The Spartan Way

Michigan State’s many legal clinics assist residents all over the state

Published in 2011 Michigan Super Lawyers Magazine — September 2011

Few states have been hit as hard by the economic downswing as Michigan. That’s why the helping hand extended by Michigan State University College of Law students, through an impressive assortment of legal clinics and outreach programs, is particularly welcomed by the community. 

“We’re just kind of at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of economic prosperity,” says Michele LaForest Halloran, director of the law school’s clinical programs, of her home state. “We’ve had huge unemployment rates. People are really suffering here, not only from foreclosure but from unemployment.” 

So Halloran located an old bookmobile at the Kalamazoo County Public Library and had it converted last year to a mobile law clinic. Students now traverse the Great Lakes State bringing legal services to residents who can’t make the trip to East Lansing.  

The law school also expanded its housing clinic over the past year. Once focused mainly on evictions and landlord-tenant and security-deposit disputes, the clinic now reaches out to homeowners facing foreclosure. There is no shortage of these cases:  “an overabundance, unfortunately, in Michigan,” Halloran says.

Also in 2011, MSU’s law school launched a civil rights clinic at the request of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in Grand Rapids. Its mission is to assist prisoners with civil rights claims related to the conditions of their confinement. In one case, an inmate was not allowed to call his family, even if he prepaid for the call. In another, a prisoner alleged that excessive force by guards aggravated a neck condition, which then required surgery.

In addition to helping clients, the new clinic gives students much-needed courtroom experience. “While other clinical programs have some sort of trial involvement, these are highly sophisticated trials in federal district court,” says Halloran. “To be able to put that on your resume, and to garner the skills associated with doing that—it’s a tremendous boon to the students.” 

The law school already offered several clinics as part of its program, including a tax clinic. Last year, students represented a woman battling the IRS over a two-year limitation on how long a taxpayer could have to challenge liability for an ex-spouse’s tax violations. Though this issue had never been brought before a court, the students did such a good job of preparing their trial briefs that the government dropped its case. 

Other MSU outreach projects include presentations at various events for the homeless, participation in seminars for small-business owners, and programs for immigrants. Nor is the law school content with its current slate of hands-on offerings. An Urban Food, Farm & Agriculture project, which was spurred by a grant that involves creating farming opportunities on vacant land in Detroit, began in January. 

“It’s really kind of my favorite new program,” says Halloran. “We could create a farming opportunity for local residents, and also create a venue for bringing fresh farm produce to the tables of people who live in the urban center.” The law school’s role would be meeting the legal needs of the various entities that are working on the project. Halloran hopes this leads to yet another legal clinic that will help the community and bring another educational opportunity to the school’s approximately 960 law students.

Says Halloran, “Every time we make a new clinical opportunity available to our students—and we try to be very diverse in our offerings—the students react with tremendous encouragement and enthusiasm.” 

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