December 17, 2009

LAW STUDENT PARTICIPATION ACT OF 2009

 

 


Mr. CARDIN: Mr. President, I rise today to introduce the "Law Student Participation Act of 2009."  
The bill creates exceptions to federal conflicts of interest law which generally prohibits federal employees from acting as an attorney or agent in a matter adverse to the U.S. government.  The legislation directs the exceptions to federal employees attending law school and participating in legal clinics and employees of the District of Columbia who staff legal clinics. Where the federal employee has participated personally and substantially in the matter or the matter is before the employee's particular agency or department, specific conflicts of interest provisions still apply. The current law is over broad and denies learning and teaching opportunities where no real conflict may exist.
Law schools, including schools in my home state, have voiced concern over the present law.  Some of these schools include the University of Maryland, the University of the District of Columbia, and Georgetown University School of Law. The schools have related stories of students, who are federal employees, regulated to clinics dealing only with state matters. In other instances a student might start working on a client's matter, but will be unable to continue once the matter goes to trial or before an administrative proceeding. Law schools complain that under such circumstances the client's right to effective counsel is diminished. Due to a requirement I championed, the University of Maryland School of Law faces unique challenges. Each student must provide legal services to the poor or persons who otherwise lack access to justice prior to graduation. Federal employees, unlike other students, must choose from a smaller selection of clinics due to the current federal conflicts of interest law.    Finally, if federal employee students seek careers in practice areas where federal law predominates, they likely will obtain no practical clinic experience in law school.
It should be noted that the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and the Department of Justice are aware of the text of the bill. Both have conveyed informally that they do not have problems with this legislation. The OGE released a report in 2006 that was critical of current federal conflict of interest law as being overbroad and specifically pointed out that volunteer work was frequently barred even when no potential for conflict of interest existed.
            The current law deprives law students who are federal employees of valuable practical educational opportunities.  Ultimately participation in these clinics would result in better attorneys - many of whom later go on to work for the federal government.