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Associate Dean Jon Dubin – Guiding the Clinical Program Through Exciting Times, Challenging Times

As his memories of a vacation that took him to Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore fade, Jon Dubin finds himself mostly excited but occasionally uneasy when thinking about the coming academic year.

There will be a new group of clinic students eager to learn practical lawyering skills while helping the poor and under-represented. There will be new clients requiring assistance in navigating an often maze-like legal system and the social service supports to which they’re entitled. There will be a new clinic to help develop; decisions to make about existing and prospective litigation, transactional legal services, and community education programs; and a dedicated clinical faculty to support in their scholarship and advocacy.

Dubin in clinic   
Associate Dean Jon Dubin in the extensive clinic area.

That’s the exhilarating part of Dubin’s job as Associate Dean for Clinical Education. The disconcerting aspect? A public interest lawyer involved in clinical legal education for more than 20 years, Dubin is concerned about potential compromises to the school’s service and educational missions raised by recession-related funding pressures and a legal challenge to the confidentiality of clinic clients’ files.

One of the oldest and most extensive “live-client” clinical programs in the country, the Rutgers School of Law–Newark program is integral to those missions. During the 2010-2011 academic year, 200 students worked in six in-house, credit-bearing clinics on more than 600 cases and legal projects under the close supervision of 15 faculty experienced in litigation, legislation, mediation or transactional practice. Together they provided an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 hours of free services to indigent and under-served individuals and communities.

The program’s forthcoming annual newsletter will spotlight some of the most notable activities, including two precedent-setting decisions by the New Jersey Supreme Court that established the right of siblings in foster care to have contact with one another and a proposal to be submitted to the National Taxpayer Advocate recommending changes in Internal Revenue Service policy and practice as they relate to victims of domestic violence who claim the “innocent spouse” defense in income tax cases.

Dubin has guided the Rutgers–Newark Clinical Program since his appointment as Director in 2002, three years after joining the faculty from St. Mary’s University School of Law, where he also held the titles Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs and received the faculty award for teaching excellence. A year ago he was appointed the law school’s first Associate Dean for Clinical Education. In announcing the appointment, Dean John J. Farmer, Jr. commended Dubin for expanding access to legal assistance for under-represented individuals and communities and enhancing the clinical curriculum.

Besides overseeing the clinics, Dubin teaches clinical and traditional classroom courses. Within the Urban Legal Clinic, he handles social welfare benefits cases, including co-counseling the successful appeal and drafting the principal brief in a social security disability case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Sims v. Apfel (2000) — a case in which the high Court also cited Dubin’s Equal Justice Library Award-winning Columbia Law Review article twice in its decision.

He has also supervised clinic work in a multi-decade challenge to the proposed destruction of most of Newark’s stock of low-income public housing apartments without adequate replacement in Newark Coalition for Low Income Housing v. NHA & HUD. His classroom courses include Administrative Law, Poverty Law and Civil Rights Law. His most recent article, “The Labor Market Side of Disability Benefits Policy and Law,” will be the lead article in a forthcoming issue of the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice.

In the following Q&A, Dubin discusses the direction of the Clinical Program and his role in overseeing the clinics.

You have been involved with clinical legal education for over 20 years. What major changes have you seen over that time?

The largest wave of clinical education occurred in response to the social justice movements of the 60’s and 70’s where law schools responded to student demand for more socially relevant educational experiences. Consistent with the times, clinics focused heavily on criminal defense and criminal justice system reform, direct civil legal services to the poor, and civil rights work. When I began law teaching in 1990, this was still largely the case.

Since that time, clinical education has become more varied in subject matter, extending to new areas such as transactional business and non-profit corporate practice, immigration law, international human rights, intellectual property, and alternative dispute resolution. In response to several blue ribbon reports since the early ’90s, such as the ABA’s MacCrate Report and the Carnegie Foundation’s study underscoring deficiencies in the traditional law school curriculum for preparing students for the competent and ethical practice of law, clinical education has also become more focused on the pedagogy of instruction in lawyering skills and core professional values.

But perhaps the most significant changes have been the large-scale, nationwide institutionalization of clinical programs as permanent and valued components of the curriculum and the integration of clinical faculty into the legal academic community through extension of comparable faculty security and governance rights, and support for the production of scholarship relevant to clinical education and lawyering.

Along those lines, the Law School adopted the Clinical Scholar Series (CSS) to promote greater integration of clinical faculty into the law faculty community through tenure-like job security, voting rights, and the support for and the obligation to produce scholarship which can be targeted to clinical educators, lawyers and judges. How would you characterize progress to date under the CSS?

After a somewhat slow start due to initial financial obstacles, I think the CSS has taken off with benefits in all intended areas including greater cross-fertilization of clinical and classroom courses and faculty and some terrific scholarship by clinical faculty as evidenced by the influential work of the first CSS member to receive CSS “clinical tenure” this year, Child Advocacy Clinic Director Randi Mandelbaum. Clinical faculty have developed classroom courses in diverse areas such as juvenile justice, special education law, child welfare and sports and entertainment law, and more doctrinal faculty have expressed interest in or started to develop proposals for clinical collaborations in areas such as environmental justice and health law.

This fall the New Jersey Supreme Court will hear the appeal of the decision which found that the Environmental Law Clinic is subject to the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”). Please explain the importance of this case to clinical legal education.

A determination that the Rutgers clinical programs’ private clients’ case files are open public records under OPRA would seriously and uniquely disadvantage our program and its clients. Unlike every other law firm in the State and the clinics at Seton Hall Law School, the Rutgers clinics would be forced to tell their clients that private materials submitted to the clinics that don’t fit into the relatively narrow protections of attorney-client or related privileges would be subject to requests for disclosure as public records. This means that anyone who wants to harass the clinics and their clients (such as polluters or developers sued by them or spousal abusers in domestic violence proceedings) could make demands which would divert the clinical faculty from their primary purposes of training students and providing legal services to underrepresented clients to responding to and litigating such requests in court.

In the meantime, clients and others would be threatened with public disclosure of private materials which these clients could submit to any other law office in the state, including the state’s public defender’s office, secure in the knowledge that they were protected from public scrutiny. Information that could identify clients’ potential medical conditions, sexual orientation, financial position or status, or employment performance might be subject to public disclosure for example. These materials could not only be sought by opposing counsel as a “second bite of the apple” in ongoing cases after not successfully obtaining these materials through normal judicial discovery processes; they could also be sought by any member of the public who dislikes one of the clinic’s clients, or anyone who is simply nosy or curious about a client’s personal facts.

The Supreme Court’s  upcoming decision in this case is not only critically important to us but also has national implications for clinical education as several states have similar open public records laws which could be applied against other state universities’ law clinics and their clients. Accordingly, it is not surprising that several national organizations including the Association of American Law Schools, the Clinical Legal Education Association, and the American Association of University Professors have filed Amicus briefs with the Court in support of our position.

The law school hopes to launch an Immigrant Rights Clinic in the Spring 2012 semester. How did this new clinic come about?

The idea for an Immigrant Rights Clinic has been in the works for several years and was initiated at the highest levels of the University through meetings convened by President McCormick. In addition, Chancellor Diner has repeatedly emphasized the value of the Newark campus’ rich diversity and its unusually large immigrant student population and has strongly supported several Newark campus immigrant and migration studies initiatives. We are delighted to have found and hired Anjum Gupta, the former Director of the University of Baltimore Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic to launch our program this upcoming Spring. 

Besides overseeing and managing the Clinical Program, you also teach both clinical and traditional classroom courses, and produce scholarship. Do you find one of these roles more rewarding than another and, if so, why?

I feel very fortunate to have a job with an exhilarating mix of synergistically supportive functions. For example, my classroom courses can examine theoretical issues in administrative law or poverty law with which I am also grappling on a practical, hands-on level in real clients’  clinical cases. At the same time, I can then bring both practical and theoretical insights and perspectives to bear on my scholarship in these areas which then provides further synergies for subsequent classroom teaching and clinical teaching and advocacy. I find all of these roles to be rewarding and would not want to lose any of them.