SNOW HILL – A legislative threat to withhold funding from a state law school unless the school’s legal clinics reported private client information to the General Assembly was reversed this week, removing the funding and the client information issue from the equation.
In late March, both the Senate and the House of the General Assembly linked funding, up to $750,000, for the University of Maryland School of Law to the release of client lists and expenditures from the school’s law clinics.
Law students are required to participate in one of over 20 law clinics offered by the law school to receive their degrees. The law clinics provide free legal help on a variety of topics to Maryland citizens.
Law clinics choose cases on the basis of educational value for law students, and whether the case affects the public interest.
The threat to the law school came after the school’s Environmental Law Clinic helped work on a lawsuit against Perdue Farms and a factory chicken farm in Berlin on behalf of the Waterkeeper Alliance and Assateague Coastal Trust.
University of Maryland Law School Dean Phoebe Haddon attributed the reversal to public outcry and private education of legislators.
The nationwide support, including protest letters from the American Bar Association and hundreds of law school professors and deans, really helped, according to Haddon.
“We’re so very grateful for the outpouring of support from professional and academic groups and leaders in law,” Haddon said.
The incident was a good opportunity to educate legislators on both sides of the issue about the law clinics, said Haddon, and why the issue at hand should not be linked to money.
“Our dean was down there talking to them a lot and assuring them she believes in accountability,” said Professor Rena Steinzor, past director of the Environmental Law Clinic.
Under the new language, law school funding is not endangered, and the school is not being asked to report on clients or provide confidential information.
“I think we came to a resolution people can live with,” Steinzor said.
Haddon said the law school, which receives state funding, is used to reporting on expenditures to state legislators.
However, the language that was just struck from the state budget would have linked funding to the provision of those reports and required attorneys to breach confidentiality.
“It wasn’t clearly limited in terms of privilege or confidentiality. We had professional responsibility concerns … the concern would be your judgment would be compromised by that risk,” Haddon said. “Now there is no linkage to money. That is a great thing.”
The law school has an obligation to be accountable, Haddon said.
“We’ll do the report to the best of our ability,” Steinzor said. “Any public information about the cases that’s on the public record, we’ll turn over.”
Haddon made certain it will not be privileged information.
“It won’t be client information. It’ll be amounts of funds and how much is restricted and what isn’t,” said Haddon.
Current and future clients of the law clinics do not need to be uneasy over the potential release of private information.
“Clients never needed to feel that way. We would never do that,” Steinzor said.
Haddon said the General Assembly’s actions were instructive for the law school’s students and provided “a wonderful context to talk about professional responsibility.”