Alan Lerner profile

Teaches law students to practice law

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that 2 University of Pennsylvania law students, Bruce Bellingham and Jeffrey Powell, scored a million-dollar verdict for a client – the day after graduation. The case involved Herbert Smith, an airport sky cap, who claimed age discrimination by a former employer.

It may have been the legal victory of their life. They were participating in Penn Legal Assistance, a clinical program at the Law School, in which students represent clients under the close and direct supervision of faculty members.

“Our students really get front-line responsibility to represent people,” says Alan Lerner, C ‘62, Law ‘65, practice associate professor of law. “They experience what it is to have responsibility for someone’s important matter. And that’s not an intellectual experience. It’s an emotional experience.

“Whether students are handling a custody matter, litigating a serious dispute or helping someone start a business, students in the clinical program need to use all their intelligence and all their theory and doctrine.”

School classes, even graduate-school classes, teach theory more than practice. That’s why colleges and graduate programs offer – or require – internships and externships. Medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, social work and education have long required such on-the-job training. Starting in the 1970s, law schools joined the trend.

Today most law schools across the country – including Penn’s – offer “clinical programs.” In a typical recent clinical course, students handled a custody case that had been pending for five years. They represented the child’s legal custodian against the natural father, winning primary custody for their client. The mother was not involved.

In another situation, after 8 depositions, students won $35,000 for a client in a civil rights case.

About 40 percent of law students take the elective “clinical,” primarily those in their third (and final) year. Why only 40 percent? According to Lerner, the academic rigors of the clinicals are “enormously demanding,” earning 5 or 7 credits per course. Besides, some clinical courses are so appealing and popular that there’s not enough room for all the students who want to attend.

In addition to the Penn Legal Assistance program, Penn also offers 2 other kinds of experiential programs, whereas most schools offer only one kind.

Penn’s 3 clinical programs

Penn offers simulation, such as moot court and trial advocacy, which is the most common form of clinical program, with students learning from fictional cases.

And Penn also offers externships, in which students work under the supervision of community attorneys. Penn students take externships at the National Labor Relations Board, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, the Environmental Protection Agency and the general counsel of the hospital.

The Penn Legal Assistance program is the most unusual of the 3. Clients tend to seek student representation because “they can’t afford the kind of lawyering they need,” Lerner says, either in areas of litigation or in transactional matters.

Judges, court administrators, Social Security administrators, Community Legal Services, the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Volunteers for the Indigent Program (VIP), and the Wharton Small Business Development Center are among those who refer clients to Penn law students.

Lerner frequently quotes a student who said, “I got a really good grade in evidence, but I learned evidence in the clinic.” Learning the theory differs from practicing law.

Practical property law

Students are currently handling this case: A nonprofit agency (let’s call it FLASH) runs a program for addicted and formerly addicted prison inmates. FLASH is involved in a dispute with the city and the Redevelopment Authority over access to the property where it runs the program.

“It gets more complicated,” says Lerner.

Law students interviewed the clients to gain a complete and accurate understanding of the history of the case, the work FLASH does, the transaction that gave FLASH access to the property, the city’s and Redevelopment Authority’s role in approving the transfer of the property from the estate of a former private owner, the goals of the client.

While the students may have learned about laws of property transfer and rights, they had not learned in class about a municipal program that allows the transfer of private property to a nonprofit organization free and clear of liens. So the students learned it in the clinical.


“They develop a legally viable theory by which they can institute a law suit and get a court to enforce what they believe are the rights of their client,” Lerner says. “The students also prepare and file a complaint in federal court, prepare and argue a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent demotion, then enter into settlement negotiations with the city and the redevelopment agency. They have to make sure to cross all the Ts and dot all the Is.”

So what makes this case different from a case presented in classroom T145? Everything. In class, students discuss a case from the law books, trying to tease out the legal theory that applies. In the clinical, the case is real, not hypothetical. The combatants have a substantial stake in the outcome and some of the cases have precedent-setting potential. “They’re trying to create the future,” says Lerner, trying not to sound overly dramatic – though his enthusiasm is contagious.

Students on the FLASH case have studied property law, civil procedures, constitutional law and civil rights law. They might have taken a course simulating negotiation. But, says Lerner, “They would have taken no course that would have integrated all of that. They would not have had a situation that would have them spending hours with their clients, in an organization setting, deciding who speaks for the client, what theories and strategies will achieve those goals, and what happens if they choose a strategy or theory that doesn’t work.

“They have taken no course that teaches them to stand up and address two federal judges to convince not to throw them out of court.” Only in the clinical programs do they get on-the-job preparation for practicing law.

This profile appeared in the University of Pennsylvania’s Compass. Lerner died in 2010.