On October 12, the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern Law kicked off its 50th anniversary with a panel of Clinic professors, alums, and adjuncts in conversation about Northwestern’s role at the cutting edge of social justice advocacy and hands-on training over the decades. Moderated by Clinic Director Juliet Sorensen, the panel included Thomas Geraghty (JD ’69), Clinic Director Emeritus and James B. Haddad Professor of Law; Gabe Fuentes (JD ’93), partner at Jenner & Block; Michael Scudder (JD ’98), United States Circuit Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit; and Kari Parks (JD ’13), associate at Paduano & Weintraub.
The discussion served as an opportunity for the Northwestern community to acknowledge how far the Clinic has come since its inception in 1969, but it was also a rallying cry for public-spirited students and lawyers to continue their important work. “The mission of the Bluhm Legal Clinic is as pressing today as it was in 1969, and the work of its attorneys is as vital as ever,” said Dean Kimberly Yuracko in her opening remarks. “So while this event celebrates the accomplishments of the last 50 years, we are also looking toward the next 50. We at Northwestern Law will continue working to ensure our social justice advocacy is evolving to meet the needs of this modern era.”
When Northwestern Law’s legal clinic opened its doors, it consisted of two staff attorneys working in the basement of what was then Thorne Hall. Today, the Bluhm Legal Clinic is housed on its own floor, and has more than 30 attorneys working in its 14 centers. More than 200 law students — 90 percent of students from each graduating class — participate in Clinic courses each year. The Clinic offers high-quality legal services to often underserved populations, while simultaneously providing students with real-world experience. Parks was one of those students, and says her time in the Clinic serves her both in her commercial and her public interest work. “The thing I carry with me from my time in the clinic is remembering that there are always humans at the center of every dispute,” she said. “It can feel like just another commercial case or just another contract case, but because I worked with clients so much at the Clinic, I pay attention to the people behind every story. It can be easy to churn, but every time I pick up the phone and call a client, it’s a reminder that it’s a person – it’s her business, or his life savings, and that’s important.”
While the Clinic has undoubtedly impacted its students, it has equally affected the social justice community at large. “[There was a time when] no one could have believed that prisoners would be tortured and confessions coerced,” Fuentes said, pointing out the Clinic’s vital role in raising awareness of these issues. Yet he was note that the fight isn’t over. “We’re living in a time where if you follow local politics closely, there is a bit of pushback. There’s an idea that in those wrongful conviction cases, they weren’t really innocent. The idea that it was all a fraud, which is absolutely wrong. The Clinic’s role in continuing to be there unwaveringly for its clients is really immeasurable.”
The event looked to the future as much as it reflected on the past, focusing especially on how Northwestern Law can prepare its graduates to engage in social justice work. “One thing that the Law School and the Clinic should double down on is seeding and cementing the public spirit that students bring when they arrive,” Scudder said. “We need to make sure it is still burning bright and hot when they graduate, so we can send as many graduates into the community as possible who will act on that passion.” He added that every lawyer’s objective – no matter where they work – should be to have on their desk a pro-bono matter at all times.
Geraghty, the founding director of the Clinic, closed the afternoon with his advice to the clinic of the future: “It’s a passionate public spirit that has really motivated our students and faculty to do the wonderful things they have done, and we keep that spirit by remaining engaged in the most difficulty and frustrating and maybe unpopular issues that face our justice system. We must let that spirit take us where it may. Let many flowers bloom.”