Getting a Head Start on Life as a Lawyer

GB 2015-2016
Gidget Benitez was a student in the fall 2015 Civil Advocacy Clinic. This is her semester-end reflection essay.

My time in the Civil Advocacy Clinic began in August 2015. I’d done two judicial internships, but I had never interacted with a client before, much less handled a case on my own. I remember receiving a piece of paper with the name and phone number of a person, a client, and wondering where on earth I was supposed to start. I panicked, internally. “Where’s the roadmap?!” I asked.

I didn’t always know what I was doing. I stumbled. I forgot to make copies of a filing. I thought service of process would happen just because I asked a process server to find someone. I believed someone had died when they hadn’t. Often, I was frustrated, hangry, impatient, and exhausted.

The experience forced me to confront elements of my past I thought I had long ago escaped and outgrown. As a formerly homeless teen raised by a single mom, I have often thought in law school, “I don’t belong here.” Eventually,  my optimism and resiliency started to wear thin. It sometimes felt like progress was non-existent and the emotional toll of feeling responsible for helping my clients, who were both on the verge of homelessness, began to feel like too much. I started to think that maybe I was better suited to work with paperwork and not people.

One night, after a particularly rough day, self-doubt crept in. I asked a mentor, “Can I do this? Maybe I’m not meant to be a lawyer or work in a firm. I feel like I know nothing, like I can’t get anything right. What am I doing wrong?”

But as the weeks rolled on, habits formed. With every client meeting, it became second nature to “debrief” via a memo or a case note; it helped me get my thoughts together and think about where to go next. Eventually, it clicked for me to write out a to-do list in a chart so that I could systematically see what needed to be done. I learned to look for answers and use tools around me. I became more self-reliant throughout the semester.

Things started to click when it came to clients, too. After several meetings with a non-native English speaker that seemed to be going nowhere, my partner and I decided to use an interpreter. The difference was instantaneous. I realized that the takeaway was simple: if you meet a client whose first language is not English, ask them if they want an interpreter! After all, don’t you feel more comfortable speaking your native language?

Meeting with this same client by myself for the first time  helped me discover my own communication style and showed me that I could handle myself. When I discovered a seemingly closed door, I began to push and re-question. Was there another way to achieve the client’s goal? Did a statement add another potential piece to the puzzle?

Perhaps the most wonderful moment of the semester happened over Thanksgiving break, when I met the same client at her apartment. I entered the home of a woman who was relying on me to help her stay in this country, who fed me with what little she had, as if I were her daughter. She brought me coffee and, before I could even get to reviewing forms, begged me to eat. “You understand,” she said. “You understand.”

It reminded me of why I went to law school. It reminded me that even though I may have bumbled and fumbled, that even though I felt uncertain about what I was doing, I was still making a difference. We may not have gotten as far as we had hoped with our clients, but we were showing them the right way to be treated by someone in the legal profession: with kindness, courtesy, and communication. With heart.

The process of moving from law student to lawyer takes much longer than 3 months. In Clinic, I had responsibility for someone else’s life. I had to navigate real courts, real people and create a strong work product out of messy facts. You also learn that legal solutions are not the only solutions; sometimes, the law can’t give your client everything they need, and you have to consider non-legal tools. Clinic takes you outside of the classroom/textbook experience.

As difficult as it was, I am grateful. Next year, when I’m handed a piece of paper with a client’s contact information, regardless of the type of case, I will know how to begin to build the file. I will know that creating that initial contact and relationship is important, and I will be able to piece together fact, law and process. Of course, I’ll still need help. But imagine if I didn’t know where to begin?

My time in the Civil Advocacy Clinic ended in December 2015, but my journey as a Student Attorney hasn’t really ended. As lawyers, we are lifetime learners; I will always continue to learn new things. Most people don’t get the chance to learn how to practice law before they graduate. With the help of the Clinic, I got a great head start.

Building Bridges, Not Walls

WCL Community Economic Development Law Clinic

2016.03.28 CED Blog Post Picture

Artist’s rendering of proposed 11th Street Bridge Park between the Navy Yard and Anacostia

The Anacostia River (the “River”) separates the District of Columbia’s Ward 7 and Ward 8 from the other six Wards. The River is not only a physical gap between the two parts of D.C., but also a demographic divide. “East of the river,” where Ward 7 and Ward 8 are located, is a term associated with poverty, unemployment, and lack of resources. Home values on the east side average $300,000 lower than the west side of the River, only fifty percent of the population on the east side are homeowners, and unemployment rates are three times higher on the east side. The soon-to-be-constructed 11th Street Bridge Park will become an important bridge connecting the upbeat Navy Yard and luxurious Capital Hill with the historically low-income neighborhood of Anacostia, to help boost economic development east of…

View original post 576 more words

Negotiating For Our Future: Is the Exelon/Pepco Merger Right for the District?

WCL Community Economic Development Law Clinic

exelon

The Exelon/Pepco merger first proposed in April 2014 has come to a major turning point with a newly negotiated deal. The merger will bring together Exelon, the largest nuclear power utility company in the United States, with Pepco, the investor-owned public utility company providing electricity to Washington, D.C. and parts of Maryland. The D.C. Public Service Commission unanimously rejected the original proposed merger in August 2014. At the time, Mayor Bowser resisted the merger, saying, “Exelon didn’t provide adequate guarantees on affordability, reliability and environmental sustainability.”

The proposal was resurrected earlier this year, and Mayor Bowser held private meetings with Exelon and Pepco to negotiate a better deal for the District. Exelon is threatening to walk on the deal if approval is not granted within five months. This time frame would not allow a complete and thorough review that is desired by much of the D.C. public and the Public…

View original post 531 more words

D.C. Sold $5 Million Florida Avenue NW Property for $400,000

WCL Community Economic Development Law Clinic

Florida Ave Rendering for development at 965 Florida Avenue. Photo courtesy of http://www.fundrise.com.

On Tuesday, September 22, 2015, during the Pope’s visit to Washington D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser issued her first major land-use development decision, to which no D.C. Council member publicly objected. The 1.45-acre land parcel located at 965 Florida Avenue NW in the Shaw neighborhood will become a 10-story mixed-use building featuring 353 residential units, of which 107 units will be reserved for medium and low income residents, and 39,291 square feet of retail space, a majority of which will be taken up by a Whole Foods. Two independent firms considering the proposed development valued the land parcel approximately $5 million dollars higher than its sale price of $400,000.

965 Florida Ave., NW, and surrounding area. Image via Google Maps. 965 Florida Ave., NW, and surrounding area. Image via Google Maps.

Bowser’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Brian T. Kenner, sought to justify the substantially reduced price by claiming…

View original post 135 more words

What is Community?

WCL Community Economic Development Law Clinic

mana childcare This article’s authors, clockwise from upper left, Lillian Bales, Whittney Smith, Adjua Adjei-Danso, and James Toliver, at the Mana Bilingual Child Development Center.

As we quickly learned during CEDLC orientation, community means very different things to different people. In orientation, we spent some time getting to know one another. During that time we discussed how community can be comprised of things such as geography, political affiliation, ethnic persuasion, religious group, hobbies, interests, etc. Each of us spoke about how we define ourselves in relation to our communities and how they become our chosen families.

To get a better sense of our local D.C. community, CEDLC Professors Brenda Smith and Dorcas Gilmore instructed the clinic students to explore the various wards of D.C. on a scavenger hunt. The hunt awarded points for finding things such as client locations, historic DC buildings like the Howard Theatre, attending a local farmer’s market…

View original post 174 more words

Lethal Injection Case Exposes Deep Fault Lines Within the Supreme Court on Capital Punishment

wilsonThe following post, by AUWCL International Human Rights Law Clinic founder Richard J.Wilson, originally ran in the Human Rights at Home Blog.

Yesterday’s 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross was, in one way, the affirmation of a longstanding pattern in the court. As both the majority and concurrences point out, the court has never struck down a state’s chosen procedure for carrying out the death penalty. Hanging, electrocution, lethal gas, the firing squad, and lethal injection itself have all withstood constitutional scrutiny. The court had previously upheld a three-drug protocol for lethal injection seven years ago in Baze v. Rees. Here, both the district court and court of appeals had upheld Oklahoma’s use of a different three-drug protocol involving the use of midazolam, a sedative used with the other drugs to induce a state of unconsciousness. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Alito, pointed out that the petitioners had to show the likelihood that they would prevail on the merits, and that the lower courts had not committed “clear error” on the facts. The petitioners failed to carry their burden to show that Oklahoma’s amended protocol poses an “objectively intolerable risk” of severe pain, the majority concluded, and the lower courts’ decisions were affirmed. Simple. So why did the opinion run to 127 printed pages, with two concurrences and two dissents that each were significantly longer than the majority’s ruling? Why were there frequent text and footnote attacks on colleagues’ flawed logic or analysis, often hostile and vitriolic? This is a deeply polarized court on the application of the death penalty itself, and in Glossip, the justices bared their claws for that fight.

This decision brings human rights home in two significant ways. First, the case itself arises from a highly effective international boycott on the manufacture and sale of one of the drugs approved by the court in Baze, a drug that had become the primary sedative in the three-drug protocol used by most states in carrying out lethal injections. As Justice Alito says in his opinion, “activists” and “anti-death-penalty advocates” pushed companies in Europe to stop sale of the drug in question to U.S. prisons for use in executions. While the Alito opinion suggests that this was a civil society movement alone, it in fact was backed by the European Union governments themselves, whose 28 member countries have strongly opposed the use of the death penalty in the United States. Rather than simply expressing their views in the media or in the courts, these governments acted to support what has been called a “moral marketplace,” putting pressure on European companies not to sell execution-related drugs in the U.S. The use of substitute drugs in the lethal injection protocol had led to a number of botched executions across the country, far more than only the state killing of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, a shocking example briefly alluded to in the majority opinion and described in graphic detail in Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan. How effective the execution drug boycott will continue to be after Glossip remains to be seen.

A second, and perhaps more significant development, was the separate dissent by Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg. Breyer’s opinion raises the core question of whether the death penalty itself violates the constitution. It documents a sordid history of executions of innocent people, scores of exonerations of death row inmates over the years, arbitrariness in the death penalty’s imposition, the lack of adequate funding for defense counsel, and protracted delays in execution, now averaging around 18 years. Justice Breyer’s careful documentation and data on those issues provoked strong attacks from both Justices Scalia and Thomas, each of whom wrote a special concurrence solely to assault the Breyer position. Justice Scalia, always ready with barbs and unbecoming sarcasm when in the minority, calls the Breyer opinion “a white paper devoid of any meaningful legal argument,” an argument “full of internal contradictions and (it must be said) gobbledy-gook.” He concludes his opinion with this sentence: “Justice Breyer does not just reject the death penalty, he rejects the Enlightenment.” Harsh words for a cordial colleague. Yet neither he nor the ever-silent Justice Thomas addresses Breyer’s core arguments on exonerations, the right to counsel, or racial disparities in the imposition of the death penalty.

Justice Breyer invokes comparative and international law arguments in his attack on capital punishment. Noting that death row inmates stay in solitary confinement over long periods of time on death row, Breyer refers to theUN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, who has called for a ban on solitary confinement over 15 days. He rehearses an argument often successfully made in other courts around the world: the agonizing years of uncertainty while awaiting execution, exemplified in the decision by the European Court of Human Rights in Soering v. United Kingdom.  There, the court refused to extradite a murder suspect to the United States because of the risk of the prolonged wait on death row, which the court found would be cruel, inhuman or degrading. Breyer invokes that case and similar decisions from Canada, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. He notes that he relies “primarily on domestic, not foreign events” in arguing that the death penalty is “unusual,” anticipating Scalia’s rant about the non-existence of a “world community,” yet notes that in 2013, only 22 countries of the 193 countries in the world carried out an execution, and only eight, including the United States, executed more than 10 individuals. The Inter-American system for human rights protection has never directly addressed the question of methods of execution as a human rights violation, but a decision on admissibility in Medina v. United States, suggests that they will find the use of the electric chair to constitute such a violation. The death penalty is inexorably fading away in practice around the globe, and Justice Breyer is yet another of many Supreme Court members who are its prophets of doom.

I cannot, in good conscience, end this post without a brief allusion to the bizarre requirement, added in the court’s majority opinion, that, in order to prevail on their claim of unconstitutionality, the petitioners themselves must offer a “known and available alternative” method of execution that is not intolerably painful. As Justice Sotomayor aptly notes in her dissent, “some condemned inmates may read the Court’s surreal requirement that they identify the means of their death as an invitation to propose methods of execution less consistent with modern sensibilities.” Et tu, death row inmates?

Immigrant Justice Clinic Argues Case Before Virginia Supreme Court

Jayesh Rathod, Rachel Nadas, Scott Seguin
Jayesh Rathod, Rachel Nadas, Scott Seguin

The Immigrant Justice Clinic (IJC) at American University Washington College of Law argued a case in January before the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The clinic represented Michael Z., a lawful permanent resident who accepted a plea deal that rendered him deportable. The issue before the Court involved the legal standard that a court must apply in determining whether a non-citizen was prejudiced by a trial attorney’s representation.

Third year student Rachel Nadas argued the case, which was co-supervised by Professors Jayesh Rathod and Jenny Roberts.

“Having the opportunity to present oral argument at the Supreme Court of Virginia was an incredible experience,” said Nadas. “Although I was nervous to argue before seven justices, I’m really happy with how the argument went.”

Taking on Michael’s Case

The clinic took on representation of Michael in 2013. He has been a lawful permanent resident since the age of eight. He pleaded guilty to petit larceny with a 365-day suspended sentence, and that single conviction meant that Michael was classified as an aggravated felon for immigration law purposes.

Not only did being an aggravated felon render Michael deportable, it also barred him from seeking various forms of immigration relief.  His criminal defense attorney never informed him of the severe immigration consequences of pleading guilty. He only learned that this offense made him deportable months after accepting the guilty plea when he was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the conclusion of his immigration proceedings, Michael lost his status as a lawful permanent resident and was ordered deported.

Michael has remained in the U.S. because he was granted withholding of removal, a temporary form of immigration relief that allows him to remain in the U.S. due to fear of persecution or death if returned to Ethiopia.  Hoping that Michael could receive a more permanent form of immigration relief, the Clinic pursued a habeas corpus petition to challenge Michael’s petit larceny conviction.

Sofia Vivero’14 and Joe McGlew-Castañeda‘14, student attorneys in the Immigrant Justice Clinic in 2013-14, filed for a writ of habeas corpus with the county court.  They argued that Michael received ineffective assistance of counsel due to failure to provide advice about the deportation consequences of the guilty plea under Padilla v. Kentucky, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case that requires criminal defense attorneys to advise their clients about clear deportation and potential immigration consequences of their criminal convictions.  In Michael’s case, his defense attorney had failed to meet his obligations under Padilla. The Fairfax County Circuit Court denied the habeas petition and held that Michael had not met the prejudice prong of his claim, a requirement for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  The student attorneys filed a petition to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Virginia, arguing that the Fairfax County Circuit Court applied the incorrect legal standard for showing prejudice.

“I’m thrilled I was able to have this experience as a law student.”

In September, the Supreme Court of Virginia agreed to take the full case on the merits.  IJC student attorneys in 2014-15, Alia Al-Khatib and Rachel Nadas, along with co-counsel Scott Seguin from Calderon Seguin, filed opening and reply briefs in the Supreme Court of Virginia on behalf of Michael.

“While writing the brief, it became incredibly clear how unfair such a sentence was for Michael,” said Al-Khatib. “For a minor, non-violent offense, he faced being separated from his family and the country where he had lived almost his entire life.  I was glad that the Clinic took on this case and pursued the habeas petition.”

Both Al-Khatib and Nadas say they enjoyed working on such an important and interesting case.

“I was extremely well prepared after being mooted by several AUWCL faculty members and practitioners,” said Nadas. “I’m thrilled I was able to have this experience as a law student and proud that the Clinic has done everything possible to advocate for Michael.”

The clinic co-counseled this case with Scott Seguin from the law firm Calderon Seguin.

Seguin said he is optimistic that the Virginia Supreme Court will issue a favorable opinion, which is expected sometime in February.

“It has been an absolute pleasure collaborating with the students at the Immigrant Justice Clinic on Michael’s case,” said Seguin. “The students have brought great enthusiasm and worked tirelessly trying to overturn Michael’s conviction.”

Note: This post was originally published by the AUWCL Public Relations and Marketing department on the law school’s website.