Washington Lawyer

First Clients, First Cases

From Washington Lawyer, January/February 2000

By Michele M. Capots

When a man found success selling antiques at the Georgetown Flea Market, he decided to open his own antique store. And when he ran into roadblocks, he turned to the Small Business Clinic at George Washington University Law School for help. The clinic’s law students helped him address zoning problems, negotiate with the landlord on building space, and apply for a secondhand dealer’s license.

Eight months later, when Susan R. Jones, director of the Small Business Clinic, walked into the store to check on the client, she couldn’t believe her eyes. "I was amazed at how put-together it was," says Jones. "And I couldn’t afford anything in that store."

Jones’s excitement continues when she walks through certain communities today and sees the fruits of the labor performed by her students at the clinic-whether it’s at the coffee shop near the local university or at the nonprofit around the corner.

Clinical education has become a standard part of the curriculum in law schools today. But more than two decades ago, when the clinics were young, they were met with skepticism, says Wally Mlyniec, clinical law director at Georgetown University Law Center, because administrators and faculty feared that clinical programs would funnel funds from other important needs. But the clinics survived because their mix of both practice and theory made them immensely popular with law students. In clinical education programs, the students are required to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to assist real clients who are struggling with real legal problems in the real world.

This gives the students client contact and courtroom experience that cannot be obtained in the classroom. Through supervision and additional instruction, the students are taught how to handle a wide range of legal problems. "Clinical education provides students the chance to get all of the benefits of real practice without the cost," says Frank H. Wu, who cosupervises the Elder Law Clinic at Howard University School of Law. The students know they don’t have all of the answers, and they also know their professors’ doors are always open. "For students, this is their first encounter with what they imagined the profession would be about," says Rick Wilson, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law. "The students are dealing with real cases, which turns the usual law school equation upside down. It forces students to deal with a chaotic world of facts, and it puts them in touch with the reality that the law doesn’t divide itself neatly into components, like law school subjects. The students have to figure out how to apply what they’ve learned to their cases."

The health and vitality of clinical education is evident in the District of Columbia, where the District’s six law schools all have vibrant clinical programs that cover a wide range of practice areas, from community and economic development to elder law to federal legislation. Between American University, Catholic University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, and the University of the District of Columbia, the schools offer 38 separate clinics, in 38 substantive areas of the law.

The Washington Lawyer recently visited all six law schools in the District and met with students and directors from one clinic at each school in an attempt to explore the types of work today’s law students are doing. What we found was a group of determined, motivated future lawyers who are actively representing indigent clients struggling with a variety of difficult problems, from starting up a new business, to the threat of extradition, to domestic violence and child custody-to name but a few. While many of these problems represent uncharted territory for the law students, the students were eager to accept the challenge and put forth untold hours on behalf of clients in need of legal representation.

All of the students and administrators emphasized the fact that such practical, hands-on experience greatly enhanced the quality of their legal education. In addition, Patty Corwin, a third-year student enrolled in the Domestic Violence Clinic at Catholic’s Columbus School of Law, says that her clinical experience has helped her to understand what her teachers mean when they discuss the importance of pro bono work. "I heard that all through law school-help others, do pro bono," says Corwin. "But it wasn’t until now that I fully understood. Today, as a result of my work in the Domestic Violence Clinic, I can say, ’I really do make a difference.’"

American University
Washington College of Law International Human Rights Law Clinic
Rick Wilson, Director
Seeking political asylum from his country, an 18-year-old Angolan fled to the United States. He was so terrified that he would be forced to return to his country that when he got off the plane at Dulles International Airport, he told authorities that he had murdered a policeman in Angola. The young man thought that was the only way he would be permitted to stay.

That young Angolan is illustrative of the type of clients law students are likely to encounter at the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American University, which was founded by its director, Rick Wilson, 10 years ago. While this young man was detained in Manassas, two of Wilson’s students, who had never been to court and had never handled an immigration case, worked very hard to contest the grounds for charging their client with a felony. "Our defense was that this man was so desperate to find a way to stay in the United States, and not return to his homeland, that he was willing to lie about murder," says Wilson. As a consequence of the facts the students compiled and brought to the judge’s attention in court, the client was eventually granted political asylum and allowed to remain in the United States. Had he been returned to Angola, there is a good chance that he would not have survived.

At the clinic, the law students see individuals fleeing from political persecution, torture, and other harrowing situations every day. Wilson and the faculty prepare the clinic’s 26 students to represent clients who fear legal institutions and who may have fled their own countries because of that fear. "In the classroom we focus on client engagement, face-to-face work, and case theory," says Wilson, who adds that his clinic is only one of five in the country to do this type of work. "My syllabus includes interviewing, fact investigation, counseling, litigation, political action, and media work."

Dee Daniels, a second-year student under Wilson’s supervision, is currently handling an active political asylum case and a human resources case, while following up on a client who received asylum last year. On the asylum case, Daniels and her fellow law student, Jen Cromwell, also a second-year student, are scheduled to go to court in March. Their client, who doesn’t speak English, filed for political asylum defensively, which means he entered the United States without the proper paperwork. The two students met with him, filed the asylum application, found a translator, and prepared the client for the master calendar hearing, where the client is asked either to admit or to deny any allegations that have been raised. At the hearing the judge set the March trial date and the students submitted documentation, affidavits, names of witnesses, and a personal summary from their client. "This is really exciting, because I’ve never been in a clinic before, I’ve never gone to court, and I’ve never practiced," Daniels says. "But knowing I will be going to court to represent a client puts the law into perspective. All of a sudden you care about what you’re doing. It’s not just words in a book-it directly affects another person."

The students are lining up witnesses, talking to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and preparing opening and closing arguments. "You’re learning how to deal with your client and learning the law at the same time," says Cromwell. "It’s overwhelming. But incredibly rewarding."

In addition to the practical experience she has obtained, Daniels says another reward of her clinical experience has been the opportunity to meet judges and lawyers. Through her advisers she has made connections to the human rights community, and has attended seminars and trainings that she might not have heard about otherwise. But more than anything, the clinical experience has given her the satisfaction of fighting for a cause she believes in. "These people have suffered," she says, "and we are seeking justice."

Catholic University
Columbus School of Law
Domestic Violence Clinic
Catherine F. Klein, Director
A scared 17-year-old girl stopped going to high school because her boyfriend was harassing her. The boy physically assaulted her at school, tried to rape her in the stairwell, and then obtained her class schedule and signed up for the same classes. To make matters worse, the two shared a child, and to get the girl’s attention the boy took dangerous measures, including holding the child in front of a moving car.

When the girl turned to the Columbus Community Legal Services’ Domestic Violence Clinic, the law students helped the girl to get back in school and obtain a civil protection order. After the boy violated the order, he was arrested and not permitted to return to the school. "A lot of us are amazed at how far the level of violence has increased for kids," says Catherine F. Klein, director of the Domestic Violence Clinic, which had 16 students enrolled last semester. "This girl sticks out as someone who got help from us, because she’s back in school and no longer afraid."

A goal of the clinical program at Columbus Community Legal Services is to teach students how their work with their clients also affects the community. The students are taught that they have a professional responsibility not only to clients, but to the community. "We don’t want students to just look at the question ’What does my client need today?’" explains Margaret Barry, an associate professor of law at the clinic. "We want them to look at the community and ask, "What can I do to help?’"

Barry says the clinic instructors place a heavy emphasis on listening skills. Domestic violence usually brings complex, emotionally complicated issues to the fore that are not easy to resolve. Often financial concerns and child custody are part of the mix. As a consequence, the clients are frequently confused and uncertain of what it is that they hope to achieve. "I stress to my clients we’re there as avenues for information, as well as advocates," says third-year student Lisa Clark. "A lot of the time it doesn’t matter what we think. What we might think to be best may not be best for the client. Sometimes an immediate resolution is not the solution."

For example, it took a Latino woman 17 years of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse before she was able to gather the courage to leave her husband. During her years of abuse, the woman gathered information, collected documents, kept a file of the dates of violent occurrences, and then finally found the courage to leave and go to a place where her husband could not reach her. "We train our students to keep the lines of communication open," says Barry. "Support is very important if a woman decides to leave."

Trust, says student Melisa Bennett, is the vital first component that needs to be established with the clients in the clinic. Her clients have brought her photographs of their families, and she’s even held their newborn children in her arms while talking them through their tears. "The pain these women experience is deeper than ’this person hit me,’" Bennett says. "They don’t want to see the men they love in jail. And they don’t know that they have alternatives."

Patty Corwin, a third-year student at the clinic, has met with battered clients who have come seeking help but have not taken action to permanently extricate themselves from their situations. She explains that statistics show it’s usually not until the second or third time a person is abused that he or she begins to seek help. With one client, Corwin sent numerous letters informing her that her temporary protection order (TPO) was about to expire, but she did not hear from the client. Then, on the day before the TPO was to expire, another violent incident occurred between the client and her partner. It was at that point that the client returned to see Corwin. "It’s important to leave the doors open," says Corwin. "If I hadn’t kept trying to communicate with this woman, she might not have felt like she could come back."

Corwin says that her experience working with battered women has been invaluable, because she has learned how to build trust and rapport under exceedingly difficult circumstances. "You can’t get that type of education as an intern in a law firm," she says. "There you might photocopy, get coffee, come in a few days a week, but here we make a difference in the lives of others."

Georgetown University Law Center
Juvenile Justice Clinic
Wally Mlyniec, Director
A 15-year-old boy gets into a car that is being driven by a friend. Five other kids are already inside, and as the boy looks around he realizes this isn’t his friend’s car. This car has automatic windows, a sunroof, and a loud stereo system. But he doesn’t ask any questions. He doesn’t say anything at all.

Fifteen minutes later the car is pulled over by the police. All five boys are arrested-including the one who just got in the car 15 minutes earlier. "Often times kids don’t realize things are crimes," says Wally Mlyniec, director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown. "Yes, this kid was just a passenger, but he knew the car was stolen. In the eyes of the law, he’s as guilty as the kid who stole it."

The Juvenile Justice Clinic was founded in 1973 to represent children accused of crimes, and most of the clinic’s clients are black males ranging in age from 14 to 17. Mlyniec does not believe that children today are "worse" than they were 20 years ago, but where they once might have picked up rocks, today they have guns. As an example, he cites the clinic’s first client who killed someone. It was the boy’s first violent crime, and prior to that he had been a petty thief. "But he committed an armed robbery that went bad," says Mlyniec. "If he didn’t have access to a gun, he’d probably be a purse snatcher instead of a murderer."

Mlyniec says the toughest part of the equation does not necessarily involve the juvenile crimes that have been committed, but involves 14- and 15-year-old kids whose needs are left unmet by the system. These kids are often abused, undereducated, and come from single-parent homes. In addition to handling the strictly legal aspects of their cases, the law students try to help their young clients get support and guidance. When possible, attempts are made to improve living and educational situations, and if necessary, to place them in alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs. Mlyniec concedes he and his students are frequently fighting against the odds, but he is quick to add, "In this business, some kids will succeed because someone else takes an interest in them."

Rebecca Starr, a third-year student at the clinic, currently has two open cases. She has successfully established a rapport with her first client and his family, but with another client she has had to work harder. "When you first meet a client, they’re incredibly confused," she says. "You have to get them to trust you, and that’s not always easy." Starr is white, and she notes that one of her clients, who is black, views her as part of the system-an authority figure that he automatically views as being out to get him. Starr says that in such a situation it takes time to break through racial barriers and preconceptions. It takes patience, but eventually the juvenile offenders will come to realize you’re working for them, not against them. She says that although the lawyer-client relationship varies from client to client, most kids need to believe you’re not going to disappear on them, and that you’re not going to turn your back on them. Demonstrating that requires a lot of work and patience.

By the time the law students enrolled in the Juvenile Justice Clinic go to their first hearing, they’ve had more than 60 hours of training. Yet the professors cannot fully prepare them for the dramas that take place in the courtrooms, and the student advocates need to think on their feet. "Occasionally, children are charged with a crime that isn’t that serious, but it becomes serious when the parents decide they can no longer handle the child," says Barbara Butterworth, the deputy director of the clinic. "All of a sudden, a simple case becomes difficult when a decision about that child’s future is going to be made at that hearing. Where will the child go? Who will he live with?"

The clinic instructors strive to prepare students for such contingencies, and to make them aware that unlike in adult court, more players are involved, such as parents, teachers, and social workers. Starr says that weeks of intensive classroom training are helpful, but she notes that it’s impossible to address all of the contingencies that might arise. The quickest way to learn how to address an important issue is to have it come up in court. "Luckily, we have our supervisors there to turn to when we need them," she says.

Benjamin Adams, a third-year student who hopes to do corporate and transactional work, says that the greatest lesson he has learned has been to withhold judgment. In trying to help his clients, he’s learned that the criminal cases aren’t always about right and wrong, and that circumstances aren’t always what they seem. "Yes, a kid might have sold crack cocaine, but that kid might also have a drug problem," he points out. "At the clinic, we refer kids to drug rehab programs and to mentoring programs." That, he notes, is often much more efficacious than punishment.

George Washington University
George Washington University Law School
Small Business Clinic
Susan R. Jones, Director
Law student John Gambaccini sees his clients as colleagues. He can relate to the businessmen and businesswomen who are his clients, because prior to law school he owned his own restaurant in northwest Ohio, the Three Brothers Pizza Company. At first, the third-year student decided not to tell his clients about his business, but after it kept coming up in conversation, Gambaccini realized he could use this information to his advantage. "The clients know that we are students," he says. "The fact that I am also a business owner provides me with credibility."

During this clinical experience, Gambaccini has helped Singa, a nonprofit company that provides job training in the fashion and textile industry, to finalize its tax-exempt status. He checked the company’s records and its status with the Internal Revenue Service. He looked at trademark requirements, helped Singa apply for a trademark, and saw the tax-exempt status finalized last October. He also helped a group of people working with underprivileged youth set up a nonprofit organization, the Wonderful World of Bright Hope Inc., to qualify for grants. He has filed documents of incorporation and drafted a federal tax-exempt status application, and currently is in the process of filing for a trademark.

Gambaccini ran into a problem when he had to tell Bright Hope to change its name because another company, which was in a similar business for more than 15 years, already owned the name. "So as their lawyer, the first thing I tell them is to change their name, which doesn’t go over so well," Gambaccini says with a laugh. "But they agreed to change it as long as it still reflects the work that they do."

Of the experience he has gained, Gambaccini says, "I’m amazed at some of the ideas my clients have. We’re giving people an opportunity to move forward on something that is their own."

Susan R. Jones has been directing the Small Business Clinic since 1988, and it is the oldest small business legal clinic in the country. Jones helps her students learn transactional law while assisting microbusinesses that don’t have access to legal services. A microbusiness is defined as having one to five people with less than $5,000 to start up. The clinic works in partnership with the Small Business Administration through a program called the Small Business Development Center. The clinic’s clients run the gamut, and include for-profit organizations, nonprofit organizations, and organizations engaged in economic development in Washington, D.C.

Jones explains that a lot of small entrepreneurs don’t realize what their legal needs are, and therefore don’t understand how the Small Business Clinic can help them. "Lawyers aren’t just litigators," she says. "They’re planners. They’re not only good at fixing problems that already exist-they can help prevent problems before they arise."

Third-year student Andrew Weinstein has learned something about prevention. When he met his first client, a manicurist in the District, he knew nothing about her line of work. The client wanted to form a limited liability company (LLC) and needed to incorporate, but she didn’t know how, or what her tax implications would be. Weinstein helped her redraft her lease agreement with the landlord, discussed whether or not to register the company as a trademark, and looked into the licenses she would need to comply with the law. After doing his research, Weinstein advised her to go with an LLC because of the liability issues she might have to face in the future-such as a customer’s reactions to chemicals. "I asked a lot of questions, and she was very good at helping me help her," says Weinstein.

The client, Tomika Williams, owner of Exquisite Nails for You in northwest Washington, barely noticed her lawyer was still a student. "He made me see a lot of stuff I didn’t know," says Williams. "I had no idea how important it is to have a business plan, or even what licenses I needed."

Howard University
Howard University School of Law
Clinical Law Center
Elder Law Clinic
Homer C. La Rue, Director
An elderly woman’s daughter was addicted to drugs and was in and out of treatment centers. She disappeared for days at a time, neglecting her six- and nine-year-old children. The grandmother hated watching her daughter self-destruct, and hated what it was doing to her grandchildren even more. So she contacted the Elder Law Clinic to seek custody of the children.

Two Howard University law students were assigned to the case. The students prepared the grandmother’s documents, argued her case, and eventually won custody. "The client was so thrilled, she insisted upon making dinner for the students and their supervisors," says Homer C. La Rue, director of the Clinical Law Center and the Elder Law Clinic. "There was no saying no to her. She cooked a lavish meal, and even served chitlins, a traditional African American southern dish, which she made sure we all had."

The Elder Law Clinic began in 1994, and all of the clinic’s clients are 55 years of age or older. They are also indigent, which La Rue defines as having an annual income of less than $18,000. In addition to child custody cases, the clinic handles landlord-tenant disputes, civil commitment cases where someone is trying to institutionalize an elderly person, social security matters, and entitlement applications and appeals. "It takes a unique person to deal with issues that affect the elderly, because the clients have a lot of experience," says Kim Hicks, a third-year student interested in civil practice and litigation. "We, on the other hand, are still young. They see us as being inexperienced and demand a lot of proof from us."

For example, Hicks says she and a fellow student had a client in a landlord-tenant dispute that had already gone through a trial and the client wanted a rehearing. The students worked hard to prepare an appeal, and when Hicks called the client to report on the substance of the brief, the woman asked a series of detailed questions. The client beleived that her argument wasn’t consistent with the argument the students were planning to file with the court. "So here I am, this twentysomething on the phone with this fiftysomething woman trying to explain the law to her," Hicks says. "She was a retired college professor, and I honestly felt like one of her pupils."

Although they’ve yet to receive a decision as to whether the client will be granted or denied a rehearing, the experience taught Hicks a valuable lesson. "There is a certain level of distrust of lawyers in general because of our reputation," she says. "This experience taught me how important it is to communicate with your client. The elderly may be indigent, but they are also very wise."

The nine law students in the clinic receive their cases from legal service providers, such as the Legal Counsel for the Elderly and the Legal Aid Society. For Hicks the clinic has been more than rewarding. "We have the opportunity to gain practical experience that young attorneys in law firms might not be able to get for years-like taking a dealreadyposition," she says. "We’re still in law school, and we’ve done that. That’s what makes clinical education so special."

Kobby Warren, a third year student who wants to litigate, says he thinks the clinical experience prepares students for the transition from law school to the practice of law. "We realize the importance of work we’re doing. If we don’t do the job correctly, it can have an adverse effect on our clients’ lives."

Frank H. Wu, who cosupervises the Elder Law Clinic at Howard University, agrees with that assessment. "I believe all students should have clinical experience before they graduate," he says. "Otherwise all they have is book knowledge."

University of the District of Columbia
David E. Clark School of Law
HIV Public Entitlements Clinic
Gay Gellhorn, Director

A godmother recently lost a godchild (who had a 10-year-old daughter) to AIDS, and as a result the girl was left with no one to take care of her. The child’s father was incarcerated, and the godmother wanted to become her caretaker.

Angela Henderson, a second-year law student, knew she was faced with the difficult task-the task of persuading the court to grant custody of a child to a non-related party. To complicate matters further, the godmother seeking custody had cancer. "Our task," says Henderson, "was to prove what the godmother could do for that child." The client and her sister had already taken the child to her doctor’s appointments, visited her teachers, taken her to church, and loved her as if she were their own. Henderson was thrilled when she prevailed in court on the basis of the legal standard of "what’s in the best interest of the child." She also knows that without the legal help she provided, the godmother would not have obtained custody.

"There’s so much discrimination directed against people who have AIDS," says Henderson, who hopes someday to practice health law. "They lose their homes, health insurance, and jobs. At the clinic we get to say, ’Hey, that’s not right. It’s not okay-and we can help you.’"

The clinic serves as the legal arm for the Family Ties Project, which was founded to assist families with children whose primary caregiver has AIDS or HIV. Gay Gellhorn, director of the clinic, says that clients come from case managers at hospitals and from other clinics. The 10 law students enrolled in the clinic handle child custody, wills, advanced directives, social security disability, and other issues that arise from HIV-related legal problems. Until recently, Gellhorn directed the clinic with Susan Waysdorf, who founded the HIV Clinic and recently branched off to form the new Prisoner’s Rights Advocacy Clinic.

Gellhorn says the clinic teaches students the law through direct experience. "Our students learn how to represent clients, and they learn professional responsibility through hands-on experience. They learn how legal knowledge is applied."

"I like to meet clients and I like to litigate," says Lenny Polk, a third-year student at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). "This clinic gives us the opportunity to offer clients quality legal representation, which makes all of the work worthwhile."

Henderson agrees that the clinic provides students with great practical education, but she adds that there is no way to prepare oneself emotionally for this type of work. She has not lost a client yet, but knows plenty of students who have. "I had a close family member die of AIDS, which had a huge impact on my decision to choose this clinic," she says.

Henderson admits that at times it is not easy, but when she prevails on behalf of a client, there is no greater sense of accomplishment. "Today I have confidence that the system does work," she says, as she recalls a recent client who was an inmate with AIDS. Although his situation looked hopeless, Henderson argued at his revocation hearing that medical parole would be in his best interest. After she persuaded the hearing officers, they in turn persuaded the D.C. Board of Parole. "The bottom line is they released this guy, and now he can die at home with his family instead of in a jail cell." The case, she adds, reaffirmed her strong sense of "why there is such a significant need for our lawyer representation of indigent clients."

Closing Thoughts
More than 30 years ago the deans of five of the D.C. law schools backed a plan to allow third-year law students to defend indigents in small claims cases before the Court of General Sessions. That petition led to the adoption of a student practice rule, and for the first time law students, when supervised by an attorney, were permitted to argue cases in the local court system. In the intervening years, all six law schools that are located in the District of Columbia developed vibrant clinical education programs that have capitalized on the student practice rule. As a result, law students today are graduating with practical courtroom experience and direct client involvement that were unavailable to preceding generations of students.

"Clinical education is a great asset to the students in the job market," observes Rick Wilson, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at American. "Most students will go into firms where they will handle cases. Nothing other than clinical programs can fully prepare them to do so. My students take clinical education and absorb it like a sponge." Wally Mlyniec, clinical law director at Georgetown Law Center, agrees. Law firms want employees who are ready to go to court. "I know of firms that have looked at two very similar résumés for a junior associate position, except one candidate had the clinical experience and the other did not," he says. Invariably, the law firms "hire the individual with the clinical experience."

In addition to the hands-on experience, many students also gain confidence in themselves. Rebecca Starr says she was petrified of presenting in a courtroom before her clinical experience. Now it "blows my mind," she laughs, at how comfortable and confident she is in a courtroom. Nicole Ellison, a third-year law student at George Washington’s Small Business Clinic, says that in addition to gaining experience, the students have the satisfaction of doing good work. "You have the opportunity to give something back to the community. You’re giving your services, your time, and your legal assistance to a client who otherwise wouldn’t have legal representation."

This semester area law students are helping juvenile offenders enroll in drug and alcohol treatment facilities; they’re helping battered women find shelter and safety; they’re helping clients with HIV put their affairs in order; they’re helping small entrepreneurs start up businesses that revitalize local neighborhoods-and so much more. "Part of our mission is to educate compassionate lawyers by exposing them to public interest," says UDC’s Susan Waysdorf. "And the other part is to help the community." By combining the two, many directors find their students do go on to do pro bono work. Adds Barbara Butterworth, deputy director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown, "we can only hope that the students choose to take with them the skills they learned through their clinical education."

Michele M. Capots is a staff writer for The Washington Lawyer