Q&A: Alberto Alemanno on the European Union's citizen lobbyists and the EU Public Interest Clinic

Alberto Alemanno
Alberto Alemanno

In an era with new forms of democratic engagement, global professor of law Alberto Alemanno has written Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society, a book for citizen activists based on academic research and personal experience. A scholar in European Union law and a professor of law at Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) Paris, Alemanno has led the EU Public Interest Clinic, a joint project between NYU Law and HEC Paris, since it was established in 2013. He recently answered some questions about his work.

Lobbying for Change lays out a roadmap for individuals to become “citizen lobbyists”—to employ the tools that corporate lobbyists use, but in service of community causes. How do your students take this model one step further through the EU Public Interest Clinic?

Alberto Alemanno_Lobbying for Change Book

Amid rapid political, social and digital transformations in our societies, we recently witnessed a resurgence of activism all over the world. In 2013, the EU Public Interest Clinic pioneered a new model of citizen engagement in the European space. Through legal research and advocacy, the Paris-based clinic promotes democratic, transparent and accountable EU institutions by serving the advocacy needs of civil society organizations involved in the EU policy process. Adapting the American legal clinic model for the EU constitutional and institutional system, the EU Public Interest Clinic is the first clinic devoted to experimenting with the channels of participatory democracy—from FOIA requests to amicus curiae briefs—within the European Union.

Our students serve on a pro bono basis not-for-profit organizations as well as grassroots citizen groups to give them a voice in the complex, supra-national EU policy process. Through hands-on participation in legislative and administrative proceedings and a weekly seminar that focuses on the institutional structures and substantive standards of EU decision-making, students gain skills in collaborative problem-solving, effective communication of legal issues and strategies, working with non-legal experts, and relationship building. In so doing, the EU Clinic helps equalize the public policy process within EU decision-making.

Over the years, we served more than 15 organizations, including Wikipedia and Amnesty International, and were involved in more than 20 high-impact advocacy projects that contributed to making the EU more transparent and accountable. Our students drafted the first EU directive affording protection to whistle-blowers across Europe on behalf of Transparency International; submitted a collective complaint to the European Committee on Social Rights regarding unpaid internships in Belgium on behalf of the European Youth Forum; and filed a complaint against the 28 member states of the EU for lack of transparency and accountability in the selection of justices at the European Court of Justice.

What kind of influence might the EU Public Interest Clinic have had on the development of clinical law offerings at other schools in Europe?

European clinical legal education emerged in response to the limits of traditional legal education to teach students the complex ways of thinking increasingly required of lawyers to fulfill their roles in society. While other EU-based clinics focused on providing legal aid to individuals, ours was the first to serve civil society organizations—and to do so across borders. This showed that clinical legal education could offer a badly needed bridge between teaching and the practice of the law, as well as between academia and society.

What direction is clinical legal education taking in Europe?

Reinventing Legal Education

The gap between legal education and legal realities appears particularly striking in Europe, where legal teaching—historically formalistic, doctrinal, hierarchical and passive (lecture and text-book based)—is coming under increasing pressure to reimagine itself as pragmatic, policy-aware and action-oriented. European lawyers and scholars engage more frequently in “siloed debate” than in deeper, methodological thinking. The European legal academy remains more interested in debating what to teach than how to teach.

Together with the former executive director of our clinic, Lamin Khadar, now a DPA Piper pro bono associate in Europe, we edited a book entitled Reinventing Legal Education: How Legal Clinics Are Reforming the Teaching and Practice of Law in Europe (forthcoming in 2018 from Cambridge University Press). This is the first attempt to gather scholarly and systematic reflections to shed light on European legal teaching and practice. Behind the apparent status quo bias cloaking European legal academia, something has been changing in the legal curriculum. 

What is next for public interest lawyering in Europe, and how are legal clinics such as the EU Public Interest Clinic adapting for the future?

European clinic education carries the potential to eventually bridge the gap between academia and society. It is for these reasons that we support the idea of coordinated action, to be taken by European legal clinics together with NGOs and a network of professionals, at local and European levels. This may build cross-border cooperation between clinicians not only on pedagogical issues but also on systemic political and social issues. Today, a growing number of EU-based civil society organizations are facing unprecedented obstacles to their daily operation by state action. As the civic space for civil society continues to narrow, clinics are expected to play a key role in defending such a space.

Together with a diverse community of interlocutors, including NYU’s faculty Beth Noveck, we are currently working out a road map for creating coordinated and interconnected human rights/social rights oriented clinical legal education programs across the globe, which might include individual actions, group actions, proposals for law reform, policy and case support, reporting, and so on.

Posted December 18, 2017