are doing an internship, they need to be supervised by someone who is guiding their internship, and that person needs to be admitted to the bar.

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