By: Chris Villani
While many attorneys go their entire careers without arguing a case before a top state appellate court, Liz Soltan managed the feat before even graduating from Harvard Law School, and without missing a single class.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Rule 3:03 allows senior law students to appear before the court on behalf of an indigent plaintiff. Soltan, a third-year law student working for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a student-run legal service, handled the oral argument on behalf of a pair of Boston dry cleaner employees who said they were cheated out of $28,000 in wages and overtime pay and sought attorneys’ fees stemming from the litigation.
“It was a great experience. A lot of prep went into it,” Soltan told Law360. “I was so nervous that a lot of it is a blur. But I felt that it went well and I was optimistic. It was kind of fun to be up there, having a conversation with the justices.”
Soltan is not the first law student to argue before the SJC, but it is rare to have a student present a case to the top court. Soltan said students from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau may appear before the court every few years, trying to use their resources on cases that could have a far-reaching impact.
Soltan argued the case in December for roughly 17 minutes. She cited numerous SJC and federal cases to back her argument that using the “catalyst test” — whether a lawsuit is the primary factor leading to a settlement — when assessing whether to shift attorneys’ fees to an employer will promote access to justice for low-income plaintiffs and encourage private attorneys to take cases.
Midway through her presentation, the questions she started getting from the justices gave her the impression the case could be turning in her clients’ favor.
“There was a certain point where I sensed they were trying to flush out how it would work and how settled the body of precedent was,” Soltan said. “That was a moment where I felt like, ‘OK, maybe they are figuring out how to write a favorable opinion.’ I was cautiously optimistic and really excited.”
Her optimism proved well-founded when the SJC released a unanimous opinion in her clients’ favor on Tuesday. The SJC established the catalyst test as the governing rule guiding judges in assigning attorneys’ fees, a ruling has been seen as a potential path to get more private lawyers to take on Wage Act cases for low-income defendants and a means to speedier settlements of wage-related litigation.
To get an employer to pick up the tab, a worker has to show the lawsuit led to a favorable settlement. The employees in Soltan’s case settled for more than 70 percent of the $28,000 they sought before the court battle ensued over the attorneys’ fees.
Preparing for the oral argument was an extensive process, Soltan said. Her clinical instructor Patricio Rossi, and fellow law students Kenneth Parreno and Joey Herman were instrumental in the process.
Founded in 1913, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau says it handles more than 300 cases annually, representing low-income people in the Greater Boston area. The bureau has about 50 second- and third-year law students who make a two-year commitment and are expected to devote at least 20 hours per week to their clinical practice.
“It is a lot, but I think a large way we get through it is working closely with our clinical instructor. They are great role models for us,” Soltan said. “We support each other and work together.”
Oral arguments in the dry cleaner case took place in early December during Harvard’s reading week before exams, Soltan said, so she did not have to miss class to appear in the downtown Boston courthouse. Chuckling, she agreed it would have been a rock-solid excuse if arguing before the top court in the state pulled her out of a class.
Soltan is set to graduate this spring and plans to continue pursuing civil legal services work.
“I just hope I continue to get good outcomes for my clients,” she said, “whatever court it happens to be in.”
Listen to oral argument in the case Ferman v. Sturgis Cleaners Inc., docket number SJC-12602, can be found here under “Recent Arguments, Dec. 2018.”