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Stanford Report, March 19, 2003

Pro bono Law Clinic aids clients and students

BY LISA TREI

Second-year law students Craig Largent and Ray Bennett sat around a table in the new Stanford Community Law Clinic on a recent blustery afternoon after meeting with a client who lives in a moldy apartment in East Palo Alto. The students said they had filed a lawsuit to force the building's recalcitrant owner to repair the tiny studio that rents for $800 a month.

"She just got Section 8 funding and she's moving to Los Angeles," Largent said about his client, referring to the federal housing assistance program. With the tenant no longer motivated to get the apartment fixed, the students pondered how to proceed. "That will make the lawsuit more difficult but not impossible," Largent said, looking hopeful.

Largent and Bennett, students in this semester's civil justice clinic at the Law School, spend up to 25 hours a week in East Palo Alto learning how to turn classroom theory into practice by working on cases at the community law clinic.

"It's the best thing I've done in law school," said Bennett, who wants to become a civil rights and antitrust lawyer. "It's great to put the skills I've learned into action."

Clinic legal assistant Lupe Buenrostro spoke with law student and clinic volunteer Jason Gonder about a letter he has written on behalf of a client. Photo: L.A. Cicero

But it also can be frustrating, said Marissa Lackey, another second-year student. "You learn how things should work, and you come here and you see how things do work," she said. Nevertheless, Lackey and her classmate Amanda Major said the experience is worthwhile. "For the first time, you feel you are making a difference," Major said. "What we can do, [people] are so grateful for."

Learning how to navigate in the real world is just one benefit students gain by working at the Law Clinic, located in a nondescript one-story building at 2117 University Ave. in East Palo Alto. The free clinic opened last fall but moved to its new location next to Highway 101 in February.

Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan said the clinic teaches students invaluable lessons in practical judgment and ethical responsibility that cannot be learned in the classroom. It also introduces them to the importance of doing pro bono legal work, she said.

Open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the clinic assists needy clients from East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park, Redwood City and surrounding communities with legal problems related to housing, workers' rights and government benefits. Peter Reid, a veteran legal services attorney who recently stepped down as executive director of the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, heads the new venture, which is a collaboration between Legal Aid and the Law School.

"The clear vision is to provide the premier clinical experience in the country and train the next generation of public interest lawyers," Reid said. The clinic also aims "to provide a tremendous resource to a community with great needs."

Students conduct interviews, prepare cases and represent clients in court under the direct supervision of Reid and longtime clinical supervising attorneys Peggy Stevenson and Yvonne Meré. "They're actually handling cases from beginning to end," Reid said. Guadalupe Buenrostro, a legal assistant with extensive experience in the community, assists the students with interpreting and understanding the culture of the community they serve.

After spending 18 months in law school, surrounded by lawyers and learning to think like lawyers, the students said it was an eye-opener to leave campus and discover that their clients look at problems differently. "You expect clients to think in terms of legal issues," said Bennett. "Instead, clients say, 'I'm angry, I'm frustrated.' Not only do you need to get what the client is saying, you have to be able to translate that back and forth" between the legal world and the clients' world.

A stronger clinical emphasis

The clinic's opening is part of a broader effort to create a leading program in clinical education at the Law School, said David Mills, a senior lecturer and acting director of clinical education. "We've had sparse clinical offerings in the past," he said. "The new clinic shows Stanford's continuing commitment to providing services to the community while providing expanded and improved pedagogic experience."

During the last two years, Stanford Law School has hired veteran litigators William Koski and Michelle Alexander as associate professors to teach clinical courses in education advocacy and civil rights advocacy, respectively. This year the school also launched a new clinical course in civil justice, taught last fall by Shauna Marshall, a visiting law professor from the University of California's Hastings College of Law, and this spring by Gary Blasi, a visiting law professor from the University of California-Los Angeles.

The course gives students a conceptual framework and theoretical background they can apply directly to their practical experience. This semester, as Largent and Bennett can attest, the class is investigating complaints about mold, which is commonly found in decrepit rental housing. Authorities in East Palo Alto "are already looking at housing code enforcement, and we're looking at the housing code enforcement system," Blasi said. "By the end of the process, we will have provided individual help and developed a better process for how to handle this."

Stevenson said students also are gaining experience concerning workers' rights. For example, they have learned how to prepare a "demand letter" to the employer of a Spanish-speaking restaurant worker who claims to be owed $20,000 in unpaid wages and penalties. "For me, what's exciting is for students to understand one-on-one the importance of the law and the limits of the law," Stevenson said. "They also learn about the human aspects of the situation and they are challenged to find solutions."

Pro Bono Clinic

The clinic plans to involve lawyers from local law firms who will work in a new project, called the Pro Bono Clinic, focusing on guardianship and consumer issues. According to Blasi, about 7,000 children in San Mateo County are cared for by relatives who are not their parents. The clinic's lawyers will help such adults obtain proper guardianship papers giving them the authority to make decisions regarding medical and educational issues concerning the children under their care, he said.

The clinic shares its building with Community Legal Services, another legal aid center that opened last fall when the East Palo Alto Community Law Project closed as a result of funding problems after providing assistance for 19 years. Legal Services helps clients with immigration, juvenile delinquency and housing issues. Blasi said the centers work together to serve clients. "What I see is a huge need and we're both going to fill it," he said.

The new clinic is funded by the Law School, the Stanford University President's Fund, and more than a dozen local law firms and businesses that have volunteered their services to the clinic's advisory board. The Law School will host an open house at the clinic at 4:30 p.m. on April 2. Community members, students and alumni are invited to attend by contacting Jamie Kampel at jkampel@law.stanford.edu.

 

Third-year law student Jason Gonder has learned about the difference between classroom theory and law practice reality while working at the clinic. Photo: L.A. Cicero