Everyone Starts Somewhere

Now that the first weeks of Clinic orientations, seminars, and simulation exercises are over, our students are happily (we hope) digging into their cases and learning about their clients. For some students, this can be overwhelming at first. Clients are not just names on paper; they are people who show up and expect you to help solve their problems. They are trusting you. No pressure at all!

Every lawyer has been there. We all have to start somewhere, and we are honored to provide a place for our students to begin transforming into the kinds of lawyers they want to be. By way of reassurance, and after some cajoling, we present photographic evidence from some of our clinical faculty, so that you can see that they were just like you once. They learned their professional style, and so will you.

For Professor Anita Sinha, who directs our International Human Rights Law Clinic, her start was with a Skadden Fellowship with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle in the fall of 2001, not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She remembers, “I was at a conference with my then supervisor and colleague outside Seattle, trying to make sense of what happened and figure out how I could execute my fellowship project in this completely changed environment. Hard to believe, but I didn’t figure it out – but I was grateful for that and other chances to step back, assess, and re-group.”

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Professor Claire Donohue (Domestic Violence Clinic) was kind enough to offer an unflinchingly honest view of her law school experience.

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“Writing my 2L book review”

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“Graduating with a JD/MSW, with a clerkship and an offer from the public defenders”

“I referred to law school as “white collar vocational school” and counted the minutes until I was done. I had some wonderful teachers at Boston College and count many as my friends now, and I have lasting friendships with law school friends too; but the overall experience was not for me. I was so anxious to get out and be a real attorney. I never did clinic in law school, because my social work field placement hours gobbled up those credits. I figured legal practice was something separate from school. . . and I felt done with school before I even began.

“I seriously never would have guessed that one day I would be working in a law school let alone gratuitously working with students on their comments and notes. My experience as clinical faculty allows me to connect practice to theory in ways I think I was craving in school. Writing is still challenging for me, but there is no more throw up face!”

Some of our faculty didn’t offer as much commentary about what they were thinking at the time, but we can all agree that they looked fantastic.

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Finally, in the process of obtaining the pictures above, we ran across our very favorite early-professional picture: Future Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

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Can someone please get this woman a robe already?

We know that you’re all going to do great things, starting now.

How Clinic Builds Leaders

White House

Those who watched President Bill Clinton’s speech at the DNC last Tuesday in support of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency might have noticed not just one, but two brief references to clinical legal education. Specifically, President Clinton noted that Secretary Clinton worked with a clinical project while a student at Yale Law School, and while teaching at the University of Arkansas School of Law, she started “the first legal aid clinic in northwest Arkansas, providing legal aid services to poor people who couldn’t pay for them.”

Regardless of whether one supports her candidacy, Secretary Clinton has proven herself as a leader throughout her career. This got the AUWCL faculty thinking about how clinical legal education promotes leadership qualities.

1. “Clinical education is like cross fit. You have to use different muscles and activities to achieve your goal. It means you are constantly doing balance checks and adjusting.  That kind of practice builds endurance, tenacity and capacity – skills you need to work for justice and to have a long career as a lawyer.”Professor Brenda V. Smith, Community & Economic Development Law Clinic.

2. “In clinic, we teach our students to see the world through the eyes of their clients and then to use that perspective to engage in zealous advocacy that not only accomplishes clients’ objectives, but also projects their clients’ authentic voices in spaces in which they often feel silenced. These are critical leadership skills.”Professor Llezlie Green Coleman, Civil Advocacy Clinic.

3. “Clinical legal pedagogy is about helping great people who want to do great things in the world overcome their fears.” Professor Anita Sinha, Immigrant Justice Clinic.

4. “Engaging in clinical work involves a transformative experience in the way we understand the contributing factors to inequality in society. That new perspective stays with students and professors throughout our professional careers, influencing our decisions and actions regardless of the paths we take.”Professor Andrea Parra, Immigrant Justice Clinic.

5. “Clinic produces great leaders because we give students space to ask, ‘Why? Why the injustice? Why the suffering? And why not? Why not advocate in this way? Why not push back? Why not take a second or closer look?’ We don’t just stop at asking those questions. Then we say, okay do something: act, move, go.”Professor Claire Donohue, Domestic Violence Clinic.

6. “Clinical teachers are reformers, concerned about injustice and focused on changing the institutions that contribute to it. They are advocates for the types of change that only the political system can accomplish.” Professor Elliott Milstein, Civil Advocacy Clinic

Are you an AUWCL Clinic alum? What do you think? If you think of ways your clinical experience shaped your career, please comment below.

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…

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

WCL Community Economic Development Law Clinic

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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…

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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…

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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…

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