The Way We Were: Spotlight on Richard Wharton

In honor of last year’s 40th anniversary celebration, USD Legal Clinics presented “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.  We complete the series with a blog highlight on Professor Richard Wharton.

Professor Richard Wharton

“I went to USD School of Law in 1970 and it was such an interesting time. It was the height of the Vietnam war and of student activism and I was also a returning veteran,” begins Professor Richard Wharton, as he talks about his first involvement with USD’s Legal Clinics. In 1972, the second year of the clinics’ operation, he participated in the clinic at the Mexican American Advisory Council in National City. “I was from Philadelphia and didn’t speak a word of Spanish,” he comments. “I learned to really appreciate the Mexican American culture by supervising that clinic.” As a second year student, he assisted in running the clinic under the supervision of a volunteer attorney. In these early years, the clinics operated primarily through outreach to the community, providing services at local community agencies.

Graduating in 1973, Wharton went into private practice, culling out a successful career in the newly formed area of environmental law. The concept of environmental law was brand new at that time and in 1971, 1972, and 1973 some major cases were tried and won. Having never practiced environmental law before, Wharton still saw success, winning a series of state and federal court environmental law cases.

In 1979, he received a call from Professor Walter Heiser, Legal Clinics Director at that time. The law school had received funding to begin an Environmental Law Clinic and Wharton was asked to direct it. Eventually he was also asked to teach other courses; he created and taught the Civil Practice class and along with Professor Terry Player he helped create Lawyering Skills II. Wharton taught Lawyering Skills II from 1984-1989, a required course for graduation. “I taught every student who graduated from USD’s School of Law from 1984 – 1989,” states Wharton. “I did the matinee and evening shows, teaching almost 120 students per semester.”

He also notes that the practice of Environmental Law has changed drastically since he first began practicing in the early 70’s, a fact that impacts the education of students as well as career opportunities. “When I first started practicing, there was rampant uncontrolled development all the time,” he comments. “In the 70’s everything was growing and there was still a lot of land to develop. Now with the economic downturn, development has slowed quite a bit.”

Environmental law is also unique in that, unlike other areas of law, the financial gains of winning a case are much lower as there is no monetary award associated with a victory. “This is a key component of the importance of clinics like the Environmental Law Clinic,” comments Wharton. “If not for the clinic, many of these cases would not have representation. Moreover, the public is being served by students who really want to learn and care about these issues. We won the last three cases because the petitions the students wrote were brilliant. The other side literally had to say ‘you’re right.’”

In addition to directing the Environmental Law Clinic, Wharton also started the national trial competition team in 1987. “I was contacted by the Association of Trial Lawyers, and they told me they were holding the regional competition in San Diego. They asked me if we wanted to take a team and I asked the students who enthusiastically said ‘yes’,” describes Wharton. “So we put a case together in four weeks and amazingly won. By pure luck, we had found two absolute natural trial lawyers.” As a result, the team went on to take second place in the national finals by one point. Wharton has supervised the trial team ever since. His team was selected as the best team in the entire Ninth Circuit for seven years running and won the prestigious Texas Young Lawyers Competition the last two years.

When asked to reflect on the differences between the clinics today and when he first participated as a student, Wharton comments: “Today the teachers supervising are of a much higher caliber and they’re able to supervise at a much closer level. When we first started, we had second and third year law students assisting with the supervision who admittedly didn’t know much, myself included. Additionally the supervising attorneys weren’t paid nor were they part of the faculty, so their time was really limited.”

And as the clinics have grown, the commitment to providing hands-on, practical experience and training to attorneys-to-be has been maintained. “For students, there is just no better way to learn how to practice law, period,” states Wharton. “I can’t underscore enough the importance of the work we do in the clinics in training prepared, skilled attorneys and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to do this. Who thought thirty years later I would still love what I do? But I do.”

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