New UConn Post Focuses On Hands-On Education
Paul Chill has been helping others launch their careers ever since his days at Wesleyan University, when he was a defensive end on a football team with Bill Belichick. "We were teammates for one season," Chill said. "And yes, I am very proud of that."
Belichick went on to lead the New England Patriots to win three Super Bowl rings as their head coach. Chill went on to lead a clinical movement at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he started as a professor in 1988. "They've been trying to get rid of me ever since," he joked.
That hardly seems to be the case. Chill has made his mark in an aspect of legal education that helps shape young legal minds while at the same time providing assistance to disadvantaged people who cannot afford to pay lawyers. In his long career, he has led student-run law clinics — starting with one that focused on health law — that have provided help for thousands of people.
Now the law school has strengthened its commitment to provide real world experience to its students by naming Chill as the first-ever associate dean for clinical and experiential education. Chill, who graduated from the law school himself in 1985, was honored with the promotion. "It's a very exciting time to be involved in this kind of work," he said.
Timothy Fisher, the law school's new dean, said he could think of no better person for the new role of overseeing the school's 15 clinics. "Professor Chill has already been a leader in efforts to re-shape our curriculum to meet the demands of a rapidly-changing profession, as chair of the Curriculum Review Committee," Fisher said. "His range of expertise in the clinical and academic realms, and his commitment to the law school and our students, make him an optimal candidate for the position."
UConn's law curriculum has included experiential learning programs for more than 30 years. But last year, the Curriculum Review Committee responded to national criticism that law schools were not doing enough to provide graduates with real-world practice skills. The committee voted to move clinics front and center, by requiring "experiential learning" for all graduates. Starting with this year's incoming class, all students must complete at least one supervised "live-lawyering experience" before they can receive a J.D.
In this new role, Chill will be responsible for overseeing the clinics and experiential programs, which include an expanded individual externship program, a Semester in Washington, D.C., program and a variety of simulation-based courses. He will share responsibility for implementing the new graduation requirement with Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Leslie Levin.
Chill said he expects to expand the law school's already active clinical programs, which include Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship; Asylum and Human Rights; and Mediation.
In addition, Chill said, the school has developed programs that combine clinical work with externships at state agencies, such as the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Each clinic has about 12 students. One of Chill's priorities will be determining the best way to place students in the clinical programs, now that the programs are required.
Starting With Juveniles
Chill has a history of working to make a difference in other people's lives. Even before he went to law school, he worked as a state youth officer at the Long Lane School, which was a residential program for the state's highest-risk juvenile offenders.
"I worked there for three years when I got out of college," Chill said.
His first job after law school was with the New Haven employment litigation firm of Garrison and Arterton. Chill said his desire to help individuals with their legal problems was sometimes limited by the overall demands of the job. "Even at a place like that, where you weren't billing hours, you had to carry a significant caseload," he said. "I couldn't put the time in on the small things that I wanted to do."
He left in 1988, when he saw an advertisement calling for an assistant professor to run UConn's mental health clinic. "That was my 'aha' moment," he said.
Typically, law students who participate in the clinics are put in touch with real clients who have legal problems but no resources to pay for an attorney. Chill explained that his students prepare briefs, depose witnesses and argue motions in court under the supervision of professors. "As long as the student is working under the supervision of a lawyer, and that lawyer is taking personal and professional responsibility for their work, there is no problem with rules governing practicing without a license," Chill said. "Students can do anything a lawyer can in court under the supervision of a lawyer."
Under his watch, students have argued cases in front of appellate courts and trial judges. "A lot of judges like it when clinical students are involved in a case in court, because they are often better prepared than some lawyers," he said. "It's a remarkable opportunity for the students."
In addition to teaching Legal Profession and Torts, Chill has published articles and been cited for his expertise in the area of child protection law. Through law school clinics, he's been lead counsel in multiple high-impact cases.
One of those was in 1998, when a clinic Chill ran filed an appeal in a case called Pamela B. v. Ment, which led to reform in the state's juvenile courts. At the time, children were being seized — without a hearing — by the Department of Children and Families from homes where there were allegations of abuse. In some cases, it was months before the parents could argue against the seizures in court.
After a challenge by Chill and his students, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the clinic, could, in fact, sue the state's chief court administrator over the policy to not allow hearings. As a result of that decision, legislators passed a law requiring immediate hearings when a child is removed from the home. "It was a very gratifying experience, and I became very passionate about parental rights as a result," Chill said.
Chill is aware that his new position is a response to what is considered a national crisis in legal education. "It is a crisis, one that's really been a long time building," he said. "But it's also a time of great opportunity. Things are changing, and I think, they are changing in a really good direction."
Law school clinics can be life-changing events — for both students and their clients. For example, Chill noted that when the child protection clinic started, the focus was on working with children. But eventually the focus was changed to working with the parents, because the law school wanted students to gain experience with adult clients.
When students learned of the change, they were disappointed. "They said, hey, 'I came in here to work with children, I don't want to represent child abusers and crack addicts,'" Chill recalled.
But the lessons learned working with the parents taught the students about working with clients who have "real-life problems." After all, that's what legal practice is like for most lawyers. With the new focus, Chill said, "the experience was transformational." •