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Legislative Clinic opens doors for students passionate about public policy

June 24, 2020

Practice Professor Louis S. Rulli guides the Legislative Clinic through which law students receive placements in various legislative offices from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to the City Council of Philadelphia.

Students in the Legislative Clinic, taught by Practice Professor Louis S. Rulli, had front-row seats to one of the most momentous events of our time this past spring.

When Anthony Sacco L’21 reported for his first day of work with the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, it happened to be the first day of President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial. Sabrina Merold L’20, who worked for Senator Mazie Hirono on the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of her second stint in the clinic this spring, said that it was “surreal and unforgettable to be a law clerk in the Senate during the impeachment and to have the opportunity to sit in the Senate gallery during the trial.”

Sacco, who sat two seats away from Merold at the trial, agreed. “Regardless of which side of the aisle you fall on,” he said, “that was history.”

Of course, clinic students are not merely spectators. In placements with such varied bodies as the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the City Council of Philadelphia, and the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Department of Justice High Intensity Technology Unit, students learn the essentials of the legislative process and legislative drafting.

“The Legislative Clinic provides a hands-on experience for students interested in the formation of public policy and assisting in legislative solutions to problems that confront the nation and localities,” said Rulli.

The clinic offers students passionate about government and public interest work a chance to preview a kind of lawyering that traditional doctrinal classes do not often cover.

“Legal education has historically focused most heavily on the judicial branch of government,” said Rulli, “often leaving students without an in-depth understanding of how legislation is made or the role of lawyers in shaping legislation. The Legislative Clinic attempts to fill this void.”

Rachel Zacharias L’21, who spent the spring with the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, said that the clinic “challenged us to think beyond the traditional Socratic, case-based legal education model, in which students are able to consider only a confined set of facts, holdings, and outcomes. In contrast, Professor Rulli signaled early and often how policy work requires consideration of infinite novel solutions to problems,” she said. “This shift in thinking is helpful not just for policy work but in my case-based courses and litigation work as well.”

In addition to a weekly class meeting with Rulli, clinic students spent two full days each week in a legislative office, learning from colleagues in the field while helping to craft policy solutions to the issues of the day.

Rulli said that his students benefitted from working “with very smart, concerned lawyers who have chosen to engage in non-traditional legal work that has enormous impact upon communities.” In the process, he said, clinic students “gain a deeper appreciation of societal problems that call out for legislative solutions and how lawyers can use their training, creativity, and talents to create innovative responses that serve the public interest.”

Sacco, for example, found his meetings with Finance Committee tax experts particularly inspiring. “It was fascinating to watch these extremely intelligent, dedicated public servants going back and forth discussing the fine details of corporate tax, partnerships, capital gains, and other intricacies of tax policy. I remember thinking, ‘These are the meetings I want to be at. These are the topics I want to become an expert on. These are the discussions I want to be having.’ The Legislative Clinic helped me confirm that this is in fact the type of work I want to be doing after law school.”

Some students find placements with nonprofit organizations specifically dedicated to causes that matter to them. Merold, for example, worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health as part of the clinic in 2019, analyzing proactive policy advocacy aimed at expanding access to abortion, contraception, and pregnancy care.

“Amid the unprecedented wave of state laws in 2019 restricting access to reproductive health care, it was powerful to work on a review of all the important advancements that took place during the same time at the state level,” she said.

Moreover, participating in the clinic helped her discover her “passion for legislative lawyering.” The clinic allowed Merold to hone skills that she will be directly applying during her post-graduate fellowship with the Center for Reproductive Rights’ Federal Policy Team.

The clinic also gives students valuable opportunities to build their professional networks, laying the groundwork for careers on the Hill or elsewhere. Before participating in the clinic, Sacco, who is the first person in his family to graduate from college, was worried that “it might be hard to get my foot in the door, not having any connections to a member of Congress or their staff.” Sacco hopes to one day land a policy-making job in state or federal government, and the clinic, he said, “helped me start building that foundation while still taking regular classes at the Law School.” He is off to a strong start—at the end of the semester, Sacco’s supervisor asked him to stay on in his position through the summer.

Though students were no longer able to physically travel to their placements in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere when the COVID-19 crisis struck, for many of them, the work only became more critical and stimulating. Because her committee oversaw the U.S. agencies in charge of health, labor, and education, Zacharias’s responsibilities quickly shifted to focus almost entirely on the government response to the pandemic.

“I worked on COVID-19 assignments that stretched me immensely both professionally and personally,” she said. “This is a devastating moment for the world, and I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to have worked on relief efforts.”

Students expressed their gratitude for Rulli’s mentorship.

“Professor Rulli creates a collaborative environment for students to explore the role of lawyers in the formation of public policy,” said Merold. “The Legislative Clinic is an amazing opportunity to learn from and be inspired by him.”

For Sacco, Rulli made the clinic “so much more than just another class. Professor Rulli,” he added, “goes out of his way to help any student that reaches out to him. He made sure people got the most rewarding experience out of working in the legislative space. He also assisted us with professional issues such as how to deal with certain questions arising in our offices, how to approach a supervisor to ask a question or bring up an issue, and how to use this experience to achieve our long-term career goals. He is a truly dedicated professor and mentor,” said Sacco.

Read more about Penn Law’s clinical and externship opportunities.