Next spring, students at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law will have a state-of-the-art building to advise their own clients.
The Clinical Building will provide a space for students to meet with clients and offer pro bono legal assistance for at least 60 hours, per a graduation requirement.
More than 100,000 hours of free legal aid have been provided by students since the 1990s, when the program began. Classes in elder law, veterans law, immigration law, environmental law and child welfare are among those available to students in the clinical program.
Construction of the new building is expected to wrap up in December.
“It allows us to have a building that suits our mission,” said Denise Antolini, the law school’s associate dean for academic affairs. “Our students are very oriented toward (public service). They love doing community work, they love meeting with clients, and they really want to be ready to practice when they leave.”
The most popular program right now, Antolini said, is the Hawaii Innocence Project, part of a national effort to free wrongfully convicted prisoners. The class is especially popular because it’s taught by Kenneth Lawson, an associate faculty specialist, who was a recipient of the Board of Regents’ Medal for Excellence this year.
The school’s Native Hawaiian and environmental law programs are more focused on neighbor islands and rural communities, she said. Student travel is funded by grants, primarily from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Students stay with their clients or camp when traveling.
Many graduates are interested in criminal law, so the prosecution and defense class is also popular.
The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, has recently changed its standards to require six credits of hands-on learning, Antolini said. Though students were already meeting that standard, she said they are encouraged to take more clinical programs.
Enrollment in the clinical classes has increased, Antolini said, although the law school has no space currently dedicated to the programs. Students meet with clients in classrooms or at home, but the new building can house a maximum of 80 to 100 people at a time.
“A client would come here and before the building was built, we would say, ‘Meet us at the dumpsters,’” she said. “It was very unwelcoming.”
Antolini first got involved with the project in 2003, before construction costs soared.
In 2013, the Legislature authorized a total of $7 million in bonds for the building — half backed by the state, half backed by the law school. That funding only covered the bare bones of the building, Antolini said.
Another $2 million in donations covered furniture. The school hopes to raise another $3 million for the Clinical Building — with $2 million of that in exchange for being the building’s namesake, she said.
“I know there’s going to be chairs! But at the beginning, we didn’t,” she said.
Additional staff, like a case manager in a private law office, is being sought to work with students, Antolini said.
The Clinical Building will be the new face of the law school, Antolini said. It’s expected to qualify for LEED Gold certification, a ranking that indicates how efficient and “green” a building is.
About 50 solar panels will be placed atop the roof, along with a rain garden that absorbs rainwater. Rocks found under the building site and native plants will be incorporated into the exterior design, Antolini said.
Current plans for the building include conference rooms, classrooms, interview rooms, training facilities and even a shower for students working through the night. Unlike classrooms currently shared in the law school, Antolini said students will have a place to keep confidential case documents.
School buildings can be around for 100 years, Antolini said, so “deliberate,” long-term choices must be made.
The Clinical Building “takes the law school into the modern era of legal education,” she said. “Our current buildings were built in the ’80s, and they’re wonderful buildings, but we haven’t kept up with the times.”
Within the next decade, the law school plans to expand from 85,000 to 134,000 square feet, according to a master plan. The plan calls for adding a second floor and cafe to the library, and adding rooftop solar panels. Outdoor renovations and landscaping will also be completed.
In spite of a national downturn in law school enrollment, Antolini said enrollment at the UH law school has increased about 16 percent this year. About 320 students will be enrolled in the fall semester.
The faculty has also grown in the past couple of years, with an estimated 40 people now on staff.
Enrollment in immigration law and civil and human rights classes has been unexpectedly high, Antolini said. She said she expects to see continued interest in those areas, given the current political climate. The school is also working to get its immigration clinic running year-round.
Before the new building, clients were told “meet us at the dumpsters. It was very unwelcoming.” — Denise Antolini
About 80 percent of the school’s students are born on the islands or have strong Hawaii ties, such as serving in the military, Antolini said. And while she doesn’t believe the new building alone will attract more students, higher enrollment numbers may be “a natural outcome” of the clinical program’s increased visibility.
“I think we’re in the best shape that we’ve been in for a long time,” she said.