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Learning Beyond the Classroom

April 17, 2023

Civil Practice Clinic students “learn what it means to be a lawyer with profound obligations to clients, the profession, the courts, and our national promise of justice for all,” said Director Lou Rulli.

As the longest running in-house clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, the Civil Practice Clinic (CPC) puts students on the front lines of increasing access to counsel for some of Philadelphia’s most underserved communities. Certified to provide legal representation in state and federal court, students work in pairs to represent indigent clients and achieve tangible, often life-changing outcomes for their clients.

Louis S. Rulli Louis S. Rulli“Our students protect tenants from eviction, obtain legal title to homes, represent consumers to avoid court judgments for credit card and medical debt, recover unpaid wages owed to low-income workers, and attack discriminatory practices that prey upon low-income families and communities of color,” said Louis S. Rulli, Practice Professor of Law and Director of the Civil Practice Clinic and Legislative Clinic.

One of eight Gittis Legal Clinics, CPC challenges students to thoughtfully engage in all aspects of lawyering, from client-centered advocacy and diligent preparation to effective communication with clients, counsel, and the courts. In addition to frequent supervision from practicing attorneys, students engage in weekly case rounds where they are encouraged to both provide and seek support from their peers — a model designed to foster collaboration, collegiality, and growth in a post-pandemic workplace.

Experienced litigators like Jeremy Spiegel C’02, L’07, Lecturer in Law and one of CPC’s supervising attorneys, support student counsel on their cases. Spiegel leverages his legal experience, including his work to launch the Camden Coalition/Rutgers Law School Medical-Legal Partnership, to position CPC students for success while ensuring their clients get the outcomes they deserve.

“The issues that we see across the river in Camden are very much in line with what we face at the Civil Practice Clinic: landlord-tenant matters and housing insecurity, clients struggling to obtain government benefits, and predatory business practices that target low-income communities,” he said.

Advocating for Philadelphia’s Most Vulnerable

For many CPC students, clinical courses are eye-opening as they learn firsthand how their legal training can be used to rectify the harm that poverty inflicts on many Philadelphians.

“As lead lawyers on their cases, we expect students to fully embrace their responsibilities — and they do,” Spiegel said. “Students know that a client’s home or well-being is in their hands.”

Lachlan Athanasiou L’23 and Maya Bradley L’23 represented a parent of two young children in an eviction hearing. The student counsel team secured the client’s right to remain in the apartment and negotiated a settlement eliminating over $6,000 in allegedly outstanding rent. Both outcomes were critically important for the family’s stability while the parent recovered from a medical procedure.

“My clinic experience drove home the importance of developing strong negotiating skills,” Athanasiou said. “Before joining the clinic, I would never have guessed how many important wins would involve negotiated settlements rather than court judgments.”

In another successful case, Dermot Delude-Dix L’23 and Paul Sindberg L’23 achieved the withdrawal of a five-figure lawsuit brought by a local hospital against a client who was led to believe that a necessary surgery was fully covered by insurance. Had the lawsuit succeeded, the hospital could have pursued collection of the debt through a large lien on the client’s home. The team immediately understood the urgency of their client’s situation and the potential long-term impact of a poor outcome on the client and her family.

“Our client’s highest priority was to prevent a judgment that would jeopardize her home ownership,” Delude-Dix said. “The outcome in this case means she can rest assured that she will be able to keep her home.”

Training Tomorrow’s Lawyers

The Civil Practice Clinic and other Gittis Legal Clinics offer unique educational opportunities that cut across career paths and are designed to prepare students for tomorrow’s complex legal world.

Margaret Elias L’23 plans to pursue private practice at a large firm in Philadelphia, and she credits her clinical experience with developing crucial lawyering skills.

“Even if a clinic isn’t in an area of law you want to practice, skills like interviewing, drafting, and negotiating are critical for all attorneys,” she said. “Those types of opportunities will better prepare you for the real world.”

In her CPC case representing a mother with limited English proficiency, Elias successfully obtained a guardianship court order allowing the parent to protect her adult son’s interests and assist him in making essential health care and financial decisions. Elias plans to maintain a strong pro bono practice throughout her career and is particularly interested in serving indigent clients.

For Athanasiou, a clinical course meant “the chance to do real legal work – writing briefs and going to court” while also receiving close supervision and feedback. “Most law courses don’t focus on practical legal skills, and most internships don’t have the capacity to provide such careful feedback,” he said.

Clinical courses also give students real-world opportunities to apply their knowledge of contracts, property, torts, civil procedure, civil rights, and more.

“Clinics provide extraordinary opportunities for students to realize the full extent of a premier legal education while applying their talents to making a difference in our society,” Rulli said. “Most importantly, students will learn what it means to be a lawyer with profound obligations to clients, the profession, the courts, and our national promise of justice for all. These are lessons that cannot be learned solely in the classroom.”

Learn more about the array of diverse experiential clinical and externship opportunities at Penn Carey Law.