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 U.S. Supreme Court 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

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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

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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.

Volunteering at DC SAFE

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From left, DVC students Lindy Stone and Heather Lothrop, Practitioner in Residence Natalie Nanasi, DVC students Amy Gordon and Prianka Sharma-Iacobucci.

Students in the Domestic Violence Clinic volunteered at DC Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment (SAFE) for WCL’s Day of Service on March 29th. DC SAFE “ensures the safety and self-determination for survivors of domestic violence in the Washington, DC area through emergency services, court advocacy and system reform.”

WCL’s Office of Public Interest organized the Day of Service.

Tax Clinic Students Prepare Returns for Low Income Area Residents

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3L Tax Clinic Student Brendan Valentine volunteers at a VITA site

As we approach the tax filing deadline, we report that, as a pro bono project spearheaded each year by Janet R. Spragens Federal Tax Clinic students, this spring, nearly 50 WCL student volunteers  are preparing tax returns for low-income taxpayers throughout the District of Columbia, Montgomery County, Maryland and Northern Virginia in conjunction with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Student volunteers complete twelve hours of training and certification before preparing taxes at their respective volunteer sites. On average, students commit to volunteering twenty hours during the spring semester. The project was coordinated this year by 3L Michelle Ramos Domingue.

“Out of the WCL pro bono programs I have participated in, VITA has been the most rewarding,” said Brendan Valentine, a third year law student and VITA volunteer. “VITA is a program that fits naturally with WCL students and our commitment to public service and it is a program I am very proud to be a part of.”

Students also volunteered in tax outreach programs with the Office of Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Students Collaborate on Sierra Leone Human Rights Report

Clinic students Diana Navas and Jacqueline Zamarripa, meet their advocacy partner, Osman Kargbo of Dignity Association Sierra Leone.
Clinic students Diana Navas and Jacqueline Zamarripa, meet their advocacy partner, Osman Kargbo of Dignity Association Sierra Leone.

Geneva, Switzerland: The International Human Rights Law Clinic participated in the UN Human Rights Committee’s review of Sierra Leone’s commitment to implementing its obligations under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on March 11th-12th. In preparation for the State’s first review, clinic students Diana Navas and Jacqueline Zamarripa, under the supervision of Practitioner in Residence Shana Tabak, worked with several Sierra Leonean organizations to prepare a collaborative shadow report on the violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Sierra Leone. The shadow report can be found online here.

While in Geneva, Navas and Zamarripa met one of their Sierra Leonean partners for the very first time.  Together, they participated in an informal meeting with Committee members and also gave a formal oral presentation on the contents of their shadow report.

During the two-day review, the Committee expressed serious concerns about a wide range of issues occurring throughout Sierra Leone. Despite the absence of Sierra Leone’s delegation to properly address each concern, civil society organizations discussed the appalling prison conditions, the widening impunity gap for security officers accused of unlawful killings, the lack of diversity of the Constitutional Review Committee, the failure of the state to abolish the death penalty, and the violence perpetrated against persons on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. The review focused extensively on civil and political rights, and served as an eye opener to the progress Sierra Leone has made as well as the significant challenges that persist in addressing these rights.

Members of the Sierra Leone civil society group with International Human Rights Law Clinic supervisor, Shana Tabak.
Members of the Sierra Leone civil society group with International Human Rights Law Clinic supervisor, Shana Tabak.
Group picture of the Sierra Leone NGO group, including Osman Kargbo of Dignity Association,  Mambu Feika of Prison Watch Sierra Leone, Ibrahim Tommy of the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Valerie Tucker of IPAS and clinic students, Diana Navas and Jacqueline Zamarripa from the International Human Rights Law Clinic.
Group picture of the Sierra Leone NGO group, including Osman Kargbo of Dignity Association, Mambu Feika of Prison Watch Sierra Leone, Ibrahim Tommy of the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Valerie Tucker of IPAS and clinic students, Diana Navas and Jacqueline Zamarripa from the International Human Rights Law Clinic.

Text and pictures courtesy of Diana Navas and Jacqueline Zamarripa.