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W&L’s Black Lung Clinic Named one of Nation’s Most Innovative

In its 2014 Winter issue, PreLaw Magazine has recognized Washington and Lee’s Black Lung Clinic as one of the top 15 most innovative law school clinics in the country. The magazine sought nominations from law schools nationwide for clinics that were innovative in subject matter, structure or community served.

W&L’s Black Lung Clinic represents coal miners diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, in pursuit of benefits from coal companies that once employed them. In attempting to collect benefits, miners and survivors face formidable teams of lawyers, paralegals, and doctors that the coal companies assemble to challenge these claims. The Clinic has represented hundreds of disabled coal miners and their surviving spouses since its creation in 1996, and has a success rate of approximately 80%.

Professor Tim MacDonnell, director of the clinic, explains what makes the Black Lung Clinic stand out among law schools.

“The Black Lung Clinic represents a unique opportunity for our students and our clients. The students experience the challenges and excitement of complex civil litigation. They are called upon to fight and win our clients’ claims, which invariably involve intricate questions of law and medicine.

“Under supervision, the students develop evidence, conduct discovery, depose experts, represent our clients at hearings, write appellate briefs and conduct oral argument on appeal, frequently before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. It is an immersive litigation experience.

“Our clients are disabled coal miners or the surviving spouses of coal miners. The miners we represent have usually worked in our nation’s coal mines for twenty to forty years. They are totally disabled from a progressive, debilitating, and ultimately fatal lung disease. The spouses we represent have usually spent years as the caretaker of their disabled coal miner, having to watch as their spouse ultimately succumbs to black lung. Our clients, who often have difficulty finding an attorney willing to take on a black lung claim, receive zealous representation from student advocates that spend significantly more time perfecting their claim than the average attorney.”

The Black Lung Clinic is one of six legal clinics at W&L and part of the School’s innovative third-year curriculum, which combines the demanding study of legal doctrine and analysis with simulated and actual practice experience. Unique in legal education, the third-year curriculum has been hailed by many in both the legal profession and in legal education as the most significant change in law-school curriculum in more than a century.