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Law School’s Civil Practice Clinic lets students ‘take the lead’

July 15, 2020

The Law School’s Civil Practice Clinic affords students the opportunity to represent clients in cases involving issues that affect their basic needs and daily lives.

Students who participate in the Civil Practice Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School quickly discover that attorneys have the power to change their clients’ lives for the better in immediate, tangible ways.

Clinic alum Elana Handelman L’21 recalled working with a client in a landlord-tenant dispute who had been living for weeks without hot water.

“Her landlord was ignoring her requests for a new water heater,” said Handelman. “Once we got involved and filed claims against the landlord, our client’s water was fixed within a few days. Seeing the positive impact that legal representation had on our client’s situation, even before we had made any appearances in court has motivated me to continue making pro bono work a major part of my career regardless of where I am working.”

Adjunct Professor of Law Su Ming Yeh, Practice Professor of Law Louis Rulli, and Clinical Supervisor and Lecturer Jennifer Fernandez lead the clinic and hope that all students who participate emerge from the experience resolved to integrate a commitment to pro bono legal service into their practices.

“There is a gaping unmet need for legal services for low-income families,” said Fernandez.

Real life advocates for real life needs

When facing court proceedings that put the necessities of life — their homes, families, and livelihoods — in jeopardy, the vast majority of civil litigants in the U.S. are not represented by counsel. The clinic gives students the opportunity to help assuage this need while learning how to provide effective representation at every stage of a lawsuit, from conducting interviews to negotiating with opposing counsel to advocating for clients in court and administrative agency hearings.

Rulli said that clinic students “are certified by state and federal courts to practice law under faculty supervision and many, for the first time, truly understand the weight of having responsibility for others in the legal process.” The clinic represents low-income clients in matters including homeownership and quiet title actions, employment, consumer protection, social security disability, fraudulent deed conveyances, guardianship, and child abuse records expungement. Certain cases, such as the clinic’s work in civil forfeiture and gig-economy worker representation, are selected “to highlight systemic problems and present an opportunity for wider impact,” said Fernandez.

Denis Metin L’20, for example, represented a client in a wage theft case who was having trouble proving that she had worked as a home caregiver; her employer refused to turn over the necessary documents. When he met with the client, Metin said, “I noticed that she used an Android smartphone, which comes with the Google Maps application pre-installed. What most people do not know is that Google Maps automatically records your location, including time of arrival and time of departure. The location data is then uploaded unto Google servers, which you can then access by downloading.” Metin realized that this data could prove his client worked the hours she said she had worked. There was only one problem.

“Evidence of this type is generally not admissible in court unless you get a certification from an IT expert, which can be quite expensive,” Metin said. “This type of evidence mostly gets used in high-profile murder cases, not cases involving the theft of a few thousand dollars’ wages. Luckily, through the Clinic’s persistence, we found an expert that was willing to certify our client’s location data on a pro bono basis, proving that our client was telling the truth all along.”

Metin said that he and the clinic instructors hope that “the novel use of cell phone data in this case will act as a bellwether for clinic clients in the future. Our indigent clients often face adverse parties like wealthy employers that are in the superior position of controlling the evidence necessary to vindicate our client’s rights. Through the use of innovative digital techniques, like we used in this case, we may be able to restore the balance.”

Student benefits from clinical experience

Regardless of the particular legal issues before them, clinic students build confidence and competence by serving as the principal attorneys on their own cases. Maura Hallisey L’20, said she relished the chance to “truly take the lead” representing her clients. Sarah Bleiberg L’19 agreed.

“None of my other experiences during law school allowed me to take the lead on real cases in the way I did in the clinic,” Bleiberg said.

Handelman reported that this freedom and responsibility empowered her to think and act on her feet. “The clinic gives us an amazing opportunity to be ‘real lawyers,’” she said, “while still receiving helpful feedback and supervision.”

By representing diverse groups of low-income clients “who often have very different life experiences from our students,” Fernandez pointed out, clinic students are exposed to “gross inequities in our society and systemic failings in how the law affects disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.”

Students come by this exposure directly, sometimes visiting clients’ homes to conduct investigations. For Handelman, visiting one client’s apartment was a highlight of her clinic experience.

“We went to get documents and take pictures, because we were arguing that the landlord did not maintain the apartment to a reasonable standard of habitability,” she said. “It was important for us to see the state of the apartment in person so that we could accurately express the challenges our client and her family experienced living there. This allowed us to put ourselves in our client’s shoes. It also helped strengthen our rapport with the client. We were able to meet members of her family, who told us about their hardships. Throughout the rest of the semester we had weekly calls with the client to update her about her case and also just to check in and see how she and her family were doing.”

Some students represent clients who literally have trouble making their voices heard. Bleiberg worked with one client who “often struggled to express herself clearly due to a disability.” For such clients, the prospect of having to speak in court can be terrifying. Bleiberg succeeded in negotiating a favorable settlement on her client’s behalf, resolving the dispute while obviating the need for further court appearances.

“After taking several steps to advocate for this client, I was preparing to file a brief when opposing counsel reached out to me about dropping the case,” Bleiberg said. “My client was so relieved!”

In contrast, Hallisey recalled working with a client who was “an incredible self-advocate.” She emphasized how rewarding it was to learn “from and with” her “client-partner,” as Hallisey called her. “We became a great team throughout the semester,” said Hallisey. Upon achieving a favorable outcome, she said “it was wonderful to see our client-partner’s resilience and self-advocacy rewarded.”

Fernandez said that the clinic is an “intensive and personal experience,” and that she and her fellow instructors hope that students take from it an awareness of “systemic inequality and injustice and the importance of access to justice.” Rulli said that another goal of the clinic is to help every student “understand the importance of their new identity as a skilled, ethical, and reflective lawyer.”

Impact of COVID-19 on clinic – present and future

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, the inequalities that plague the clinic’s clients in the best of times were exacerbated, and students and instructors were faced with some unexpected new challenges.

“For example, some clients did not have access to technology to use Zoom for meetings or to share documents,” said Fernandez. “This was an important lesson for all of us.”

The digital divide had a direct impact on students’ ability to serve their clients. Looking forward, Rulli said, “we anticipate that the pandemic will result in a high influx of cases involving basic human needs, but in addition to preparing for these cases, we recognize that we need to integrate into the curriculum additional instruction on effective ways to handle remote depositions and virtual hearings, which are likely to become much more prevalent in the immediate future.”

In whatever format they find themselves doing their future lawyering, clinic alumni are committed to doing their part to eradicate inequality wherever they encounter it. Hallisey, whose desire to build a public interest career “rooted in the pursuit of racial and economic justice” was reaffirmed by the clinic, observed that “it is important for Penn — a school with so many resources — to use some of them to assist those seeking justice in Philadelphia.” The clinic, she said, offers students a meaningful opportunity “to fight oppressive systems at work right here in our city.”

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