Law School Clinics Institutionalize Political Activism

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1959

Beginning in 1959, the Ford Foundation gradually established a network of law-school-based legal clinics that became a powerful tool of liberalism. Many professors resisted the effort at first, because the clinics are expensive to operate and can distract students from their academic training. As the Ford Foundation poured millions of dollars into the efforts during the 1960s, however, faculty opposition collapsed. The number of law schools allowing students course credit for clinical work leapt from just 12 in 1968 to 125 in 1972 (out of a total of 147 law schools in the country).

From the start, the agenda was much more than offering useful vocational training to students. The goal favorably cited in a contemporary Ford Foundation report was to “reinforce the social consciousness of certain law students and professors through confrontation with injustice and misery.” The clinics, which were openly built on political activism, would also be a tool for changing the cities where they operated. The one at Columbia University Law School pledged to use the law to fight “poverty, racism, inequality, and political tyranny.”

Many Ford-funded, student-fueled clinics opened across the country, and over time they were remarkably successful at pushing liberal policies. Among many other achievements, Ford-funded clinics forced New Jersey to fund abortions, compelled Princeton University’s eating clubs to admit women, and put the public schools of Berkeley, California, under judicial control in order to take over the disciplining of black and Hispanic students.