By Ed Finkel.
Clinic Serves the Community
Walking across the stage to receive her diploma might be only the second-most memorable experience of Larisa Bowman’s graduation day from Stanford University Law School in 2009.
Earlier that day, she had received a call from Juliet Brodie, director of Stanford’s Community Law Clinic in impoverished East Palo Alto, California, to say that the clinic had won a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 136 lower-income renters who had claimed their landlord was in violation of the city’s rent control ordinance.
“It was wild timing,” Bowman says. “I was putting on my cap and gown. And Juliet called and said, ‘We won.’” After working on the case during her second and third years of law school, the news was joyous. “I remember crying about it when I thought we would lose,” she says. “The effect of that would have been completely devastating.”
The case was appealed but ultimately settled with Wells Fargo, which took over once the original landlord ended up being foreclosed upon.
Operating out of an East Palo Alto storefront, the Community Law Clinic is one of nine such clinics at Stanford, the other eight of which are based on campus. And Stanford is one of dozens of law schools that offer such clinics, focused on a variety of legal terrains, to the benefit of community members and law students alike.
The Community Law Clinic, which has existed for about two decades, handles housing, employment, and public benefit law, as well as criminal record expungement for low-income people throughout the region. As with the other eight clinics at Stanford, the Community Law Clinic operates at full tilt two academic quarters per year, with 10 to 22 students; professors and supervising attorneys handle cases on their own the rest of the year.
Brodie acknowledges that can be “frustrating for the clientele. Their unpaid wages don’t go by that calendar. It is what it is. But it’s better than nothing.” Unfortunately, Stanford and other clinics can’t always meet the demand. “There’s a constant demand and a higher demand than we could ever meet,” she says. “It’s a question of how many people are we turning away?”
Students who work the Community Law Clinic tell Brodie they get “incredible legal training” as well as “a front-row seat to the access-to-justice crisis in our community.” The former covers basic trial advocacy, including negotiation, client counseling, discovery, and motion practice. “We put them under very close clinical supervision, we give them as close to full first-chair responsibility [in a case] as we can,” she says. “The whole purpose is to give novice lawyers an opportunity to get their hands dirty, to roll up their sleeves.”
Brodie adds, “The facts are not a fact pattern on a law school exam. They’re a real person’s story.”
As for a front-row seat to the access-to-justice crisis, Brodie says, “They see how few lawyers there are, how clients’ outcomes differ from those who try to make their way through the labor standards process on their own, what kind of difference it makes to have someone who can put up a defense, procedural and substantive, and really change the dynamic of the case entirely.”
Bowman, now a staff attorney and Skadden Fellow at the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, California, says her experience in the clinic definitely refined the shape of her career direction, although she knew she had an interest in public service. “The clinic . . . not only exposes you to substantive areas of law, but you have time to think about broader issues and themes,” she says. “How does what I’m doing fit into a broader collective movement for social justice? To reflect and think about that was definitely formative for me.”
At the technical level, Bowman says she learned the nuts and bolts of an eviction case, which operates on a very condensed time-frame—motion practice, discovery, settlement conferences, and trials. “I learned that it’s right for me and my personality in many ways,” she says. “I enjoy the fast-paced nature and the unpredictability of it. You have to think on your toes.”
Some of her classmates found frustrating the that landlord plaintiffs had the first opportunity to frame a case—and that their clients have sometimes made mistakes. “You have to figure out ways to reframe it,” Bowman says. “You’re kind of like a criminal defense attorney in a way, responding to someone else and poking holes in their case. They’re always weird and bizarre cases, things you could never make up.”
Current Stanford third-year Jessica Greenlick Snyder, who worked for the Community Law Clinic in the spring and summer, wants to work in legal aid or become a public defender when she graduates. “You do it all,” she says. “You file discovery requests. . . . Many of the students in the clinic do a deposition. That’s something that often students who will be going into the private sector don’t do for several years. It’s great experience to get at this stage of our careers.”
At a clinic, students have more time to work on cases than most practicing attorneys. They’re able to moot with a partner or a supervisor, for example. “That is not only a benefit to us, but it is a benefit to our clients,” Snyder says. “It is great real-world experience that you don’t get at this level of your career otherwise. . . . Juliet has the philosophy that these are our clients, they’re not her clients.”
To represent these clients, Stanford students undergo “tons of training” on interviewing and communicating with clients, Snyder says. She’s gained experience in “being a real human being with these people, balancing the need for empathy in situations like this with being an objective person who can deal with these problems, [and] not being overwhelmed by serious situations.”
Snyder recalls a “sad and scary” eviction case that was literally keeping her up at night. When she sent an e-mail to Brodie at 1:30 a.m. expressing a thought about the case, Brodie e-mailed back immediately to say, “I’m having the same thought. You need to go to sleep. Bye.”
The Facts about Tax
Some might think the phrase “low-income taxpayer” is an oxymoron, but students at Gonzaga University School of Law’s Tax Clinic know differently. The Federal Tax Clinic, part of Gonzaga’s 37-year-old nonprofit legal assistance clinic, handles anything from underreporting of stock losses to dependency issues vis-à-vis the Earned Income Tax Credit.
“A lot of taxpayers, when the economy tanked, thought they didn’t have to report stock losses,” says Jennifer Gellner, supervising tax attorney at the clinic, regarding the stock cases, which often stem from failed businesses. “The IRS receives third-party information about the sales but doesn’t know the cost basis.”
Third-year student Sarah Cuellar, an assistant to Gellner, explains that many divorced lower-income people stipulate in their divorce decree which parent can claim any dependents for tax purposes. When both parents claim the child, “there’s documentary evidence you need to enforce that in family court, if the ex-spouse is refusing to sign it.”
The Tax Clinic is staffed with between five and eight students, who serve 50 to 60 clients at any one time, says Gellner who also has a private practice. Clients must earn no more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level with a tax liability of $50,000 or less.
In one recent case in Alaska, where Gonzaga’s clinic helps out with tax court calendars because the state has no law schools, Gellner and her students helped a woman who was being hounded for unpaid employment taxes related to a business owned by her ex-husband, who had secretly listed her as a co-owner. “It took a long time, but we got her liability taken to zero,” Gellner says.
Cuellar, who’s in her third semester working for the clinic, recalls a case in which the manager of a business, who had check-signing authority, came under IRS scrutiny after the owners of the business suddenly shut down and left town, and were discovered to have been engaging in bank fraud.
“He didn’t know anything about it, but because he had check-signing power, the IRS billed him for thousands and thousands of dollars,” she says. The Gonzaga clinic prevailed in court, and the man’s former employers were recently indicted for fraud. “It came out that he was telling the truth,” Cuellar says.
Tacy Gillespie, a 2011 graduate who’s now associate counsel for Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp. in Idaho, remembers representing a Spanish-speaking taxpayer in an examination of her rental properties and personal income tax returns. She ended up owing nothing. “It was a really beneficial experience for me because it was a great opportunity to educate her as we went through that process,” she says.
Students gain as much from the clinic as their clients. “They get to learn what it’s like to actually practice in a law firm,” Gellner says. “They get to work directly with clients and practice their interviewing skills. They get to work with the IRS and learn about negotiation. Letter writing is a huge skill that they get to learn more about and improve upon. Additionally, they learn quite a bit of substantive tax law.”
Gillespie reflects that the clinic has both a community service aspect in representing those unable to afford their own counsel and an education aspect on students’ behalf, which in turns helps the community a second time.
“It’s a training center for attorneys as far as public service goes, which I think has a flow-through benefit once those students are entering their career; they have more of a public service mindset and are more aware of those needs,” she says. “The clinic was my absolute favorite part of my law school education. There were two beneficial aspects: one, the practical side, the law office experience you do not get in the classroom. Two, the client contact, dealing with a real live client, understanding how to work with them through the legal issues but also the opportunity to educate them.”
“You learn how to interact with clients,” Cuellar adds. “I like implementing the professional rules of conduct. You have to apply it to your everyday work in the clinic—confidentiality, full disclosure, stuff like that. What it brings to the community is much-needed help for low-income taxpayers understanding why they owe the IRS so much money, and how they can pay it back. They don’t owe a bunch of money because they made a bunch of money. They owe money because they didn’t know better.”
Ramping Up as Tornados Touch Down
Tornados that touched down in Alabama in April 2011 hit directly home for about 10 percent of the University of Alabama School of Law students, who were left homeless and in many cases lost all of their belongings. After a similar experience providing legal help to those who had relocated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the school’s clinic set up a temporary Tornado Relief Clinic—which has since been merged back into the general civil law clinic—to assist those displaced by the devastation.
“The way [students] reached out to each other and took care of each other was really inspiring to us,” says Anne Sikes Hornsby, associate dean for clinical programs at the law school. “We had a terrific response from students and from our clinic lawyers, and we were able to get out there and assist folks from day one. Students survived [the storm] in bathtubs and then volunteered all summer for us.”
The clinic went out to shelters and disaster response centers, largely with student volunteers, to respond to immediate and longer-term needs. Some of those included whether structural damage to properties did or did not make them uninhabitable—often for purposes of determining whether a tenant could legally break a lease—as well as how to file claims through an insurance company or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And some issues have lingered. “We’re still dealing with a lot of shoddy contractor work,” Hornsby says.
Students who work at the clinic learn lawyering skills, but that’s not all, she says. “They also develop an appreciation for what kinds of needs are out there—what kinds of civic responsibilities and pro bono needs—particularly after a disaster, particularly for people with little safety net,” she says. “It builds a civic and professional responsibility for the greater good.”
Dargan Ware, a third-year student who worked at the clinic in the summer of 2011, remembers a range of insurance policy and landlord-tenant disputes. “We helped a lot of people sign up for FEMA or appeal FEMA decisions. There were a couple of workplace-type things where people lost jobs because they couldn’t get there,” he says. As for the landlord-tenant cases, “In some cases, it was an honest dispute over whether the place was still livable. In other cases, the landlords were just trying to hold onto the [security deposit] money.”
The state had only just passed a uniform landlord-tenant act, Ware adds, which meant that certain definitions hadn’t been judicially construed yet: “What is a ‘catastrophic event?’ How much damage has to be done to a building for the tenant to get out of a lease. What does it mean to leave ‘immediately’?”
Much of what Ware remembers doing was reassuring clients that their cases would get resolved, and things were going to work out all right, in addition to preparing their court documents. “It was helping people understand, especially with the insurance, what’s going to happen—is my house going to be fixed?” he says. “We were somebody they could tell their story to, and they could understand what was going to happen next. As a student, obviously it feels good to help people, and it gave me experience in a lot of things that I hadn’t really looked into.”
Getting Business Going
Entrepreneurs and start-up businesses in the Boston area, ranging from a translation company that works in 19 languages to a group of Brazilian women who started an environmentally friendly cleaning business, have been turning to the Community Business Clinic at Northeastern University School of Law for legal assistance since the clinic started up in April.
A half-dozen third-year students each quarter work under the supervision of director Peter Sessa, who has handled a combination of community legal services and business and contract work during his 35-year career. “It’s transactional law, but with a social purpose to it as well,” he says. “They actually do the representation of the clients themselves, from the interviewing onward, of course under my supervision and my license. It’s very exciting for students, who have been sitting in classrooms mostly for two years to get this hands-on experience. There’s nothing like it.”
Students learn from one another along the way, Sessa says, through “firm roundtables” where they brief their clinic colleagues on their own cases. “It gives them practice in that method, explaining your case in a concise way, and then getting input from your colleagues,” he says. “I stay in the background, although I run the quote-unquote firm meeting. Not only do they get the experience from their own cases, but they learn about all these other cases.”
When students realize they’re running into the same issues, say about entity formation, or undocumented workers, or how to categorize independent contractors versus employees, they are able to collaborate, Sessa says. “The clients so far are very enthused to have these students,” he says. “They’re also happy to have a practitioner of 35 years in the background—don’t get me wrong. But they like what students bring to the table, their enthusiasm, their research skills . . . and their openness to new ideas.”
The clinic’s work is based on four cornerstones, Sessa says. First, listen to your clients. “You have two ears and one mouth, use them in proportion,” he says. Second, “Talk like a person. Don’t speak legalese. Part of our job is to demystify the law so that clients can make the decisions.” Third, look for possibilities and not roadblocks. And the last cornerstone is for students to determine for themselves. “Mine is, think tactically and strategically,” Sessa adds. “We’re having a little contest. They’re putting up their ideas as we go along.”
As they go along, students are gaining experience unlike anything they would get at a law firm or government office, he concludes. “They don’t let you interview clients. You don’t appear in court. You can’t do those kinds of things. This is real. This is the practice of law. Their excitement is palpable. When I gave them their client assignments, it was like it was Christmas. It was really joyous.”
What Is VITA?
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs offer free tax assistance to individuals who meet certain qualifications. Volunteers help prepare basic income tax returns for low-income taxpayers or those with special needs such as the elderly, non-English speaking persons, and persons with disabilities. Although training materials, forms, and technical assistance are provided by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), VITA programs consisting of law students interested in reaching out to their communities are independent operations managed and operated by student groups under the direction of a law school faculty member and/or their administration. Volunteers at law school campuses are not agents of the IRS, but rather law students and law school faculty interested in helping the community and gaining valuable experience in tax preparation. All VITA volunteers, regardless of background, provide this unpaid service in their spare time.
Law Student Division groups at law school campuses are encouraged to establish a VITA site on their campus.
Visit the Division’s website to learn more about VITA and to download the VITA handbook.
Ed Finkel is a freelance writer/editor in Evanston, Illinois.
Vol. 41 No. 4