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Lasting Lessons in Civil Practice

July 07, 2022

Civil Practice Clinic: going to court
Civil Practice Clinic: going to court

Two Penn Carey Law graduates reflect on how their experience in the Civil Practice Clinic has enhanced their private sector careers.

Both Alina Artunian L’17 and Zachary Sweebe L’17 knew they were going to pursue work in private sector firms after graduation. Now at Mayer Brown and Arnold & Porter respectively, they each credit the same experience to their success: their time in the Civil Practice Clinic.

“For the first two to three years out of law school, everything is new and you’re a little nervous about speaking up, making suggestions, and explaining issues,” Artunian said. “But I always thought, in the back of my mind, ‘What would I do if I was in front of Professor [Lou] Rulli [Practice Professor of Law]?’ That has been such a calming thought, because the Clinic was such a safe environment. At Penn, I never felt like I couldn’t say something or come up with a wacky idea, because Professor Rulli would give value to every student voice.”

Rulli directs the Civil Practice Clinic, which is one of nine — soon to be tenGittis Legal Clinics offered at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. In the Civil Practice Clinic, students engage in a wide variety of civil litigation and gain a wealth of experience that remains heavily applicable and valuable as they launch their careers.

Building Confidence

Sweebe emphasized the significance of feeling empowered to perform meaningful work while in the Civil Practice Clinic. He recounted a particularly impactful event representing a client in front of an administrative law judge in a case determining whether the client was fit to raise her child.

Zachary Sweebe L'17 Zachary Sweebe L’17“The person whose testimony underlay the entire accusation was a former law enforcement officer, who had told a very detailed story that seemed to deviate very strongly from reality,” Sweebe said. “We weren’t provided with the details of that testimony or any opportunity for meaningful discovery until the day of the hearing, so with very little time to prepare in advance, we were asked to cross-examine a former law enforcement officer about a very specific set of facts and to essentially call them out as unreliable — that was a challenge I certainly didn’t expect to have walking into the Clinic, but it was one of the most rewarding experiences I can remember.”

In the end, the case was an “absolute success,” as the judge found the former law enforcement officer’s testimony to be uncredible, and the client ultimately maintained custody of her child. For Sweebe, the trust that Rulli and the client put in him and his clinic partner John Parron L’17 was highly significant to his growth as a lawyer, both during and beyond that specific case.

“Lou not only entrusted us with the opportunity to represent our client, but he expected we could do it, and he supported us in providing that representation,” said Sweebe. “That was incredibly empowering for me, and it helped me to believe in myself as a zealous advocate.”

Communicating Effectively

Among the many parallels Artunian identified between her Clinic work and her work at Mayer Brown was the importance of engaging effectively and empathetically with clients. As a Clinic student working on criminal record expungements, Artunian had to learn how to ask her clients sensitive questions in a way that allowed them to feel comfortable providing the information that Artunian needed to meet their goals.

Alina Artunian L'17 Alina Artunian L’17“The criminal expungement cases involved hard issues and difficult conversations. You have to build a level of confidence between you and your client. I don’t like to call the conversations ‘investigations’ because it makes it sound as though we’re not on the same side — and you are on your client’s side,” Artunian said. “The experience in the Clinic taught me how to talk to clients and get information in a way that makes them feel at ease and comfortable with me as their attorney.”

Artunian now works mostly with corporate clients on a range of litigation matters, and even though she acknowledges the clients are very different, she postulates that the process of solving their problems “is actually sort of the same.”

“So much of my job is talking to clients and being comfortable asking probing questions, getting to the point of what I need, and not making it a hostile environment,” Artunian said. “What I did in the Clinic translated incredibly into my current work doing witness preparation and internal discovery.”

Navigating Complex Situations

Clinics are often among students’ first opportunities to see the legal concepts that they have learned in classrooms manifest into real scenarios that involve unique fact patterns and intricate interpersonal dynamics.

Sweebe shared an anecdote about representing a client who was owed back pay by their former employer. At first, the case had seemed straightforward, in that the client had a clear-cut right to the money; however, what Sweebe and his partner discovered while meeting with the client complicated the scenario.

“For a variety of different reasons, the client felt uncomfortable disclosing his identity in litigation and engaging in the legal system. Learning that this had to do with questions about his immigration status made it immediately clear to me that access to justice barriers, both real and perceived by clients to be real, affect clients’ ability to enforce their rights,” Sweebe said. “The practical result in this case was that somebody who had a very valid wage dispute had been taken advantage of for months of unpaid labor on the idea that he would never be able to navigate the legal system, let alone feel comfortable accessing it.”

Civil Practice Clinic Director Lou Rulli Civil Practice Clinic Director Lou RulliFor Sweebe, one of the most essential elements of this experience was the crucial significance of ensuring not only that the justice system holds possible solutions for people, but that, first and foremost, people are able to access those solutions.

“Learning that the circumstances surrounding the claim were more important than the factors a law school hornbook told us were required for a wage theft claim helped us to realize that there was a strong opportunity for settlement. It was not important to our client that we litigate his full case to verdict — what he needed was money to make himself whole for the hours that he spent working for free,” Sweebe said. “Necessarily, a lot of law school teaches you about the frameworks of different rights, but because settlements are not often discussed until the third year, if at all, the idea that settlement would be not only a valid outcome, but indeed the best outcome for this client was an incredible lesson to me in prioritizing the client’s needs over my own preconceived notions of the value of their claim and the trajectory that the case would take.”

Centering Justice

In many ways, the list of takeaways from Clinic experiences could be infinite — Sweebe even noted that he implemented a practice for discussing matters among his team at Arnold & Porter that was directly informed by the Civil Practice Clinic’s “case rounds” model — and yet, both Artunian and Sweebe emphasized that, beyond teaching them substantive skills related to how to be a lawyer, many of the most important lessons they learned in the Civil Practice Clinic transcended into the much broader, more philosophical realm of what kind of lawyer they wanted to be.

At Mayer Brown, Artunian pursues a lot of pro bono work, in part because of the public interest ethos instilled in her as a law student. As an immigrant herself, she gravitates toward cases where she can help clients navigate the intricacies of the U.S. immigration system and meet the unique and often very personal needs their immigration status raises. She sees her pro bono work as a means for her to engage with her community in a positive, meaningful way – something the Civil Practice Clinic emphasized strongly.

“The work in the Civil Practice Clinic did not always involve gigantic, sexy Supreme Court cases. It was about being involved in the Philadelphia community and helping people with real issues that they have and can’t afford a law firm representation for,” Artunian said. “The Clinic taught me a lot about giving back and passing it forward.”

Sweebe echoed Artunian’s sentiments, underscoring the role Rulli played in shaping his philosophy about law and justice.

“Lou was constantly talking about, ‘What does justice mean here, and how do we achieve justice for this client? What will we do next? How will each step we take help to achieve that?’” Sweebe said. “We would complement case-specific discussions with larger conversations about overall barriers to access to justice, including the pursuit for civil rights that Lou has been ardent in pursuing for decades. That understanding of our clients in context helped us to develop a holistic picture of what it means to make a positive difference in their lives.”

Learn more about experiential learning opportunities through the Gittis Legal Clinics.