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Category: Clinical Voices (page 1 of 4)

Community Lawyering for Change

Via Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

L-R: Andres (community organizer); Nan McGarry J.D. ’17; Natalia (client); Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez J.D. ’17; and Stanford Fraser, J.D. ’16

In a cramped church basement in East Boston, people gather together for a common purpose: to stay in their homes. East Boston is ground zero for no-fault evictions brought by investors seeking to increase rents and profit off of increased housing demand in the Greater Boston area. At their core, no-fault evictions are evictions where the tenant has done nothing wrong—hence the name “no-fault”. A tenant can have paid rent on time and abided by his or her lease regulations for decades and still be thrown out for no reason other than the whims of an investor landlord. Despite these evictions, a group gathers and organizes to fight back against the displacement.

City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) is a community organization focused on supporting homeowners and tenants who have been hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis and now the displacement crisis. The model that CLVU and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) attorneys have developed together is called “the Sword and Shield.” The sword is composed of CLVU protests, rallies, eviction blockades, and other activist measures to fight back against evictions and displacement. The shield is composed of community legal services, including HLAB. Along with Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and others, HLAB has worked with CLVU to represent tenants facing evictions in Boston Housing Court. Another Harvard Law student organization, Project No One Leaves, supports the work of HLAB and CLVU by canvassing homes facing foreclosure and buildings investors have purchased where tenants may be at risk of facing no-fault evictions. These canvassing efforts bring in potential members to CLVU, strengthening both the sword and the shield. In the basement of the East Boston church where CLVU meets, a group of tenants came to seek legal help and their case became a rallying point and exemplar of the fight against displacement throughout Boston.

The Bennington Street building is a three story mixed use building, with a nail salon on the first floor and four residential units on the second and third floors. The tenants of the four residential units had been living in their apartments for various lengths of time, from several years to up to twenty years. Several of the tenants have families, including small children.

These families had been paying their rent on time, but one day the owner of the building sold it to an investor landlord who wanted to double it. Five days after purchasing the building, the new landlord sent all the tenants No-Fault Notices to Quit, saying they had to leave the premises or face legal action. The tenants’ landlord offered them an impossible choice: $500 to leave their homes of many years or a doubling of their rent. This is a common extrajudicial tactic amongst investors in East Boston, in part because it is much cheaper to pay off tenants with the threat of a rent increase than to go through the court system. Oftentimes the threat of legal action also makes some tenants decide to leave their homes, because they are unaware of their legal rights and do not realize that the courts could rule in their favor. Instead of accepting this offer, the Bennington tenants came to CLVU looking for help in their fight against losing their home.

HLAB member and President Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez was the first student attorney on the Bennington Street cases, in August of 2015, although the team eventually expanded to include Nan McGarry, Jack Solano, and Stanford Fraser in January in anticipation of four possible jury trials. The case came to HLAB as four separate cases, one for each apartment in the building. HLAB entered into a joint representation agreement with the tenants, meaning that while we still would represent each household in their individual eviction case, we would also represent them as a group. The significance of this was that for months client counseling and negotiations with the landlord’s attorney involved a great deal of communication with the residents of each apartment regarding their individual cases, but also clear communication about the impacts of each decision on the group as a whole.

Although the landlord’s attorney attempted to consolidate the four cases, Pedro successfully opposed the motion in October, thus allowing all of the Bennington tenants their opportunity to be heard in court in front of a jury. Negotiations with the landlord’s attorney continued, and HLAB requested an inspection of the building, which revealed a number of conditions of disrepair. Although the tenants had been paying their rent for years, there were important repairs that still needed to be made for the landlord to be compliant with Massachusetts housing law. Through the course of representation, the landlord started to make some repairs to the building. Months of motions in court to compel discovery, among others, and months of settlement discussions, exchanging offers and counteroffers, led up to the scheduling of jury trials in February.

In fact, four jury trials had been scheduled, forcing Pedro, Nan, Jack, and Stanford to prepare as if all four trials were going to happen. Substantial HLAB resources were dedicated to this trial preparation, as the Bennington cases together involved eleven witnesses, including two expert witnesses. The whole team engaged in rigorous trial preparation, including preparing motions for the inclusion and exclusion of evidence, putting together several evidence binders, and preparing direct and cross examinations of witnesses. Throughout all of this work, the trial team also maintained communication with CLVU and GBLS.

The Bennington cases provide a glimpse at the type of cross-coordination work common in community lawyering. The tenants often attended CLVU meetings, where tenants from many other households gathered to share their own stories, many very similar: landlords purchasing properties, not making any repairs, and then seeking to evict tenants that had been paying their rent. HLAB student attorneys attended these weekly community meetings in East Boston, and also consulted with CLVU organizers and GBLS attorneys about litigation and settlement strategy.

As the Community Lawyering Clinical Instructor and a Lecturer on Law at HLAB, Eloise Lawrence supervised the student attorneys and provided guidance in critical moments of the process. Lawrence leads HLAB’s community lawyering efforts, following in the footsteps of the late David Grossman, who helped to pioneer community lawyering. Lawrence’s experience as a community lawyer in Lynn, where she still takes cases, continues to inform HLAB’s work in this area.

After all of the trial preparation and coordination with CLVU, the day of the first Bennington trial came on February 1. The trial would end up lasting four days and involving multiple witnesses, several of whom needed translators. Before the trial even began, key testimony and reports from the Boston Public Health Commission about the nail salon in the first floor of the building, were excluded from the trial, even though they showed noxious fumes from the nail salon endangering the health of the Bennington tenants. Nevertheless, the first trial team of Pedro and Nan, with the support of Eloise Lawrence fought through this exclusion of evidence and other challenges throughout the trial.

In one particularly memorable moment from the trial, Nan cross-examined the landlord about a back fence that had been padlocked. Under the law, every residential building over a certain number of units needs two ways to enter and exit the building, in part for fire safety reasons. This back fence, being padlocked, made it impossible to leave out the back of the building. In her cross-examination, McGarry asked specifically how the family would escape. The landlord responded, “What do you mean, if there was a fire? They could jump over the fence.”  In her closing argument, McGarry returned to this picture of a family, including a 67-year-old grandmother and a small child, trying to jump over a fence as their home burns. In the words of Eloise Lawrence, “You could feel the jury listen to every word and identify with our clients. If you didn’t know better, you would have thought Nan was a very experienced litigator, not that it was her first trial.”

Pedro and Nan won that first trial, with the jury returning a verdict in favor of the tenants on all counts, including attorney’s fees for HLAB. After winning the first trial, the team was able to successfully negotiate a settlement for all cases—including the other three cases that would have otherwise gone to trial—that included new long-term leases at affordable rents and landlord responsibility for repairs and maintenance to the units. As a result of these settlements, all the residents of this Bennington Street building will be able to stay in a home, with repairs being made by the landlord.

While not all cases have such a happy ending, the Bennington Street cases represent a window into how community lawyering can achieve individual results that are tied into a larger movement.

The tenants now have affordable and habitable apartments, while landlords in Boston understand that tenants will stand up for their rights. They will fight, with the help of organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, and they will win.

Six trials, Six wins, two appeals, and a successful motion to suppress

This year, faculty and students in the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) have been investigating criminal cases, interviewing witnesses, conducting research, and arguing motions and trials before several courts.

At CJI students find the opportunity to combine their classroom education with hands-on experience, representing indigent criminal defendants and juveniles. Students are assigned cases in local district and juvenile courts and handle everything from arraignment to trial. Under the supervision of experienced clinical instructors, students handle an average of six to eight misdemeanor and felony cases during the semester. Below are some of their recent successes in court.

Via the Criminal Justice Institute

Trial 1

Dehlia Umunna, Clinical Professor of Law

Dehlia Umunna, Clinical Professor of Law

In December 2015, Clinical Professor of Law and Deputy Director of CJI, Dehlia Umunna, along with Clinical Instructor Jennifer McKinnon, had a jury trial in Dorchester Court. Our client was accused of an assault and battery with a dangerous weapon on the mother of his younger daughter. The client has legal custody of his oldest daughter and had been sharing custody of his youngest one for the first two years of her life. The client and the alleged victim, although no longer in a relationship, continued to have an amicable relationship up until he began dating someone new. That is when she began stalking him and making his life very difficult. After she lodged her allegations against him, she did not allow him visitation with their daughter. However, after a two day jury trial, our client was acquitted. The first thing he said after the verdict was read was that he hoped to litigate for visitation of his little girl now that this nightmare was over. Several jurors found our client in the hallway after the trial, shook his hand, and wished him and his girls the best in life.

Trial 2

In February 2016, Umunna and student attorney Brittany Llewellyn J.D. ’16 successfully defended their client, a young man who had been charged with assault. The client had been accused of assaulting two security guards almost three years ago, despite the fact that there was no tangible, unbiased evidence that our client had touched, hit or raised his fists to the security guards at all. At trial, the Commonwealth’s only evidence came from the complaining witnesses who then changed their stories when they testified on the stand. Llewellyn argued the motions and conducted the opening statement for the defense, while Umunna cross-examined witnesses, conducted the direct examination of the defense witness, and closing argument. The result was a not guilty verdict.

Says Llewellyn, “this was my first time trying a case, and the trial was an enriching and rewarding experience. Apart from allowing me an opportunity to develop my speaking, advocacy, and other courtroom skills, this trial experience also reinforced to me the importance of being well-prepared for court, in order to be able to forcefully advocate on behalf of your client. I was nervous during the 15 minutes that we waited while the jury deliberated.  But then I thought about our client, and considered how nervous he must be because he had so much at stake.  The incident at issue in the trial had occurred in 2013, and our client had to wait years to be found not guilty for something he did not do.  It was meaningful to see justice done.”

Trial 3

Kristin Muniz, Senior Clinical Instructor

Kristin Muniz, Senior Clinical Instructor

Sarah Teyssen J.D. ’16 and Jacob Loup J.D. ’16 conducted a trial on a charge of assault and battery. After several delayed trial dates — due to court congestion, delays by the prosecutor, and an absent police officer witness — the trial finally took place on March 15–16. Teyssen gave the opening statement, cross-examined the alleged victim and a civilian witness, and made the arguments for specific jury instructions at the end of the trial. Loup argued the opening motions, cross-examined a police officer, and delivered the closing argument. After about an hour of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The charge had been hanging over the client’s head for almost a year and a half; he was very happy to finally have the matter behind him. The students were supervised by Senior Clinical Instructor Kristin Muniz.

Trial 4

Angel Everett  J.D. ’16 and Aaron Bray J.D. ’16 successfully defended their client at a jury trial in the Roxbury District Court on a criminal charge of Violating a Restraining Order. Everett gave the opening statement, cross examined the complaining witness and conducted two direct examinations of defense witnesses. Bray lead the attorney-conducted voir dire of the jurors, cross-examined the police officer, directly examined a defense witness and delivered the closing argument. After a brief period of time, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty. The students were supervised by Senior Clinical Instructor Kristin Muniz.

Trial 5

Clinical Instructor, Jennifer McKinnon

Clinical Instructor, Jennifer McKinnon

Clinical Instructor Jennifer McKinnon and student attorney Rena Karefa-Johnson J.D. ’16 tried a jury trial in Roxbury District Court in March. Our client was charged with two counts of indecent assault and battery and two counts of assault and battery. He was in the process of applying for citizenship when these charges were filed against him. The allegations were made by family friends who were fighting over money with our client’s family. The “collateral” consequences for our client if he were convicted included being required to register as a sex offender and, because of his immigration status, deportation. After a two day trial, our client was acquitted of all charges. When the verdict was read, there was not a dry eye on our side of the room, including the interpreter! As the jurors left the building, several came over to us to wish our client well and congratulate us.

Trial 6

In April, two CJI students, Michelle Elsner J.D. ’16 and Taylor Poor J.D. ’16, led their first jury trial on the criminal charges of assault and battery on a household member, a misdemeanor, and strangulation, a felony. With the help of their classmates, they investigated the case and interviewed witnesses. Elsner gave the opening statement, cross-examined the Commonwealth’s main witness, conducted direct examinations of the CJI students who served as rebuttal witnesses, and argued the sentencing. Poor took the majority of the legal motions, including the motions in limine, the cross-examinations of both police officers, a direct examination of one of the rebuttal witnesses, and the closing statement. After almost five days of trial and deliberation, the jury returned a split verdict: not guilty on the strangulation charge, and guilty on the assault and battery count. At the moment, Elsner and Poor are gathering material to pass on to Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) for the next step: appeal. Elsner and Poor were honored to represent and fight for their client, and greatly appreciated the rare chance to lead a trial as law students.

Motion to Suppress

Lia Monahon, Clinical Instructor, Criminal Justice Institute

Lia Monahon, Clinical Instructor, Criminal Justice Institute

In March, CJI won the outright dismissal of a case charging our client with causing serious bodily injury while driving under the influence. The charge arose out of a nighttime car accident in which a pedestrian suffered significant brain injuries. CJI alum Aaron Webman, HLS J.D. ’15, investigated the case over a year ago and litigated several discovery motions. Webman’s pre-trial litigation revealed that the Boston Police Department had a surveillance video that showed the client was driving safely, his view of the pedestrian was likely blocked by a van in the next lane, and the pedestrian stepped into oncoming traffic far from any crosswalk. Before the video could be used to exculpate Webman’s client, it was destroyed by Boston Police, who failed to take any steps to “preserve” it. CJI alums Samantha Gupta, HLS J.D. ’15, and Michael Dziuban, HLS J.D. ’15, brought and litigated a motion to dismiss the case as a sanction for the loss of the video, without which it was not possible for their client to have a fair trial. Based on the testimony of numerous police witnesses, the judge found that no remedy short of dismissal would protect the defendant’s right to due process of law. The students were supervised by Clinical Instructor Lia Monahon.

Appeals Court

On April 5, 2016, Zoe Bedell J.D. ’16 represented a CJI client in appellate arguments in front of Justices Green, Trainor, and Milkey on the Massachusetts Court of Appeals. At arraignment, the judge had dismissed one charge of stalking against our client and reduced one charge of assault and battery with a deadly weapon to simple assault and battery; the Commonwealth appealed the judge’s decision. We argued that the judge had properly dismissed and reduced the charges given the lack of probable cause to support the charges. Clinical Professor of Law Dehlia Umunna wrote the briefs and supervised the oral arguments. The decision is still pending.

Robert Proctor, Clinical Instructor

Robert Proctor, Clinical Instructor

On April 14, 2016, David Victorson J.D. ’16 argued an appellate case in front of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. The panel consisted of Chief Judge Kafker, Judge Kinder, and Judge Neyman. The issue stems from the fact that Massachusetts does not have a broad obstruction of justice statute. The client is accused of swallowing evidence, but since there is no proper statute to cover that charge, the Commonwealth charged her with “Intimidation of a Witness.” The Intimidation statute makes it illegal to “mislead . . . a police officer,” so the Commonwealth’s argument is that obstruction is misleading. The District Court dismissed the charge, saying that misleading conduct must create a false impression — basically that “mislead” does not mean “obstruct.” The Commonwealth appealed and, as it told the court, is looking for a decision that clarifies what “mislead” means rather than a decision based in the specific facts of this particular incident. Mr. Victorson was supervised by Clinical Instructors Robert Proctor and Lia Monahon. The decision is still pending.

Student Spotlight – Deanna Parrish ’16

Via Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinic

Deanna Parrish

Deanna Parrish ’16

My fierce dedication to democracy’s potential led me to Harvard Law School. I am the child of an immigrant family—Cubans who fled to the United States seeking an equal and democratic system of government. Because my family sacrificed for the opportunity to be heard by their leaders, I have felt that the onus is on me to stubbornly imagine the more just society they sought—one that works together to solve its most intractable problems. I came to HLS looking for the skills to build this better future, but with little understanding of how it would translate into a course of study. HNCMP became the answer to this query, and the home I was looking for in law school.

In a year otherwise filled with competitive classrooms and black letter law, the Spring 2014 Negotiation Workshop reminded me that I was a person who also went to law school. My training in other coursework would have limited meaning if I could not apply it thoughtfully in day-to-day negotiations. In a school dedicated to advocacy, the Workshop refreshingly suggested “curiosity, not conclusions.” Beyond the many skills the Negotiation Workshop taught me, it was this philosophy that kept me a close disciple of HNMCP during my time at HLS.

In the HNCMP Clinic, I was encouraged to turn my gaze from the personal to the systemic. Under Clinical Instructor Heather Kulp’s mentorship, my team was pushed to design systems where individuals were not only heard, but also felt empowered to speak. My Clinical team worked to create a dispute resolution system for the U.S. Department of Agriculture—never before had I confronted a task so huge and thrilling in law school. No longer were the teachings of the Negotiation Workshop rigorous academic exercises, but real-life issues that I could help solve.

I am fortunate that my engagement with HNMCP has been as robust inside of the classroom as out. Some of my most exciting work has been in content development for the HNMCP Blog; writing a multi-party negotiation case; and helping create HNMCP’s new podcast series The Listening Room. Working with Sara del Nido Budish and Bob Bordone, I have been given amazing mentorship to pursue research and writing in the nexus of issues I hope to explore throughout my professional life. Where do conflict management and social justice intersect? Who is doing this work already that we can learn from? What articles, stories, and exercises will inspire new students of this material? How do we harness group problem-solving to create better institutions?

In the last few years at HLS, these questions have also played out our own campus. HLS is one of many institutions in the throws of a nation-wide conversation on race, identity, and the purposes of legal education. It has been in these important moments where I have appreciated the necessity for both the personal skills and systems design in which HNMCP has trained me. As a student in The Lawyer As Facilitator (LAF) course, and as a facilitator in the  Real Talk  initiative (a series of extracurricular facilitated dialogues on personal identity and the 1L experience), I was given both the training and the opportunity to engage with these issues head-on. In these moments, the quest for a more just society that compelled me to law school became less nebulous: societies are simply systems made up of people, and people experience conflict, change, and vulnerability differently. As a facilitator, I helped participants navigate these experiences. I was overwhelmed by the power that came from a group of individuals processing together, and in turn, by the power of HNMCP’s teachings in creating change, one person at a time.

My experiences with HNMCP have been diverse, deep, and transformational. I have taken courses including the Negotiation Workshop, Dispute Systems Design, the Negotiation and Mediation Clinic, Lawyer as Facilitator; and pursued independent projects including the HNMCP Blog, the Harvard Negotiation Institute, The Listening Room, case writing, and Real Talk. In my last semester of law school, it feels like a capstone for my intense study and practice of dispute resolution to serve as a Teaching Assistant for the Negotiation Workshop. After three years of understanding my own tendencies in conflict, and learning how to prevent and manage others, I feel lucky to introduce new students to this incredibly powerful material.

This material is as liberating as it is challenging: it imparts on its students the onus to do something—be someone—different than before encountering it. It implores us to go into the world with fewer conclusions, greater curiosity, and perhaps more compassion than before. I am closer to my dream of a more inclusive and just society because of my time with HNMCP.

Deanna Parrish ’16 is a 3L at Harvard Law School. In addition to facilitating in the Real Talk initiative, Deanna has served as a teaching assistant in the the Negotiation Workshop and the Harvard Negotiation Institute. During her studies at HLS, Deanna has taken The Lawyer as Facilitator workshop, Dispute Systems Design, and the Negotiation and Mediation Clinic (HNMCP). She has also written a multi-party negotiation case.

A Semester with Senator Warren

By Zachary D’Amico, J.D. ’16

Zachary D’Amico, J.D. '16

Zachary D’Amico, J.D. ’16 with Senator Elizabeth Warren

Rather than finish off my legal education with yet another series of black-letter law lectures and endless April nights reading outlines, I opted to spend my final four months at Harvard Law School working in the Office of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Thanks to the Government Lawyer: Semester in Washington Clinic, I was able to get outside the classroom and see the day-to-day impact that a lawyer can have working in public service.

I initially reached out to Senator Warren’s office for several reasons. My placement search began with two fundamental questions: (1) Where can I have the most impact? and (2) Where can I do something I believe in? In a time of congressional gridlock – a problem exacerbated by the 2016 election cycle – Senator Warren’s office has proven that it can use informal means to accomplish its goals. Perhaps just as important, many of those were goals I already believed in, some involving issues I had worked on during my time in law school.

While I was lucky enough to work on an array of projects with many individuals over the past four months, I spent the majority of my time working for Sen. Warren’s Oversight and Investigations team. Most offices in the Senate don’t have special oversight staff; these jobs are typically under the jurisdiction of committees. Senator Warren, however, has the power of the public megaphone on her side, and oversight and investigations are two important tools with which she wields that power.

Jumping into an office that has an exponentially larger output than any office with a staff of its size should have, I found myself with more immediate responsibility than I expected. Two projects I worked on during my first month in Washington are representative of my experiences throughout the semester: one involving enforcement efforts and the other a proposed rule from the Department of Labor.

On my first day, my boss briefed me on Senator Warren’s effort to shine a spotlight on the government’s woefully ineffective enforcement practices. I spent over a week investigating and researching dozens of failed prosecutions, toothless settlements, and other government failures of enforcement across a wide range of agencies. Much of this research was incorporated into our office’s first annual enforcement report entitled “Rigged Justice.” Just three weeks into my new job I had made a practical contribution to the legal world in a way that was beyond anything I had done in two and a half years of law school before that.

For my second project, I had to completely switch gears in order to research and gather information for a letter Senator Warren sent to the Department of Labor in support of a proposed rule on fiduciary standards for retirement advisers. The letter helped point out that critics of the regulation were not being completely honest (and in a latter letter Sen. Warren asked the SEC to investigate if these companies were misleading investors about the regulation) and DOL eventually finalized the rule in early April. This project was one of many that taught me my most valuable lesson I learned in four months I spent working on Capitol Hill: don’t be afraid to dive in with your eyes closed. I knew very little about retirement advising when my boss handed me this project. But as I would come to find out, most people in the office faced the same obstacle at some point in their careers. It’s okay to not have a clue what you’re doing at time, as long as you’re willing to do whatever it takes to figure it out.

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with such an intelligent, hardworking team for such an inspirational woman. For anyone considering the Semester in Washington Clinic, I highly recommend the experience.

 

My home at the law school

By Sam Feldman, J.D. ’16

I came to law school to work on the issues of mass incarceration and prisoners’ rights, inspired by advocates and activists I’d met who were challenging America’s own 21st-century gulag archipelago. I hadn’t actually done much research, though—something I’ve gotten better at over the course of law school—and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Harvard is one of the only law schools in the country whose students have the opportunity to go into prisons on a regular basis and represent prisoners at hearings. The Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), Harvard’s largest student practice organization, serves (a small fraction of) the Massachusetts state prisoners who desperately need representation and have nowhere else to turn.

PLAP’s bread and butter are disciplinary hearings, in which inmates accused of violating prison regulations have the opportunity to defend themselves before a hearing officer. Accused prisoners are allowed to retain counsel, but very few have the resources to do so. That’s where PLAP comes in: working in teams of one or two students supervised by an experienced attorney, we interview clients, submit discovery requests and motions, cross-examine corrections officers, and defend our clients against charges that can carry serious consequences, ranging from a loss of privileges to punitive solitary confinement.

I took my first disciplinary case in the fall of my 1L year and won a not guilty verdict for my client on a very serious charge, escape or attempted escape. Soon after I picked up a parole case together with a friend from my section, and the following year, while I served as PLAP’s Parole Hearing Coordinator, we represented our client before the Massachusetts Parole Board as he sought a chance to breathe free air after over 30 years in prison. This year I’ve served as one of PLAP’s two Executive Directors, and I’ve taken as many disciplinary cases as I can squeeze in between classes and other clinical work. My parole client was denied release last summer for reasons I believe are unlawful; before I graduate, I’ll have the opportunity to make that argument to the Suffolk Superior Court as part of our impact litigation practice.

Throughout my three years here, PLAP has been my home at the law school. I’ve appreciated our corner office on the 5th floor and the large community surrounding it, including about 200 students, two amazing supervising attorneys, and our dedicated administrative director. I’m also grateful for the chance to work in another type of space entirely: the state prisons in which thousands of people involuntarily reside, a few of whom I’ve had the privilege of getting to know. And I’ve been inspired anew by the motto hanging on the wall of our office: freedom for some, justice for all.

 

Working with PLAP: Opportunities to represent inmates in Massachusetts prisons

By Erin DeGrand J.D. ’16

Erin DeGrand J.D. '16

Erin DeGrand J.D. ’16

Joining PLAP as a 1L, I was most attracted to the fact that it seemed like the only place on campus that would let me get involved without submitting a resume first. In the face of all of the stress that accompanies 1L, PLAP was welcoming and required no application. Not to worry, this Hufflepuff mindset goes Gryffindor quickly, but it is a notable and important aspect of PLAP that we take everyone.

Two things made me continue with PLAP throughout law school: the David and Goliath nature of the work, and the opportunity for as much hands-on experience as I could take. PLAP primarily represents prisoners in two types of hearings: disciplinary and parole. At disciplinary hearings, we defend prisoners from charges that they have violated a prison’s rules; these charges range in seriousness from disobeying a guard’s order to assault. In these hearings, students cross-examine guards and witnesses, they often directly examine their clients, and they make closing arguments to the hearing officer. At parole hearings, we represent prisoners asking the Parole Board to let them out of prison. Here, students rigorously prepare their clients for the Board’s questions, prepare parole memos explaining why their clients have reformed and are ready to return to society, and make opening and closing statements to the Board at the hearing.

These hearings often inspire feelings similar to how the Red Sox must have felt against the Yankees in 2004. Prisoners are the ultimate underdogs: they have no guarantee of counsel in these hearings. In the disciplinary hearings, the standard of proof is low, the prison decides what evidence it will allow, and the judge is often a former corrections officer. In the parole hearings, the board has a lot to lose in granting parole and nothing to lose in denying it. But there is no better win than an underdog win, and getting a ticket dismissed or parole granted can be just as sweet as beating the Yankees.

Connecting back to my own humanity

By Michelle Ha, J.D. ’16

Michelle Ha, J.D. ’16

Michelle Ha, J.D. ’16

Through my experience in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC) this semester, I had the privilege of representing an incredible woman named Juana* in her application for asylum in the United States.

Juana fled gang violence in Central America with her young daughter and has suffered from threats and abuse that no one should ever have to go through. She is unable to read or write because, while she had wanted to go to school, she had to work in order to help support her family. Her eyes light up when she talks about her children, her husband, whom she calls el amor de mi vida, and her church community. Her voice softens as she remembers how she dreamed of becoming a singer when she was a child.

There are details that demonstrate our true character and make us human, but the law may not provide room for those to come to light. There is no place in her court filings for us to talk about the delicious pastries she baked for us one weekend. There is nowhere we can include how she always washes the dishes from our conversations over tea and hot chocolate before she leaves, no matter how many times we tell her to leave them for us.

This is the case, even though asylum law is one of the most intimate areas of legal practice. As an advocate, you must learn who your client is, her background, experiences, values and beliefs in order to understand her story and how it fits into the legal definition of a refugee as provided for in the Refugee Convention and incorporated into U.S. domestic law.

Asylum law is also the area of law that displays most clearly the role of lawyer as a storyteller and translator. The central piece of evidence in an asylum application is the applicant’s affidavit. The lawyer’s role is to translate the things that happened to the client into a compelling narrative that the law understands to trigger legal obligation.

But there are certain issues of credibility that play out in a court of law that push us, as advocates, to flatten her narrative. Persuasive storytelling is made up of the telling details you are able to weave in, but we think of whether Juana will be able to remember these details when she is being cross-examined on the stand by an adversarial government lawyer. We work with her to parse down the rich details of her life into a clear, condensed, court-ready submission of around 30 pages. I cringe to think that some affidavits, even those written with the help of a lawyer, have less than 10. And I remember the men, women, and children without counsel at immigration court who will face this process alone.

Law lacks a human touch in many ways, but working with Juana, representing her in a case that itself represents her life and receiving her confidence and trust, has been an experience that has connected me back to my own humanity and what justice feels like, and why I came to law school in the first place. In my law school personal statement, I wrote that “justice is a feeling: of right and wrong, balance, compassion, and empathy. Literature depicts the world as it is and engenders, nurtures within us this sense of justice. But laws are the language by which we are able to conceive of how the world should be and articulate the possibilities of change.” Working with Juana during my semester in HIRC gave me the privilege of combining the language of justice with the language of the law in order to make a real difference in someone’s life.

As a 3L looking back on my time at HLS, I am grateful for all the opportunities I had to learn, grow, and prepare myself to serve, and look forward to the new opportunities that my law school training has provided me. I hope that students will continue to pursue opportunities to directly help those in need through providing legal assistance, through participating in student practice organizations, law school clinics, or other pro bono engagements. As the self-professed leaders of our time, we have legal and professional obligations to do so. But most of all, we owe it to ourselves.

*Name has been changed.

Housing Law Clinic: fighting housing displacement and insecurity

By Catherine Peyton Humphreville, J.D. ’16

Credit: Brooks Kraft

Credit: Brooks Kraft
Catherine Peyton Humphreville, J.D. ’16 and Lecturer on Law Maureen McDonagh

Working with homeless and street-involved youth as a legal intern at the Urban Justice Center’s Peter Cicchino Youth Project after my first year of law school, I saw that many of my clients first encountered legal troubles when they became homeless. After arriving back at school that fall semester, I set out to use legal tools to prevent homelessness and housing insecurity before it started. With that goal in mind, I enrolled in the Housing Law Clinic.

During my first semester, I worked on eviction cases. I learned about the unsafe housing conditions faced by many of Boston’s low-income residents and how to use the housing code and consumer protection law to fight these conditions. I also saw how domestic violence exacerbates housing crises and learned to work in tandem with the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic to help my client’s family. As a continuing clinical student during the Spring 2015 semester, I wrote an appellate brief in a foreclosure case, representing a single mother who had been fighting for her home for eight years, and attended weekly meetings at City Life/Vida Urbana, an anti-displacement community organizing group blocks from the Legal Services Center. Both semesters, I was able to forge close working relationships with clients through one-on-one meetings while also developing my writing skills and substantive knowledge of foreclosure law under the close supervision of Lecturer on Law Maureen McDonagh and Clinical Instructor Julia Devanthery.

I came to law school in part to advocate for women and LGBTQ people. By participating in the Attorney for the Day program at Boston Housing Court, I saw that it was primarily women and people of color facing eviction, who almost always had no access to legal representation and I began to see housing security as a feminist and anti-racist issue. I hope to be able to use the litigation and client-interviewing skills I learned in the Housing Law Clinic together with the transactional skills I garnered in two semesters with the Community Enterprise Project to fight housing insecurity and displacement in New York after completing a clerkship.

 

EXPIRED in Washington, D.C.

Via Food Law and Policy Clinic

By Katie Sandson,  J.D. ’17

2016-04-05_Date_Labeling_002_s

Image provided by Senator Richard Blumenthal’s office

I have been a clinical student in the Food Law and Policy clinic since January 2016. As a continuing clinical student this semester, I have been working on FLPC’s food waste and food recovery initiatives, including work on the clinic’s expiration date project. As part of its efforts to standardize date labels at the federal level, FLPC has drawn attention to this problem through the creation and promotion of a short film, EXPIRED? Food Waste in America. The film tells the story of how a restrictive date labeling rule in Montana has required countless gallons of wholesome milk to be needlessly discarded once the milk reaches a labeled date that has no basis in safety or science. Montana’s rule is just one example of similarly restrictive rules in place throughout the country.

Throughout the semester, I have worked to promote the film and raise awareness about the connection between date labels and food waste. Two weeks ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. with the clinic to attend a number of events related to our date labeling projects, including two screenings of the EXPIRED film in two very different settings. On Sunday, I helped give a presentation on date labels at the National Food Recovery Dialogue hosted by the Food Recovery Network. On Tuesday, FLPC’s director Emily Broad Leib and clinical fellow Christina Rice participated in a panel on date labels hosted by Senator Richard Blumenthal’s Office. Senator Blumenthal has announced plans to introduce legislation to standardize date labels at the federal level, an effort FLPC has supported throughout the process.

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Project on Predatory Student Lending: Inspiring My Public Interest Career

By Jessica Ranucci, J.D. ’16 

Jessica Ranucci, J.D. ’16

Jessica Ranucci, J.D. ’16

The Project on Predatory Student Lending, part of the Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic, has been a tremendously important part of my law school experience. The clinic is housed at HLS’s Legal Services Center (LSC), which is located in Boston, and is only a few minutes drive away from the community center where I worked full-time before law school.

I came to HLS in order to be able to combat the structural inequalities that I saw facing the youth and families with whom I worked. I sought out a clinical experience at LSC because its mission to provide quality legal services to clients in their own neighborhood comported with my own belief in community-based public interest work.

The Project on Predatory Student Lending provides direct representation to low-income student loan borrowers who have experienced illegal predatory activity by for-profit colleges. As a 2L in my first semester at the clinic, I directly represented clients in civil litigation. I also wrote a motion and conducted discovery for the first time. Through the Continuing Clinical Program, I have been able to remain in the clinic for my entire 3L year.

This year, I have a lot of flexibility to work independently while I oversee the clinic’s intake process. I love conducting intakes: they give new potential clients the opportunity to share their stories and give me the intellectual challenge of matching up the clients’ experiences with potential legal claims. After an intake meeting, I make recommendations to the clinic’s attorneys about the legal options we have to assist our clients. In some cases, there is a relatively easy solution and I can help the client apply for an administrative loan discharge. I bring the complicated cases to our weekly team meetings, where the supervising attorneys, fellow clinical students, and I discuss the legal assistance the clinic can provide.

The Project on Predatory Student Lending is also involved in shaping student debt policy on the state and national level. The clinic’s attorneys set policy priorities by listening to our clients’ needs and identifying when the current system is not working for them. What has really inspired me about the Project on Predatory Student Lending is its simultaneous commitment to high-quality direct legal services and pursuit of policy change on our clients’ behalf. I came to law school to find a way to combat structural inequality—and I see the clinic’s combination of legal services and client—driven policy advocacy as a model for how to achieve that. It is a model I hope to emulate in my career.

Judicial Process in Trial Courts Clinic’s prison visit

By Benjamin Sacks, J.D. ’17

To my left, three people sat around a table playing what appeared to be poker. To my right, another pair played Mah Jongg. Behind the tables, one man was holding his dog on a leash, another was talking on the phone, and a third was placing an order for a meal. They all gave me a quizzical look when I entered their room: What was I doing there?

Group photo of students in the class

Group photo of students in the class

Prisoners at Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) in Concord aren’t used to visitors popping into their living quarters, but there we were. The twenty-five of us students in the Judicial Processes in the Trial Courts Clinic, Hon. John C. Cratsley (Ret.), and our tour guide, prison superintendent Lois Russo, standing in the common area which the prisoners’ cells (two to a room) face. We were on a tour of the prison as a culmination to our semester working with various judges in the courts of Massachusetts. After helping judges write opinions and perform legal research, it was only appropriate that we see the consequences of some of our judges’ sentencing decisions.

The prisoners seemed content enough playing their games and making their phone calls, but there was no mistaking that we were in a prison. The impersonal fluorescent lights, uncarpeted cement floors, and heavy metal doors with special locks throughout the facility served as a constant reminder that the people inside were there to stay. During our tour of the facilities, we were escorted by a minimum of two security guards. Each time we moved from one area to another, we went through two sets of doors, the first of which had to close before the second would open, so as to prevent unauthorized use.

Life isn’t easy in prison. At MCI Concord, inmates spend each night in their locked cells, and many hours of the day within the confines of the common area just outside. Surely, poker can only be entertaining for so long. There are prescribed visiting hours, and inmates are entitled to at least one hour a day outside, and one hour of exercise per day, five days per week. We did not go to the outside recreational area, but the indoor exercise area (still exposed to the cold outside air) was nothing but a box, with concrete floor, ceiling, and walls.

Prisoners can earn credits that can be spent on snacks, phone calls, or other amenities. They can also earn credits for sentence reductions by performing services within or outside the prison, depending on their security clearances. For example, a number of them receive training on how to domesticate and train service dogs (like the one we saw) for those with special needs. For two years at a time, they live with the dogs that they train.

Credits are nice, but they are nothing compared to the freedom we felt when we exited the prison after our visit and went to Judge Cratsley’s house, where we enjoyed a warm, home-cooked meal. Our visit reinforced my feeling that the only sentence I want to experience is the one comprised of words.

A reflection on the Crimmigration Clinic

By Anna Byers, J.D. ’16 

For me, the Crimmigration Clinic was a question of whether I believed that the fundamental guarantees of our constitution applied to everyone no matter where they were born. As a law student, it was anathema to me that someone could be imprisoned without a hearing, separated from their family, or penalized twice for the same crime. Yet these are all situations which immigrants who are convicted of crimes find themselves in daily.

Under the leadership of Phil Torrey, we spent a semester in the Crimmigration Clinic writing amicus briefs, providing plea consults, and working to construct a database of controlled substances. Particularly moving for me was the work we did on an amicus for the First Circuit. The petitioner, an immigrant who had fled her country, was at risk of removal despite her very real fear of being killed in her country. She had committed a fraudulent crime as a result of desperation, but to the courts she was just another “criminal alien.” Writing for her, we got to know her story as well as the intricacies of international law and help her triumph in her case before the Court.

It was my first experience writing for a court and collaborating on a case with so many moving parts. I got to hear experienced lawyers talk about case strategy and figure out how our contribution fit into a larger campaign. It was a privilege to work on a case with possible long lasting implications. Hopefully women like our client won’t have to go through this process again. Instead, they will be guaranteed the process and safety that all people deserve.

Judicial Process in Trial Court Clinic: A highlight of my time at HLS

Julie Hamilton, J.D. '16

Julie Hamilton, J.D. ’16

By Julie Hamilton, J.D. ’16

As I trudged through growing piles of snow blanketing the Boston sidewalks in January 2015, I was unsure what awaited me at Boston Municipal Court (BMC). It was the first day of my clinical component of the Judicial Process in Trial Courts Clinic, and, embarrassingly, it was the first day I ever stepped inside a community court. After a semester of observing courtroom proceedings, discussing cases with a BMC judge, and sitting in on attorney-judge conferences, I can say sincerely that the clinic was worth that first trek in the snow and each one that followed.

For many people, a community court is the first, and most, interaction they will have with the judicial process; what happens in that courthouse shapes their perceptions of their city’s, their state’s, their country’s justice system and can impact their lives in deep and lasting ways. The Judicial Process in Trial Courts Clinic not only enabled me to step away from the Chevrons of law school into the messy intersection of real life and the law, but it also provided me with unfettered access to a uniquely experienced guide and interpreter—a judge.

Perhaps what surprised me most about my clinical experience was the willingness of the judge for whom I worked to give me honest, thorough answers to the many questions I asked. In his chambers at the end of the day, we discussed why the judge decided as he did on motions or fees or sentences; how lawyers’ courtroom behaviors or actions struck the judge and what that meant; why something unfolded the way it had in court that day; and issues pertaining to and affecting local, state, and national judicial processes. I observed arraignments, motion hearings, civil trials, criminal trials, and sentencing. I sat in front of the judge’s bench with his clerk, so I was privy to sidebars and pertinent documents. I witnessed skillful and not-as-skillful lawyering, and, from that, developed a better sense of what kind of attorney I hope to be. I saw a part of the justice system that Massachusetts residents see, and I learned, a lot.

As my impending graduation begins to sink in, I have started to reflect on my time at HLS. The Judicial Process in Trial Courts Clinic, for the opportunity it gave me to pick a judge’s brain on a weekly basis and all it taught me about the community court system, stands out as a highlight.

Making rights real: my time in Ghana

By Rachel Jones, LL.M. ’16

Professor Lucie White has been working alongside Ghanaian organizations for many years on a variety of projects. I am lucky enough to be part of her Making Rights Real clinic, and spent this spring break investigating the impacts of gas development on local communities in the Western Region of Ghana.

Our time in Ghana was short, but packed. Before our visit, we researched various laws bearing on possible compensation for affected communities. In Accra, Ghana’s capital, we spoke with government agencies and civil society organizations. We gathered more information about Ghana’s burgeoning domestic gas sector, and inquired about consultation of, and compensation for, local people. After Accra we all piled into our little bus and travelled to the Western Region, stopping on the way to meet our local NGO partner, whose expertise was invaluable.

By far the most interesting experience from my perspective, and one that will remain with me for the rest of my life, was meeting with community members themselves. We approached people in the village in small groups, accompanied by translators (in my case, the Professor’s knowledgeable clinic assistant, a 2nd year SJD student from Ghana: Oteng’s organization skills and kindness made everyone’s trip run smoothly).

My group talked to two separate groups of people about their experiences – men and women. Hearing their perspective, their anger, their proposals was what this trip was really all about. I left Ghana with a strong and abiding impression that everyone we met cares deeply about the issues we’re exploring – and wants to do their best for their country or for their community.

Steven Salcedo ’16 honored with ethics award

Via HLS News

Harvard Law School 3L Steven Salcedo is among 12 law students recognized by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC)-Northeast for “exemplary commitment to ethics in the course of their clinical studies.”

Steven_SalcedoSalcedo was nominated for the award by Harvard Law School Lecturer on Law Amanda Kool, who supervised Salcedo during his more than three semesters of clinical work with the Transactional Law Clinic’s Community Enterprise Project. In her nomination letter, Kool praised Salcedo for his work drafting a guide for immigrant entrepreneurs and helping immigrant clients on issues related to their business ownership, tasks which raised complex ethical issues.

“Put simply, I’ve never met a student more committed to the ethical rules than Steven Salcedo,” wrote Kool in her nomination. “He is far from reckless, but neither is he afraid of blazing (calculated, well-researched) trails to the effective delivery of legal services to the most vulnerable of clients, using the ethical rules as his roadmap each step of the way.”

Salcedo jumped into clinical work through his participation in the Community Enterprise Project of the Transactional Law Clinics (CEP), which allows HLS students to help small business owners, entrepreneurs, and community groups create businesses, obtain permits and licenses, and negotiate contracts and other transactional (non-litigation) services. During his first semester with CEP, he and a fellow student proposed creating a legal resource for immigrant entrepreneurs and those who work with immigrant entrepreneurs. The project was accepted and Salcedo continued with the clinic for an additional semester to see the project to fruition as the project team leader. The first-of-its-kind guide, A Legal Overview of Business Ownership for Immigrant Entrepreneurs in Massachusetts, was published last fall.

As a result of his work on the publication, Salcedo built a reputation for expertise and decided to stay on for a third semester of clinical work with CEP to continue representing immigrant entrepreneur clients.

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Expanding my Horizons through the Environmental Law Clinic

By Cade Carmichael, J.D. ’17

I must admit that during the 1L clinical registration period, I was a bit worried about transitioning into the “life” of a clinical student. Sure, I had put many hours into my Student Practice Organization work as a 1L, but being a clinical student seemed a bit daunting. That said, I knew that I wanted to register for a clinic, specifically the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic (ELPC). Of course, it wasn’t until I got started with ELPC that my 1L fears were put to rest.

Cade Carmichael, J.D. '17

Cade Carmichael, J.D. ’17

For starters, despite wanting to be involved with the clinic, I had no background in environmental law – at least not in comparison to many of my peers. Turns out, this wasn’t a problem in the least, and my guess is that “lacking a background” isn’t a barrier to many of HLS’ clinics, precisely because they are here to give us substantive experience and to improve as lawyers. In the case of ELPC, there was a conscious effort on the part of the clinic to get me involved even before the semester had started! Through early discussions with clinic supervisors, I found a real opportunity to craft the kind of clinical experience I had hoped to have.

Since I started, I have dealt with wonderful projects that I never would have expected, including everything from a petition to the Office of Management and Budget at the White House designed to reduce CO2 emissions from university research laboratories, to researching questions of whether synthetic rhinoceros horn is “derived” from a real animal product, to analyzing applications of the “Rights of Nature” section of the Ecuadorian constitution, to revising decades old noise ordinances in order to bring them into the 21st century. These and other projects have entailed duties ranging from direct client interaction, to more high-level regulatory research, which is precisely what has made my time with the clinic so enjoyable: every project is a unique experience. In turn, I’ve not only improved my skills in areas that might be expected, such as writing memos, but I’ve also had a chance to explore completely new areas such as writing portions of a suggested regulatory amendment and digesting a flurry of ideas coming from a room full of motivated clients.

When looking back at these past two semesters with ELPC, I realize that they have been the most interesting and engaging portion of my law school experience thus far. So if I had one piece of advice for anyone considering a clinic, it would be to go for it, as your horizons will certainly expand as a result!

My experience in the Child Advocacy Clinic

By Mikelina Belaineh, J.D. ’16 

I became involved with the Child Advocacy Clinic (CAP) through a less than traditional path. The clinic was something I had always wanted to enroll in, because I was interested in exploring juvenile justice work and the role that positive youth development could and should play in juvenile justice reform and intervention. This led me to be more interested in CAP rather than a criminal defense focused clinic. I wanted to explore the various alternatives to litigation as a form of “lawyering” for social justice and change.

Mikelina Belaineh, J.D. '16

Mikelina Belaineh, J.D. ’16

Despite this interest in the clinic, I never seemed to have the time or room in my schedule. This semester was no different, except this time it wasn’t credit hours holding me back. I was fortunate enough to have received an offer from a start up, non-profit organization, InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW), to come in at “ground level” and help them continue to build this growing organization. ICW’s mission is to help students in the Boston area succeed by providing a positive alternative to the streets. This was a non-profit that I had been volunteering for and hoping to join full time upon graduation.  Although I was hired in a program development role, I also saw a great opportunity to help ICW grow by further utilizing my legal background.

Every ICW student faces a variety of legal barriers to their success, whether it’s a pending case, probation/parole, family law issues; the list goes on. Therefore, in addition to helping further design and structure ICW’s model, and guiding the organization into a new period of growth and expansion, I will be taking the lead in researching and trying to implement structures within the organization to further support students in navigating the various legal barriers they face. However, there was one thing holding me back from being able to commit. The organization needed someone to start working in the winter and continue throughout the spring semester, at least on a part time basis. This is where my involvement with CAP began.

Cheryl Bratt, who teaches in the Child Advocacy Clinic, took the time to meet with me and gave me the opportunity to explain my goals about the project and the work I would be doing in the clinic. She helped me develop a concrete project, and has been a great partner in brainstorming and supporting my work with ICW more broadly as it relates to my future position with them. My project with the clinic is to: 1) Identify the most prevalent legal issues or barriers in our students lives; 2) Research and develop methods that ICW could incorporate into it’s structure to address these issues; 3) Develop a proposal for the executive team and board of directors, explaining what methods I think can and should be implemented.

The clinic has been one of the highlights of my law school experience. It’s one of the few times I’ve experienced a piece of the institution really going out of it’s way to support me in pursuing what I came to law school for: discovering my place in the movement for social change. I’ve not only found support through Cheryl as a supervisor, but my peers in the clinic have been incredible sources of information, brainstorming, resources, networking, and the list could go on. I came in thinking it was simply going to allow me to do the work I was hired to do, but what I got was so much more. The clinic has given me the opportunity to do work I’m passionate about, develop skills that will directly relate to the work I’ll be doing after graduating, and has been an incredible learning experience. The clinic literally changed my life in the law, and it’s something I’m always going to be grateful for.

Reflections from the Child Advocacy Clinic

Susana Cervantes, J.D. ’17

Last December, I received an email announcing my internship assignment in the Child Advocacy Clinic: I was going to be placed with the legal team of the charter school network Achievement First, working to research school discipline policies centered around principles of restorative justice and trauma-sensitivity. Such policies have increasingly been recognized as an attractive alternative to exclusionary discipline practices (i.e., class removals/suspensions/expulsions).

I was thrilled to be a part of this project–the opportunity to work on this type of education policy was one of the reasons I came to Harvard Law after two years of teaching. However, I became nervous when my supervisor told me that a group of families had recently filed a lawsuit against Achievement First alleging various violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act based on its schools’ treatment of students with disabilities. While I would still be working on the policy research we had discussed before the lawsuit was filed, I would also likely spend much of my internship helping to respond to this litigation.

I felt conflicted when I heard that because last semester I had a great experience working in Harvard’s Education Law Clinic, which represents families in special education disputes with schools. I had seen how reluctant schools could be to expend the cost to provide services that students clearly needed and deserved. The idea of “switching sides” to represent a school network initially worried me.

Fortunately, I’ve found myself in an organization that truly cares about its students. I’ve watched Achievement First ensure that it is doing everything possible not only to meet the standards of legal compliance, but also to do what’s best for kids. Most importantly for my personal career development, I’ve seen the crucial role that in-house legal counsel can play in that process, both in educating staff about their legal duties, and in managing relationships between school and network leaders, families, and district representatives to work together towards positive outcomes. It’s a good reminder that all of these people have a stake in educating children, and that lawyers on all sides have the potential to help effect meaningful change.

Using the law to heal the wounds of racism

By Rena Karefa-Johnson, J.D. ’16

In my law school applications, I wrote that I wanted to be a lawyer to continue my grandfather’s legacy of healing. While he fought to heal the suffering in his colonized, impoverished country of Sierra Leone through public health and politics, I wanted to come to law school to heal this country’s racial wounds, and the rampant inequity those wounds cause, through the law. Though I did not know it then, I was writing in part about the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI).

Rena Karefa-Johnson, J.D. '16

Rena Karefa-Johnson, J.D. ’16

Working as a student attorney and defending members of the larger Boston community in criminal cases has been my most educational, meaningful and all-around best academic experience in law school. As a law student, it’s easy to lose focus on the outward-facing reason why many of us came here: to help change the world for the better. As we focus our brainpower on trying to learn and digest the theory of law, we sometimes forget that the law ultimately is not in a textbook or exam answer but rather it is a real force in the real world with an enormous impact on real lives. And we can get so caught up in thinking about our own, admittedly busy, lives – our schedules, assignments, extracurriculars and job applications – that we inadvertently deprioritize thinking about others.

But if those are some of the pitfalls of law school, then CJI is the ladder out.

There, I have used my classroom education to practice law rather than simply theorizing about it. This has deepened my understanding of how the law actually interacts with communities, specifically low-income communities of color. Not only will I take these realizations with me into my career, I also share them with my classmates and draw on them to enrich other classroom discussions.

In CJI our clients, rather than ourselves, became the priority. CJI is tremendously worthwhile for the students both for the incredible legal experience and the personal fulfillment. But the challenge of CJI is ensuring that we deserve the honor of representing our clients; that we make the experience worthwhile for them, too. It is in trying to meet that high bar – through extremely hard work and dedication, and with the guidance of the most skilled, committed and wonderful clinical faculty and staff – that I got what I came to law school for: the tools to use the law to combat and heal, rather than reinforce, racial inequality.

Crimmigration Clinic: “A unique and fascinating capstone to my law school career”

By Hanne Sandison, J.D. ’16

Hanne Sandison, J.D. '16

Hanne Sandison, J.D. ’16

I knew I wanted to be involved in the clinical programs before I came to Harvard my 1L year. One of the main things that drew me to the school was its plethora of clinical programs, allowing me to gain real world experience and figure out who I wanted to be as lawyer. Participating in various clinics – the International Human Rights Clinic, the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, the Crimmigration Clinic, and two independent clinicals during J-Term – have helped me find my strengths and passion while surrounding me with mentors and colleagues I respect, admire, and enjoy.

Working in the Crimmigration Clinic this semester has been a unique and fascinating capstone to my law school career. Crimmigration (the intersection of criminal law and immigration law) is a relatively new and constantly evolving legal discipline. The law is always changing, and advocates are constantly trying to find creative solutions to new problems. In the Crimmigration Clinic we have the unique opportunity to interact with both criminal defense and immigration legal spheres, as criminal laws affect clients in immigration proceedings, and a client’s immigration status affects their priorities in criminal court.

This semester, I was fortunate to work with Philip Torrey and Sabrina Lee, J.D. ’17 on three distinct projects. We worked with the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) on a toolkit to help their defense attorneys avoid criminal convictions that would carry additional immigration consequences (such as deportation). Drastic budget cuts in criminal representation have left OPD underfunded and without immigration specialists, putting their immigrant clients in a precarious legal position. To help fill this gap, OPD sent us a list of commonly-charged misdemeanors in New Orleans, and we put together a manual to help their defense attorneys understand the immigration consequences of certain convictions – specifically whether such a conviction would lead to deportation.

My colleagues and I also worked on a project to map out the Massachusetts drug schedules – a tool that will help immigration advocates know how best to advocate for clients with drug convictions on their records.

Finally, I was able to partner with the Criminal Justice Institute and work with one student attorney on a case involving a non-citizen client. Here I was able to see where the rubber hits the road, and how criminal convictions can impact the ability of non-citizens to stay in this country. Working with CJI put a face and a story to the many statutes and cases we had read and digested throughout the semester.

While I find the most joy in working directly with and advocating for clients, my experience in the Crimmigration Clinic showed me how imperative it is to have capable and passionate people working at all levels and doing all types of legal work. Policy work, impact litigation, advising, and direct client services all work in harmony to create a more just and equitable system for those most vulnerable to abuse and neglect. I am excited to continue to be a part of this talented and inspiring community of lawyers, and I feel honored to have learned from and with them.

In the Health Law and Policy Clinic, a slew of opportunities to sharpen legal and policy skills

By Kelly Jo Popkin, J.D. ’17

L-R: Kelly Jo

L-R: Kelly Jo Popkin, J.D. ’17; Robert Greenwald, Clinical Professor of Law; and Kevin Costello, Senior Associate Director and Litigation Manager

I became interested in the Health Law and Policy Clinic after solidifying my summer employment working with the General Counsel of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California (PPAC). Unlike the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), where I worked as the organization’s U.S. Policy and Advocacy Analyst last summer, PPAC focuses on the legal issues affecting their seven clinics in California in the moment and on the ground. Though I had a firm grasp on reproductive legal and policy strategies thanks to CRR, I was forewarned by PPAC that I would need to know more about barriers to healthcare access, public health concerns, and health disparities writ large. The clinic seemed like the perfect way to learn about these issues while cultivating a useful skillset for my summertime employment.

In the first couple of weeks, I immersed myself into the world of health policy reform by taking a few projects with a tight turnaround time. Along with Lauren Kuhlik (J.D., MPH ’17), I assisted in drafting a  Supreme Court amicus brief re. Zubik v. Burwell, a follow-up to the Hobby Lobby decision. I also traveled to New York to visit a cancer center and assisted in launching their nonprofit lung cancer screening initiative for upper Manhattan. The excitement of the first few weeks has set the pace for the weeks to follow.

Working in the Health Law and Policy Clinic has given me exposure to a variety of public health topics, from HIV and hepatitis C, to specialty care access, to psychosocial determinants of health. The issues vary just as much as the policy tools used to address them. In one month’s time, I have drafted a policy roadmap for a community-based health organization, a preliminary injunction against a state Medicaid agency, a Supreme Court amicus brief, and an administrative complaint to the Office of Civil Rights. I have engaged in thorough legal analysis and research for all of my projects, using a wide swath of sources to evaluate case law, market statistics, and other indicators of health law and regulations as implemented in a post-Affordable Care Act landscape. I would highly recommend this clinic to any Harvard Law student interested in becoming well-versed in a variety of legal and policy strategies, whether or not they are considering a career in health law.

I would venture to say that I learned more in the few weeks working in the clinic than I had learned in my entire law school career thus far. My supervisors have provided constructive and crucial guidance every step of the way, and have gone out of their way to show how much our work is appreciated. For example, when Professor Robert Greenwald and Clinical Instructor Carmel Shachar learned that they couldn’t put our names on the Zubik amicus brief, they contacted Dean Martha Minow to acknowledge our hard work and praise us on a job well done.

While deeply invested in achieving impactful policy changes, the Health Law and Policy Clinic is equally invested in the cultivation of future policy advocates. Thanks to the clinic’s culture of mentorship, I feel competent and confident in my ability to produce meaningful work products this summer and for the years to come.

“The clinic broadened my horizons”

By Alexander Leone, J.D. ’16 

The Food Law and Policy Clinic is renowned for its groundbreaking work on a variety of issues, including a report it released with the Natural Resources Defense Council on the staggering amount of food we waste in the United States. As someone who has been interested in food since college—and in the countless ways it affects both body and mind and our natural world—the Clinic was on my radar even before I chose to attend Harvard Law School.

Alexander Leone, J.D. ’16

During my time in the Clinic, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on two projects that mirrored perfectly my deepest food policy concerns: the ways in which our food system affects, or disserves, society’s most vulnerable; and how our food production practices affect, or destroy, the environment.

First, I worked with an attorney and fellow student to draft a letter to federal legislators on what standards should govern what millions of children, particularly low-income children, eat for their school meals. That letter ultimately became a Clinic policy brief, which “urges Congress to continue progress towards making nutritious, healthy, and delicious school meals available to all children.” Second, I analyzed novel ways in which the tort system could be used to deter the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, a practice that has been linked to the antibiotic resistance crisis that threatens the future of modern medicine.

My projects not only developed my research and writing skills, but enlightened me as to different ways in which to research and write. Contacting and conference calling with a variety of different stakeholders in the legislative process taught me perspectives that I wouldn’t find in a case book. The need to use creativity and analogy to craft arguments at the frontiers of existing legal doctrine sharpened my intellect in a manner unlike a traditional law school class. And I have hope that the efforts of the Clinic will concretely affect food policy—perhaps, for example, through persuasion of lawmakers who will determine what millions of children will be eating during school.

The Clinic also broadened my horizons at Harvard Law School: It led directly to my participation as president of the Harvard Food Law Society. The Clinic sharpened my knowledge of American food law and policy and prepared me to lead an organization that, primarily through educational talks and its annual conference, seeks to advance food justice in our community and society.

Three clinics, one common value

Lauren Blodgett, J.D. ’16

My clinical experiences at Harvard Law School have deeply enriched and shaped my legal education. During my time at HLS, I have had the privilege of engaging with many different clinics. I participated in the International Human Rights Clinic for two semesters, as well as the Immigration and Refugee Clinic, the Child Advocacy Clinic, and an independent clinical in Tanzania. These experiences helped pave my career path and contributed to my personal and professional growth. These clinics have given me the opportunity to collaborate with clinicians and classmates on pressing issues, travel to countries across the world, and see the positive impact of our legal work on individuals’ lives.

Lauren Blodgett, J.D. '16

Lauren Blodgett, J.D. ’16

By gaining practical experience in these clinics, I learned many lessons that I hope to carry with me throughout my legal career. In the International Human Rights Clinic, I worked on two projects: one, advocating for the prosecution of senior U.S. officials for authorizing and implementing the use of torture and another, proposing stricter regulations on the use of incendiary weapons. This international advocacy taught me to stand up for what I believe in, even if it is an unpopular or controversial position. It also taught me the importance of negotiation, compromise, and teamwork when advocating for new international laws and norms. In the Immigration and Refugee Clinic, my teammate and I helped our clients through various stages of the asylum application process. This experience not only helped me improve my interviewing and writing skills, but also taught me how to be a compassionate and effective advocate when working directly with clients. Finally, through the Child Advocacy Clinic I am currently representing children with mental disabilities in their interactions with their school system. I am learning how the support of a lawyer can have such a profound impact on the realization of the rights of these children – a vulnerable population who might otherwise be voiceless.

A common value that was instilled in me from all of these experiences is the importance of public service work. These clinics strengthened my commitment and ability to dedicate my career to fighting for the human rights of others. After graduation, I will be providing representation and community outreach to child refugees in New York City. My passion and preparation for this position are directly attributable to the experiences I had in the clinical programs here at HLS.

Empowering clients through the Estate Planning Project

By Stephanie Jimenez, J.D. ’17

One of my most valuable experiences at Harvard Law School has been working with the Estate Planning Project in the Veterans Legal Clinic. As a student attorney, my responsibilities included preparing for client meetings, interviewing clients, drafting documents, and preparing documents for execution. Along with all this, I constantly worked with the supervising attorney, Tamara Kolz-Griffin, to spot any potential issues and brainstorm solutions for the clients.

Estate Planning Project of the Veterans Legal Clinic

Stephanie Jimenez, J.D. ’17

There are several reasons why I enjoyed this clinic. First, it was a great way to gain experience in building relationships with clients. Because I worked with such personal information, I got to know my clients really well. Secondly, much of my work required discussions about death and incapacity and this helped me learn how to hold difficult conversations. Also, I was assigned cases that were in varied stages: some were at the beginning stages so I had to conduct intake interviews with the veterans, while some were already at the drafting documents stage. I liked this because in one semester I saw how the process works from beginning to end and I gained new skills in managing and prioritizing my cases.

Finally, I learned so much about estate planning even though I had very little previous experience. The documents we drafted included wills, trusts, durable powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, living wills, and declarations as to remains. One of the most interesting documents I drafted is the Supplemental Needs Trust. This is a trust that clients can put in place to protect their loved ones who receive government benefits. If they want to leave assets to that loved one, they can put the assets into the trust instead of giving them directly to the individual, ensuring that their loved ones receive the much-needed government benefits.

Estate planning requires a lot of thinking about what could happen with each possible decision that the client makes and thinking of ways to have the best possible outcome. For me, it is really great work to do because clients leave feeling empowered that they have control over their lives during difficult times.

Film as Advocacy in the Food Law and Policy Clinic

By Katherine Sandson, J.D. ’17

When I enrolled in the Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) during the January term, I was assigned to work on the clinic’s food waste and food recovery projects. These projects included a short film, entitled Expired? Food Waste in America, that the clinic was producing in conjunction with Racing Horse Productions. The film explores the effects of an administrative rule in Montana that prevents milk from being sold after its labeled date, which must be no more than twelve days following pasteurization, even though milk is safe for consumption far longer. FLPC produced the film to provide one example of how the lack of uniform, federal standards for date labeling in the U.S. contributes to the 160 billion pounds of food waste generated by Americans each year.

By the time I joined the clinic, the film itself was nearly complete. While past clinical students had worked on producing the script, conducting interviews, and editing the film, I spent time preparing for the film’s release. This work included drafting and editing op-eds to accompany the short film in online news outlets, providing feedback on the content of the film’s website, and drafting guidance materials to help people run screenings of the film. During the spring semester, now that the film has been released, I have continued to help brainstorm and execute additional strategies for getting the film out to a broader audience.

Prior to joining FLPC, I would not have categorized most of this work as legal in nature. Through my work on this film, however, I have come to appreciate the value of media advocacy as a complement to legislative or policy advocacy. The release of this film was timed to coincide with the announcement that a bill that would standardize date labeling at the federal level will soon be introduced in the Senate. This bill has the potential to significantly reduce food waste, but it will require support to get passed, and mediums like film can help create that support. Moreover, legislation, once in effect, does not operate in a vacuum. Because food—everything from how we shop for food to how we store and dispose of it—is so cultural and habitual, education and awareness of what date labels mean and how they relate to food safety will likely be important to maximizing the effectiveness of any date labeling legislation that is passed.

Over the past few months, I have learned that non-legal tools like film can play an important role in supporting legislative and policy efforts by generating conversation and awareness. The Expired film, for example, tells one story, accompanied by vivid images, that illustrates a larger problem in only a few minutes. As a result, the clinic sees it as an important tool for raising public awareness about the connection between date labeling and food waste, in advance of the upcoming federal legislation and related efforts at the state or local levels.

Through my work to promote this film, I have gained a detailed understanding of the current legal framework for regulating date labels, and of the framework FLPC would like to see put in place. Perhaps more importantly, I have also learned to break down these legal frameworks for non-legal audiences. I am grateful for the opportunity to work on a project that has expanded my ideas about what legal skills and legal advocacy look like.

Out of the classroom and into the courtroom

Suria Bahadue, J.D. ’16 

Suria Bahadue, J.D. '16

Suria Bahadue, J.D. ’16

I came to Harvard Law School because I want to help people. Previously, I worked as a paralegal at a large law firm. In that role, I worked on pro bono cases involving clients seeking restraining orders. Fortunately, my supervisors gave me substantial responsibilities, which included meeting domestic violence survivors, hearing their stories, and helping them write their affidavits. My supervising attorney and I won every case, leaving each client in a better position than before and fueling my desire to continue this work in law school.

Unfortunately, I lost sight of that purpose during 1L year. As one could imagine, my first year immediately subsumed me with grades, job applications and ideas of clerkships. My monotonous run through the law school grind ended, however, when I spent two semesters working in the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic.

I initially enrolled in the clinic because I felt my experiences as a paralegal prepared me well for family law cases. At the same time, I assumed that I would assist a supervising attorney rather than manage my own cases and clients. I was so happy to be wrong. On day one, I received my own cases and clients. My supervising attorney, Nnena Odim, instructed that it was my job to move the cases forward to resolution.

Odim_Nnena

Nnena Odim, Senior Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law

My caseload included divorces, paternity actions, and restraining orders. Each day began the same: I would meet with Nnena and review each case’s posture. For each case, Nnena would conclude our strategy meeting by asking me about the “next steps.” By doing this, she taught me to develop as many options as I could and to prepare for a judge to ask me about every single one.

In short, Nnena taught me that successful legal practice requires over-preparation.

Significantly, my cases challenged me to consider myself as a practicing attorney rather than a student attorney. I represented clients in court multiple times; filed complaints for divorce, modification of child support, and contempt; interacted with opposing parties; negotiated with opposing counsels; conducted a direct examination in court; obtained a restraining order for a client; and drafted and finalized a divorce settlement agreement. One of the more memorable courtroom experiences occurred in a post-judgment action for contempt. The judge began the hearing by stating, “Counselor, how would you like to proceed?” It took me a few seconds to realize that he was talking to me and that I was a counselor and not a student.

Above all, the biggest lessons came from my clients. Their tales of bravery and survival reinvigorated my personal and professional goals. For one example, I worked with a client over my two semesters. She had fled her abuser after five years of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and lived in shelters and public housing shortly thereafter. We helped her obtain a restraining order and file for divorce. Over the last year, I watched her achieve so many milestones because of her courage to flee and seek legal recourse: she obtained citizenship; entered into a criminal justice degree program; began a new job; and settled into her first apartment. That client and many others helped me return to the reason why I went to law school in the first place: to help people.

I am forever grateful to the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic and Nnena for taking me out of the classroom and into the courtroom. The experience truly defined my three years at Harvard Law School.

A reflection on my semester with the Estate Planning Project

Travis Leverett, J.D. ’17 

This past September, I enrolled in the Estate Planning Project, with the Veteran’s Legal Clinic. My work with that clinic turned out to be one of the most valuable, and absolutely the most rewarding experience of my academic career.

I was motivated to work with veterans largely thanks to my grandfather. He was an incredible influence in my life, and I was hopeful that I would meet and help people, like him, who sacrificed for my freedom, and now needed legal services that they likely could not find elsewhere. I was immediately attracted to the Estate Planning Project, which offered the opportunity to work closely with clients as they made important, and often difficult decisions. I have heard the phrase ‘counselor’ used my entire life to describe attorneys, but it wasn’t until working with the Estate Planning Project that I fully understood how true that description could be.

The learning curve was steep, as my two colleagues and I had to digest the substantive law behind the estate planning process, and begin moving cases forward within one semester. I was assigned a total of around 12 cases for the semester, which at times felt like about 11 too many, but I learned techniques to better balance a high volume of cases. Those practical skills will absolutely make me a better lawyer, and could only have been developed through clinical work.

As I reflect on my semester with the Estate Planning Project, one client will always stick with me. He was an older gentleman, who was looking to have fairly standard estate planning documents prepared. As we sat together at a small conference table in Jamaica Plain, he told me about his career, his children, his wife of 50+ years, and of the worries he felt for the future. I asked difficult questions, but tried to do so in a way that made him as comfortable as possible. Following our meeting, I called my client weekly to check in, and clarify some of his wishes, developing an exceptional relationship in the process. When the Legal Services Center’s work with this client is complete, I am confident that he will have received world-class estate planning, but equally important, I believe that man will feel empowered, respected, and at peace when he signs his documents, and leaves the LSC for the last time. He sure deserves to.

A sense of community and a chance to represent clients in court

By Alison Burton, J.D. ’16

Alison Burton, J.D. '16

Alison Burton, J.D. ’16

I have always been interested in women’s issues, including the power imbalances that help perpetuate domestic violence. As a college student, I volunteered at the University of Virginia Women’s Center and coordinated the legal clinic, which offered free legal services including advice relating to family law and domestic violence issues. The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic gave me an opportunity to continue to advocate for victims of domestic violence.

At the clinic, students take on between four and eight cases involving protective orders, child custody and support, divorce, and collateral issues. Students are responsible for communicating with the client, drafting pleadings and motions, and representing the client in court. I really loved the chance to work with clients every day and being able to not only draft documents for court, but also represent clients in court many times. I was involved with the clinic for two semesters, and I went to court hearings four or five times each semester. The experience has been one of my highlights at Harvard Law School.

One of my favorite things about the clinic is the sense of community. From day one, the clinical instructors, Nnena Odim and Stephanie Davidson, constantly provide feedback and collaborate with students. Their feedback on the documents I drafted and on my performance in court taught me how to strategize effectively and how to zealously advocate for my clients. The students in the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic also tend to be a close knit group. Getting to hear about their cases and working together as a clinical unit helped us in our brainstorming and problem solving abilities.

Overall, the clinical experience went above and beyond my expectations. While the cases moved along more slowly than I expected, I had far more client contact, feedback from supervisors, and time in court than I thought I would get. Working in the clinic gave me the chance to get outside of the Harvard Law School campus, get involved in a different community, and do work that impacts clients directly.

Learning from an Israeli Immigration Law Clinic

By Nathan MacKenzie, J.D. ’17

Nathan MacKenzie, J.D. '17 pictured (first one from the right), with a team of lawyers and client at the Supreme Court in Israel

Nathan MacKenzie, J.D. ’17 pictured (first one from the right), with a team of lawyers and client at the Supreme Court in Israel

Sometimes the best way to better understand your own world is to visit another. Doing so gives you a different frame of reference, an alternative against which you can challenge your perspective and your preconceived notions. As a student of immigration policy here in the U.S., I found that spending January term working in an Israeli immigration clinic in Tel Aviv challenged many of my own ideas on citizenship, society, and immigration. I had the opportunity to work as a student attorney for the Clinic for Migrant’s Rights at the College of Law and Business, where I assisted with client intake interviews for asylum seekers, met with organizations and government officials involved in the immigration debate in Israel, and conducted international and comparative research for upcoming impact litigation cases. In order to gain some additional perspective, I spent my weekends traveling to the Holot detention center for immigrants, the holy sites in Jerusalem, and the West Bank. What I learned from all of these work and travel experiences left me with a picture of an immigration system very different from our own, both in its philosophical aims and its technical administration.

Israel considers itself a “Jewish Democratic State,” but there is a big debate raging about what exactly that means. What should take priority, being Jewish, or being a liberal democracy? What should the demographics of Israeli society look like moving forward? These questions illicit fierce and seemingly irreconcilable responses from various factions. This divide has led to system of laws that is a mash-up of western democratic principles, old Jewish law, and protectionist policies. For example, though the government is elected democratically and several human rights are protected in Basic Laws, buses do not run on Saturday (Shabbat) and Jews cannot marry non-Jews.

These competing concepts have an enormous impact in Israel’s immigration policy. Unlike the U.S., Israel’s immigration policy only really allows people of Jewish ancestry to attain residency and citizenship. Known as the Law of Return or “making aliyah,” Jewish people worldwide can come to Israel and apply for citizenship. There are very few opportunities for other people to achieve permanent residence in Israel, even through the asylum process.

Approximately 46,000 asylum seekers live in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. They arrived by crossing the Sinai from Egypt (before Israel constructed a massive wall on the border) and many spent months in Bedouin torture camps there before their families could pay high ransoms to secure their release. Though the government will not deport people to either Sudan or Eritrea because of human rights concerns in those countries, it has been loath to grant refugee status and asylum to non-Jewish immigrants and has been engaging in a campaign to coerce these individuals to “voluntarily” leave to a third party country (Rwanda or Uganda) through detention in the infamous Holot facility and over burdensome administrative procedures.

While working at the clinic, I had the opportunity to use the interviewing skills I learned at the Harvard Immigration & Refugee Clinic (HIRC) to conduct an intake interview and then produced a legal memo on the new client’s case. Additionally, I conducted research for several cases, including a major impact litigation case that will be going before the Israeli Supreme Court next month. Though I was only there for a few weeks, I felt like I was able to perform meaningful work that helped my hosts with their large caseloads. Perhaps just as importantly, this experience gave me the opportunity to learn about Israel and its immigration system, which in turn has allowed me to reflect upon the aims and administration of our own system here in the U.S.

Mental Health: Aspirations and Reality in India

By Ariel Simms, J.D. ’16 

This Winter Term, I had the opportunity to work with the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy (Centre), a nonprofit disability rights organization based in Pune, India. The Centre is dedicated to ensuring implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), a United Nations treaty that has been signed and ratified by many countries, but unfortunately, not by the United States. The treaty requires that all persons with disabilities, including mental disabilities, be treated with respect, dignity, and on an equal basis with others.

My interest in working with people with disabilities came from my experience working as a Mental Health Counselor in a locked, psychiatric unit of a hospital. For two years, I counseled patients with serious mental illness under a paradigm of substitute decision-making. As a professional, this paradigm was extremely frustrating, as it considered only the putative “best interests” of the patient, without actually consulting the patient regarding his or her own preferences. Rather than making decisions for the patients on our unit, I wanted to help our patients make their own decisions, including treatment decisions, envisioning the role of service providers as helpful aides in decision-making, rather than as substitute decision-makers. Such a paradigm is called supported decision-making and is mandated in human rights law by the CRPD. My professional experience as a counselor led me to come to law school to become an advocate on behalf of those with mental illness, as well as to empower those living with mental disabilities to advocate for themselves.

Having no prior experience with Indian domestic law, I began my clinical work at the Centre with background research, including India’s existing mental health law and a new Mental Health Care Bill introduced in Parliament in 2013. It was this new bill that, if passed, would bring essential tenets of the CRPD into the Indian mental health care context. India though, like many countries that have ratified international human rights treaties, has a gap between what international law mandates and the realities of its domestic laws.

I assisted the Centre with a project around supported decision-making for persons with mental disabilities. In India, there are several barriers that keep caregivers and service providers from implementing supported decision-making, including: a lack of awareness about the CRPD and human rights obligations, a lack of understanding about what supported decision-making is, cultural norms and mores of power among service providers and caregivers, and persistent stigma surrounding mental illness. Although impossible to address any of these barriers sufficiently in three weeks, I had the unique opportunity to address at least some of them by drafting two separate guides on supported decision-making: one for caregivers and family members, and one for service providers. In order to create the most helpful guides, I also became more familiar with the realities of mental health care on the ground through extensive discussion with my colleagues at the Centre, in-person interviews with local psychiatrists, and in-person and group interviews with Indian caregivers.

From these conversations, I was able to gather that many service providers and caregivers have never heard of the CRPD or even think about human rights in their day-to-day lives. Many presume that the service user cannot ever make his or her own decision, so just make the decision for that person instead. In addition to substitute decision-making, service providers and caregivers also regularly engage in more serious human rights violations, including: practices of covert medication (e.g., hiding medication in the service user’s food or drink without his or her knowledge), giving informed consent on behalf of the service user, not seeking any informed consent for treatment (including for electroconvulsive therapy), taking away the person’s property, taking away the person’s liberty, and various other violations. On top of these, some families would just place their family member into one of India’s infamous mental hospitals and then just move on with their own lives.

My experience in India really brought home the gap between what law says we should do, and the realities of enforcing those laws on the ground, especially on a topic as stigmatized and oft swept-under-the-rug as mental illness. Human rights law in particular is often cast as aspirational, rather than as something that can immediately be recognized and enforced. Despite these challenges, I think this clinical experience helped me begin to bridge this gap between aspiration and reality in India, moving closer to the ultimate goal that all those living with disabilities will be able to lead lives characterized by dignity, equality, and autonomy.

I would like to sincerely thank and commend all the wonderful advocates at the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy who work hard every day to advance disability rights in India and who not only helped me with my project, but also with navigating a new country, and so much more. Special thanks to Dr. Soumitra Pathare, Professor Jaya Sagade, and Professor Michael Stein for their supervision and support throughout this project. I would also thank the Harvard Project on Disability, the Office of International Legal Studies, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP for their recommendations and financial support.

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