The Way We Were: Spotlight on Allen Snyder

In honor of our 40th anniversary celebration, USD Legal Clinics is pleased to present “The Way We Were,” a blog segment featuring the profile and perspective of the pioneers that conceptualized, implemented and carried forward the early years of the Legal Clinics.  This week’s segment highlights Professor Allen Snyder.

Professor Allen Snyder

Professor Allen Snyder was recruited to USD’s Legal Clinics when he was noticed at court hearings by Grant Morris, Professor of Law at USD. “I just disagreed with the idea of rubber stamping away someone’s rights and freedoms,” begins Snyder, who started his legal career at the Legal Aid Society in 1974. “So I represented clients who had a little more gumption, found Legal Aid and wanted an attorney that would actually argue their case.”

As a result, Snyder represented low-income clients, many of whom had mental health disorders. When Morris received funding to hire part-time faculty to start both a Mental Health Clinic and Environmental Law Clinic at USD, Snyder agreed to head up the Mental Health Clinic and Janet Motley was hired to run the Environmental Law Clinic. The two clinics opened in 1978 and after two years Snyder was hired as full-time faculty.

“The first semester we only had a handful of students signed up for the Mental Health Clinic,” recollects Snyder. “But by the second semester, 12-15 people had signed up and we went from having two guys in the first semester, to almost all women.” In addition to their classroom studies, Snyder would take the clinic students to facilities around the county every week including hospitals and County Mental Health offices, among others.

“We often ended up at the involuntary ward of the hospitals,” describes Snyder. “We would interview anyone that wanted to talk to a lawyer. It made quite an impact on the students. It’s difficult to understand what the facilities are like as well as the people who are in them until you really see it.”

Snyder also supervised his students in jury trials on a regular basis, as the structure of the law was different at the time. “I was pretty sure I could get every kid into court for a contested hearing,” mentions Snyder. “But in the last 25 years, the civil justice system has made a dramatic emphasis from having trials to resolving cases, so that doesn’t happen much anymore.” Moreover, when the Office of the Public Defender was created, the structure of the defense of indigent criminals changed, and cases were then routed there.

“When we first started the Mental Health Clinic, it was around the time when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had been released,” reflects Snyder. “There was a sense of righteous defense of the poor and downtrodden that I thought was just really terrific. It’s a sad but not changing reality that people with different ways of being in the world have a hard time and they also tend to be poor. At the start of my career at Legal Aid, I ended up representing a lot of people with that kind of a problem and continued it on at the Mental Health Clinic at USD Law.”

As a result, the clinic interviewed potential clients at numerous agencies and facilities. At one point Lou Katz, then-Executive Director of Defenders, Inc.(predecessor to the Office of the Public Defender) called Snyder to ask about providing legal assistance to mentally ill disordered sex offenders. “So I went to my class of mostly female students and asked them what they thought,” Snyder comments with a wry smile. “Needless to say, that didn’t go over so well.”

However, within a month they received a call from a resident at a board and care home near Balboa Park. “This guy calls and says ‘I’m in this place and I’d like to leave but the judge says I have to stay.’ Well that didn’t sound right at all,” explains Snyder. “Generally these folks are not supervised directly by a judge so I sent two students over to interview him.”

After reviewing the file, they found the client was being held under an illegal order. “These two female students really felt they wanted to help this guy and asked to take on his case,” continues Snyder. “And wouldn’t you know it, he was a mentally disordered sex offender. It was a really great lesson for all of us about people and preconceived stereotypes.”

Snyder also taught in the Civic Clinic, which he continues to teach today. In addition, he co-teaches classes in law and medicine, and law and mental disorder. He has published articles in the field of patient competency and co-authored A Practical Guide to California Evidence (National Institute for Trial Advocacy) and (with Professor Grant H. Morris) Mental Disorder in the Criminal Process (Greenwood Press).

When asked to describe the importance of a legal clinical education, Snyder reflects: “There exists a certain small percentage of people who can actually learn and understand things at a purely theoretical level. The rest of us need to do it in order to understand it. The clinics make real the things that students have studied about, but until they actually see it and are immersed in it, don’t understand.”

Snyder goes on to note that in past decades new attorneys learned on the job, by observing cases as the third attorney in a courtroom. These new attorneys learned through watching the cases as they occurred. “Lawyers were technically charging clients for the third person at the table so in essence clients were paying for that training,” describes Snyder. “As firms have cut back on the training of their own associates, new attorneys are forced to find different ways to learn those skills. So I see there’s an even greater need and responsibility for law schools to provide this type of clinical training to students. As a result, the clinics possibly are more important now than ever.”

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