Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

Providing clinical and pro bono opportunities to Harvard Law School students

Category: Pro Bono (page 1 of 3)

Pro Bono Week 2019 Recap

Every year, the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP) at Harvard Law School (HLS) participates in the American Bar Association’s National Celebration of Pro Bono. Held from October 21st – 25th, 2019, Pro Bono Week serves as a time where HLS celebrates and reflects on the pro bono work that staff, faculty, and students do throughout the year.

The theme of this year’s Pro Bono Week, Stand Together, Stand for Justice, emphasized the importance of collaborative advocacy and how lawyers working together with clients, partner organizations, and communities can inspire change that positively impacts public interest. In line with Stand Together, Stand for Justice, OCP hosted a series of panels featuring attorneys and experts from a variety of fields to speak about their work.


Yee Htun (left) and Nadia Aziz (right) during their conversation on combating hate speech and hate crimes in communities.


Stopping Hate: A Conversation with Yee Htun and Nadia Aziz

Yee Htun of HLS’ International Human Rights Clinic and Nadia Aziz of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law shared a conversation on topics surrounding hate speech and hate crimes. Aziz, who currently serves as the Interim Co-Director and Policy Counsel of the Stop Hate Project, spoke about the project’s work to create strategies on how to combat hate in local communities. The Stop Hate Project manages a resource and reporting hotline for hate incidents, works collaboratively to enhance the response of law enforcement and community organizations to hate crimes, and engages in the public interest sphere. Additionally, she spoke about her work on the lawsuit against The Daily Stormer representing Taylor Dumpson; as well as how hate speech and hate crimes have evolved over the past decade given the presence of social media.


Tony Marino (left), Dr. Fiona Danaher (middle), and Robert Greenwald (right) after their discussion on reinstating care for critically ill immigrants.


A Critical Win: The Fight to Reinstate Care for Critically Ill Immigrants

HLS Clinical Professor Robert Greenwald hosted a discussion with Tony Marino, the Director of Legal Services at the Irish International Immigrant Center, and Dr. Fiona Danaher, a pediatrician with Massashusetts General Hospital (MGH) and co-chair of the MGH Immigrant Health Coalition. Both were involved in the fight to reinstate the Medical Deferred Action program, which allows immigrants to remain in the U.S. while they or their relatives receive life-saving medical care. Marino and Danaher spoke about how the partnership between lawyers and medical professionals developed around this issue, with Marino also mentioning the role of the press and public outcry. Both Marino and Danaher emphasized the necessity of working together to create a space where advocacy can be effectively accomplished and how important inclusive legal work is.


Kendra Albert (left) and Ria Tabacco Mar (right) as they speak about cases regarding LGBTQ discrimination.


LGBTQ Discrimination before the Supreme Court: Reflections from Employees’ Counsel

In light of the October 8th Supreme Court cases regarding LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace, Kendra Albert, Clinical Instructor with the Cyberlaw Clinic, hosted a conversation with Ria Tabacco Mar, a senior staff attorney with the National ACLU LGBT & HIV Project. Tabacco Mar discussed her experiences with litigating on issues of LGBTQ discrimination and spoke about her work on LGBTQ Title VII discrimination cases before the Supreme Court as well as her previous work on Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. She also spoke more broadly on challenging pre-existing notions of how concepts such as gender and sexuality are used and interpreted in law. She also touched on the necessity of considering intersectionality when dealing with issues surrounding identity, particularly those relevant to the LGBTQ community.


Student Practice Organizations Panel 2019

Students attend 2019 SPO Panel

Student Practice Organizations often provide 1Ls with their first opportunity to gain practical legal experience at HLS. Each SPO is typically led by a student board consisting of 2L and 3L students and is supervised by a licensed attorney. Across the 11 SPOs currently active at HLS, a variety of focus areas including housing, immigration, and prison law are represented. Students participating in SPOs do not receive academic credit, however, their hours can count towards the 50-hour pro bono graduation requirement.

The SPO Panel, held earlier this week, provides an opportunity for students to hear directly from the students boards and members of SPOs. During the 2019 SPO Panel, representatives from all 11 SPOs spoke on focus areas, levels of commitment, attorney supervision and particularly emphasized the communities formed in each individual SPO through the work that they do.

“Community is one of our main priorities. It was a game changer for me. I met some of my closest friends, it reminded me why I decided to come to law school.” said Emma Broches, co-president of HLS Advocates for Human Rights, on her experience with SPOs.

President of Harvard Defenders Martina Tiku also noted how SPOs encourage members to interact with other students and individuals in the field who are committed to and passionate about the work that they do, reflecting the sentiments of several other panel participants.  “You get a chance to talk to people who are passionate about their work.” she said.

For students interested in joining an SPO, the organizations hold information sessions and open houses are coming up. All SPOs require some form of registration or sign-up, with several requiring separate applications. While all SPOs accept students in the fall, some  accept members during the spring term. Information session, open house, and registration/application deadline dates can be found on the  Opportunities for Student Practice Matrix.


SPO Skills Matrix

SPO Sign-Ups

SPO Student Reflections

Asseret Frausto J.D. ’19 wins CLEA’s Outstanding Clinical Student Award

By: Lee Mestre

Asseret Frausto ’19. Credit: Lorin Granger.

Asseret Frausto ’19 is the winner of the Outstanding Clinical Student Award from the Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA). The award is presented annually to one student from each law school for outstanding clinical coursework and contributions to the clinical community. Students are nominated by full-time clinical faculty at each law school with faculty who are members of CLEA.

Those who nominated Frausto cited her persistence, thoroughness, and thoughtfulness in making her a truly outstanding clinical student and advocate. In the Family Law and Domestic Violence Clinic and multiple semesters in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC), she earned Honors and Dean’s Scholar prizes in both clinical and coursework. Her nominators from HIRC proudly claim, “Throughout our work with her, Asseret has displayed exceptional creativity, sharp intellect, and unwavering dedication to social justice.”

In the Immigration and Refugee Clinic, she performed exceptionally well and demonstrated herself to be a skilled and extremely conscientious advocate with an unparalleled command of the humanitarian protections she helped her clients apply for. Instead of focusing on just one area of the law, Asseret tackled multiple cases involving a diverse array of legal protections, including asylum, withholding of removal, protection under the Torture Convention, and U visas. With all of these cases, she had to contend with learning complicated new material, while at the same time balancing client crises and needs.

According to her nominators, Asseret, a first-generation Mexican-American student who was raised on both sides of the Tijuana-San Diego border and learned English as a second language, excelled at building rapport with asylum seekers and leading client meetings. They said she consistently went above and beyond to make her clients and their families feel comfortable and, as a result, was able to elicit sensitive and critical information central to the development of asylum claims and prepare clients for tough questioning. She worked closely with each client, spending hundreds of hours preparing for immigration court hearings and was, in their estimation, one of the best students HIRC has seen at direct and cross-examination, possessing an excellent ability to appreciate different viewpoints and the capacity to thrive in a variety of different spaces.

Prior to law school, she worked at the tech company Oracle in Silicon Valley. She spent her 1L summer as a Diversity Fellow at White & Case in Los Angeles and at Facebook’s HQ in Menlo Park. She spent her 2L summer at O’Melveny in Los Angeles and in D.C. At HLS, she served as the Co-President of La Alianza, a student attorney with the Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP), a board member of HL Central, and a member of the Women’s Law Association (WLA). Next year Asseret will clerk with Judge Mendez in the Eastern District of California.


Dalia Deak receives the David Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student Award

Via Harvard Law Today

Credit: Lorin Granger

By: Alexis Farmer

Dalia Deak ’19 is this year’s winner of the individual David Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student Award, given each year to a student who embodies the pro bono spirit of the late Clinical Professor of Law David Grossman ’88 and exemplifies putting theory into practice through clinical work. Deak, who has focused her law school career on translating theoretical rigor into impactful work, was recognized for participating in nearly every aspect of the Center of Health Law and Policy Innovation’s  clinical work over four semesters, and for her work in the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program.

Deak received her Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering from the University of Virginia, where she focused primarily on computer science in biomedical engineering and issues at the intersection of technology, health policy, and public health. After graduating, Deak worked as a research assistant at the Brookings Institution, where she co-authored a report for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the implementation of a unique device identification system that would support postmarket surveillance and enhance patient safety. She continued her focus on health law as a student fellow with the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. By the end of her fellowship year, she had completed her Master of Public Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and was accepted to HLS as a J.D. candidate.

As a student with the Health Law and Policy Clinic, Deak worked on a project developing a complaint that was submitted to the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; that complaint resulted in some insurers discontinuing the discriminatory practice of adverse tiering standard-of-care drugs for individuals with pre-existing conditions like HIV. The insurers also began discussions with state insurance regulators as to how to address the problems identified in the complaint.

Deak was also a key contributor to the clinic’s policy mapping and impact litigation practice. She researched, structured, drafted and finalized an amicus brief that was filed in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on the issue of mootness in the context of class actions.

Along with a focus on health law, Deak volunteered with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC) and the HLS Immigration Project. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, she was actively engaged in travel ban-related brief writing, working with students and faculty to develop and submit amicus briefs at the Fourth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and U.S. Supreme Court. She also drafted clear, concise, and informative answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) related to the travel ban, which both the HIRC clinic and University’s International Office posted on their websites to guide international students, scholars, faculty, and staff in navigating the uncertainty created by the ban. Her clinical instructors say she thinks through issues carefully, and enjoys tackling complex problems to find and develop the most effective arguments and solutions to pervasive social justice problems.

Deak also participated in the Judicial Process in the Trial Courts Clinic, where she interned for Judge Indira Talwani at the U.S. Federal District Court for the District of Massachusetts. She spent a summer working as a legal intern with the MacArthur Justice Center.

“I came to Harvard Law School for the clinics,” Dalia remarked. “During my masters, I cross-registered at the Center for Health Law Policy and Innovation. Working with CHLPI helped me realize how much fulfillment I could derive from a career as a lawyer serving clients, and the sheer magnitude of change I could help bring about. I have since had the chance to further enrich my experience by participating in other clinics on campus. From working on Supreme Court briefs at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic to interning for Judge Talwani as part of the Judicial Process in the Trial Courts clinic, the clinical experience at HLS has made a tremendous impact on me and has, unequivocally, been the highlight of my law school career.”

Seeking to build community at HLS, Dalia has been active in the student body, co-founding the Middle Eastern Law Students Association, chairing the Affinity Group Coalition, and leading the Health Law Society. She co-authored articles in the Harvard Law Record, calling for the establishment of a committee and office on diversity, inclusion and equity, and providing guidance to first year law students. She also appeared on “Palestinians Podcast” speaking about what it means to be Palestinian.

Emanuel Powell wins Gary Bellow Public Service Award

Credit: Lorin Granger

By: Alexis Farmer

Harvard Law School (HLS) student Emanuel Powell J.D. ’19 is the winner of this year’s Gary Bellow Public Service Award, established in 2001 to honor Professor Gary Bellow ’60, his commitment to public service, and his innovative approach to the analysis and practice of law. Professor Bellow was a pioneering public interest lawyer who founded and directed Harvard Law School’s clinical programs.

Each year, the Gary Bellow Public Service Award recognizes a student who exemplifies how lawyers can litigate, educate, advocate, and organize to promote social justice. The HLS student body nominates and selects the winner. This year, the finalists were celebrated at an award ceremony and reception on April 23. At the ceremony, Emanuel encouraged his classmates to be mindful of the ways lawyers can either help or hinder social movements. While at HLS, Emanuel worked in a variety of practice areas that focused on movement lawyering.

Emanuel Powell J.D. ’19

Hailing from Liberty, MS, a town of a little over 700 people, Emanuel has always felt called to work in spaces that fight for racial equity. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California (USC), Emanuel was a part of the governing board of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund. Concerned by the lack of diversity of the undergraduate and graduate student population, two USC undergraduates started the Student Aid Fund, financed by a student tax that helps support low-income students from communities surrounding USC. Next to singing in the gospel choir, he considers his experience on the board “the most fun thing I’ve done at USC.”

After graduating from the Marshall School of Business at USC in 2012, Emanuel spent a summer in Rwanda helping rural farmers start co-ops, using his undergraduate training to help develop social enterprises. He then moved to New York and worked for two consulting organizations. At one, he helped a philanthropic organization focus on investing in racial equity, which culminated in designing a fellowship program for individuals in South Africa and the U.S. fighting to dismantle anti-black racism. That led him to be an active voice in the organization, helping other nonprofits think about funding racial justice work. It was through his experiences that he noticed that lawyers were always in the room. He began to see the law as a path to achieving black liberation and decided to go to law school.

Since starting at HLS, Emanuel has been a member and a leader of the Mississippi Delta Project (MDP) and Harvard Defenders. Additionally, he spent two years at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. In MDP, he worked on the Child and Youth team, and in Defenders, he represented clients at show-cause hearings. “The classroom setting is valuable for getting the foundational understanding [of the law] . . . but the way I learn best is through experiential learning.” He chose these organizations because, he says, they each orient students to be of service to the community, whether it be individual clients or movement organizers in a specific geographic area. It’s a principle of his to engage with the community in an authentic way. “I have a belief that you should work in community and with movements.”

Emanuel served as the managing editor of the Harvard Black Letter Law Journal, which uses legal scholarship to support Black communities, and is a member of the political action committee of the Black Law Student Association.

Referencing Audre Lorde’s quote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and Emanuel said that “law school helped me realize I didn’t even want the master’s house dismantled, I want our own house or our own safe communities. That’s what I’m most excited about.” He lights up when he speaks about supporting movements creating alternative systems for economic, legal, and social prosperity that truly support disadvantaged communities. He wants to use the law to support these alternative structures. He says there is a lot of opportunity to support those leading movements for social change, “but,” he cautions, “if we’re not careful, we [as lawyers] have the power to stop them from accessing a better future.” He looks to Fannie Lou Hamer as an example, a “regular” person who saw there could a different way of life for Black people in Mississippi. She advocated creating a new structure for jobs and political parties. “As lawyers we can help people like Fannie Lou Hamer or stop people like Fannie Lou Hamer.”

Reflecting on the award and his three years at HLS, Emanuel said, “I was surprised to be nominated. One thing I’ve learned is that there are many students at HLS involved in public interest work across many different issue areas. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to accept this award, especially given the legacy of Gary Bellow and the opportunity to share the great work of some of the community-based organizations I have had the opportunity to work with. I hope I can live up to that legacy as I begin my career as an attorney.”

Upon graduation, Emanuel will be clerking for a judge in Jackson, MS and hopes to work in the South as a movement lawyer.

Richard Barbecho wins the Andrew L. Kaufman Pro Bono Service Award

Via Harvard Law Today 

Credit: Harvard Legal Aid Bureau

By: Alexis Farmer

Richard Barbecho ’19 is this year’s winner of the Andrew L. Kaufman Pro Bono Service Award. He was chosen for exemplifying a pro bono public spirit and demonstrating an extraordinary commitment to improving and delivering high quality volunteer legal services in low-income communities. The awards are granted each year in honor of Professor Andrew Kaufman, who spearheaded the pro bono requirement at Harvard Law School.

Barbecho has integrated criminal defense, immigration, and housing law into his 2,000+ hours of community lawyering and pro bono service during his time at HLS.

Throughout law school, Barbecho has been a devoted canvasser with Project No One Leaves, spending most Saturdays in Boston’s low-income neighborhoods knocking on the doors of people facing displacement. This year, he is PNOL’s co-president and he is additionally responsible for organizing the canvasses and training new canvassers who show up each week.

As a volunteer member of Harvard Defenders for the past three years, he has had an active caseload representing low-income individuals accused in criminal show-cause hearings before clerk magistrates and, recently, in an appeal in district court. He has also been a prolific Harvard Legal Aid Bureau student-attorney.

“Richard is an extraordinary student, advocate, and person,” said HLS Clinical Instructor Eloise Lawrence. “He is always working on behalf of his clients whether it be in social security, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, employment or housing cases. His results are unbelievable — he saved a family’s home from foreclosure taking it all the way to a jury trial. He secured benefits for a family with a severely disabled child who had been denied for years. Using his fluency in Spanish and his cultural competency along with his legal acumen, Richard secured a three-year lease for an 8 unit building in Dorchester, and built critical trust with his clients.”

Lawrence also praised Barbecho’s willingness to take on additional work and commit additional hours to help the underserved during his time at HLS. She said, “He is committed to his core to using the law to make our society more just.”

“Friendo y comiendo” in Puerto Rico—my experience at the FOMB

By: Eloi Colldeforns Papiol, LLM ’19

Eloi in front of a sign at the FOMB.

When our plane landed in San Juan, a warm breeze welcomed us. Accompanied by the evening calls of the tiny coquí frogs, an island full of natural and cultural wonders revealed itself, and we were soon embraced by the hospitality of the Boricuas.

As one of the ten J.D./LL.M. Harvard Law students participating in the Spring break pro bono trip to Puerto Rico in March 2019, I realized that I had to (partially) resist indulging in tourist pleasures. My mission was to spend four days at the Financial Oversight Management Board for Puerto Rico (FOMB) doing legal work, and I wanted to make my stay there as useful as possible.

Three students standing in front of the San Felipe del Morro fort.

Maria, Andy, Brian, and Eloi on their way to the Fuerte San Felipe del Morro.

But the FOMB, frequently referred to by some Puerto Ricans as la Junta (after its name in Spanish, Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera), is no ordinary place to work. Created in 2016 under the federal statute Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA (48 U.S.C. 20)), the FOMB is entrusted with finding a way for Puerto Rico to “achieve fiscal responsibility and access to the capital markets.” Easier said than done. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, with more than $70 billion in public debt, is facing a large debt restructuring effort, and its shrinking economy does not offer the best prospects. 40% of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line (with an unemployment rate that more than doubles the U.S. average), access to electricity is expensive and unreliable (the street where our hostel was located had a couple of power cuts during our stay) and the island’s infrastructure was seriously affected by the devastating Hurricane María in 2017.

Revamping Puerto Rico’s economy is an overwhelming challenge for the FOMB, the Puerto Rican government and the United States in general. A challenge thus beyond the reach of a single foreign lawyer, like me, who had just tried his first—but delicious—mofongo. Being a qualified Spanish-law practitioner in Barcelona and having taken an HLS course on the Regulation of Financial Institutions were my only, very modest, credentials. I would only have four days to get to know my FOMB colleagues, become familiar with Puerto Rico’s 148-page fiscal plan, and mentally disentangle the complexities of Puerto Rico’s mixed and bilingual legal system—English for U.S. federal law, and Spanish for Puerto Rico’s civil law, which is strongly modeled after the Spanish civil code.

As if this was not enough, I was also confronted with unexpected situations. On my second day, a group of nearly twenty protesters wearing T-shirts with the face of the (late) independence activist Lolita Lebrón gathered in front of our building and a police cordon was deployed. No violence ensued, but those facts opened my eyes to a reality that I had ignored: the FOMB’s role in Puerto Rico is politically controversial.

Some perceive it as an external force that interferes with the role of democratically-elected Puerto Rican institutions. After all, while the FOMB is an entity formally ascribed to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico—as opposed to a U.S. federal agency or instrumentality—its seven members were appointed by former U.S. President Obama (six from a list provided by congressional leaders and one in his “sole discretion”). The President and the Congress are two institutions in which Puerto Ricans have no voting representation. Others, in contrast, consider the FOMB a necessary tool to address Puerto Rico’s inadmissible debt financing levels, public sector and structural deficiencies, and the only way to ensure an optimal spending of the federal funds received by the island.

This confrontation reflects a characteristic tension in Puerto Rico’s unique situation as an Estado Libre Asociado (Free Associated State, a meaning which the official term of “Commonwealth” fails to capture). This tension looms over the somewhat difficult institutional relations between the FOMB, run by its executive director Natalie Jaresko, and the Puerto Rican government, led by Governor Ricardo Rosselló.

Eloi with Exeuctive Director Natalie Jaresko

In light of this institutional struggle, the ultimate purpose of my legal work at the FOMB was to help achieve collaboration with the Puerto Rico government. There was a clear connection between the tasks that I was assigned and the legal challenges and uncertainties that the FOMB has to resolve to fulfil its congressional mandate.

Having had the opportunity to participate, even if briefly, in the examination of key legal issues during this critical time for the future of Puerto Rico is a unique learning experience that I will never forget. Nor will I forget the people that I met at the FOMB. The members of the elite team assembled by Natalie Jaresko possess not only a superb technical expertise, but also an admirable degree of courage, determination and commitment to their mission. Extraordinary men and women who firmly believe that “Puerto Rico will shine again,” as the banner outside their office reminds them every day. And so, when my fourth—and final—day arrived, I left the FOMB with the feeling that I had been in the right place, at the right time.

Puerto Ricans have a saying, friendo y comiendo (i.e., frying while eating), which figuratively means that some things must be done right away, without excessive consideration. They know exactly when to apply this philosophy, and so did the FOMB with my integration process. I was treated like one of their own family since the very first day. Special thanks go to Sebastián Negrón for making this collaboration possible, and to my FOMB colleague Jean-Carlos “JC” García-Rosa, for his unconditional help and friendship.

JC and Eloi at the office. Credit: Alexis Farmer

This friendo y comiendo philosophy allowed me not only to work on legal issues of relevance to the FOMB, but also to have a coffee with Alejandro García Padilla, the former Governor of Puerto Rico, and Emiliano Trigo-Fritz, who worked closely with him when he was in office, but currently advises the FOMB. I was also invited by my colleague JC to teach a Corporations class at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, where he is a lecturer.

The last days of this unforgettable Spring break trip rewarded me with other memorable experiences, like the visit of the communities around the Caño Martín Peña that were affected by Hurricane María, an afternoon hike in the beautiful El Yunque rainforest and the discovery of the Playa Flamenco in Culebra island and its turquoise waters.

The whole HLS group at El Yunque rainforest. Credit: Alexis Farmer

Gracias, Puerto Rico, ¡y hasta siempre!

Spring Break 2019: Private Probation in Giles County

By: Jimmy Biblarz J.D. ‘21

Source: Pixabay

The informal slogan I heard from respondents was “Come to Pulaski for vacation, leave on probation.” In Pulaski, Tennessee, private probation has wreaked havoc on the community. A federal-class action lawsuit which claims that two private probation services companies have extorted money from impoverished people to generate profit, is trying to change that.

I spent a week in Pulaski, Tennessee working with Civil Rights Corps, one of the three groups of lawyers bringing the suit, was extraordinarily rewarding and educational on four levels. 1) issue exposure (private probation), 2) legal investigative and evidence gathering skill-building, 3) legal strategy skill-building, 4) exposure to inspiring mentors and a unique organizational model.

(1) Before this trip, I knew little about private probation or how the practice affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the 14 states who utilize it. We dove right in to the issues, and were tasked with driving around Tennessee (over 200 miles on some days) looking for people who had been affected by the scheme. While the amounts people couldn’t pay were seemingly small (often just $45/month), for individuals on fixed incomes, these amounts were prohibitive.

(2) I was doing the type of legal work you don’t often get exposed to as a 1L – the actual work of putting a case together. Over the course of the week, I spoke with directly impacted people, interviewing them about their experiences with the criminal legal system. I honed my interview skills in a very short amount of time – I thought through how to get people to engage with me across a wide social distance, and developed strategies for getting people to talk to me who were rightfully mistrustful of any and all “authority.” I had to work to build trust; these people were rightfully suspicious of anyone knocking on their door. I saw firsthand just how nuanced individual stories are, and how critical individual facts are to the stories lawyers try to tell. I will remember these conversations in future brief writing and less “on the ground” work.

(3) Not only was the week built on direct client interaction work, there was time for other legal skill building. I started to learn the rules of reciprocal civil discovery, and how they come into play in class action lawsuits.

In particular, I feel lucky to count Alison Horn, an Investigative Supervisor, and Jonas Wang, an Attorney, as friends and mentors. I went out investigating with Alison on the first day, and I quickly saw what a skilled interviewer and evidence collector she is. I learned just how essential the facts are to a case. Jonas is an incredible attorney – he is able to see the forest and the trees at the same time, and to think two steps ahead of whatever we were doing. He is patient and thoughtful, a careful writer, and clearly deeply committed to individual clients.

Civil Rights Corps is an amazing organizational model, combining direct service with impact litigation. I was inspired by how unwilling the organization is to lose sight of the actual people affected by the issues they’re working on. This spring break experience gave me wide exposure to the issue and I am much more committed to abolishing the practice than I was at the start of the week.

Spring Break of Service: HLS Students Take Their Pro Bono Work on the Road

By: Alexis Farmer


“I found it very rewarding to be doing work that actually helped people in detention,” said Joseph Tahbaz JD ’20. He was one of the 36 students who participated in the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ (OCP) spring break pro bono trips. Every year, a group of students spend their spring break working in legal organizations in the Boston area and across the United States and Puerto Rico, often responding to crises or disasters in local areas. The time spent outside of the halls of Harvard Law School can be re-energizing and reinforce the skills students learn in the classroom. Students were glad to be “doing substantive, real-life work that helped folks,” Tahbaz continued.

Students worked on an array of legal and social justice issues – from asylum claims, to debt collection statistics, bankruptcy and family law, and federal community development block grants for Puerto Rico. Many of the students did not know one another before getting on the plane to their respective destinations, but in just five days, students gained mentors and friends. “There was a great mix of students in our group, with JDs of every year as well as LLMs. The diversity of backgrounds and perspectives among students on the trip really added to the experience,” said Amanda Odasz, JD ’21. Students felt integrated into their organizations – attending staff meetings, contributing to legal strategies, and meeting members of the communities they were serving.

Students pictured with the staff at American Gateways

Walking through the ocean-front neighborhood of Condado, San Juan, it’s easy to forget a massive hurricane wreaked havoc on the island. Restaurants and small businesses are occupied with locals and tourists. Homes appear intact and the streets look freshly paved. Yet, many communities have yet to see any restoration. Just a few miles south, the put-togetherness of Condado fades. Half of the student group that traveled to Puerto Rico worked with Corporación ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña, an organization working on environmental restoration and sustainability for the communities surrounding El Caño Martín Peña, a polluted tidal channel at the center of the community. “[My] teammates and I were able to put our legal expertise and prior interests into practice while at the same time being able to tackle a pressing social issue that is affecting a group of low-income and unprotected residents in Puerto Rico,” said Alvaro Emilio Rojas Cuenca LLM ’19 who worked with ENLACE. Two students in Ponce, Puerto Rico were exposed to multiple parts of city government – interacting with the mayor and her legal team, the city council, and the legislative body of the municipality. Another student worked with the hotly contested financial oversight management board tasked with restructuring the island’s debt. “The trip was more than I expected. We faced challenging, yet rewarding, legal questions, and also got the time to get to know Puerto Rico,” said Gonzalo Robles, LLM ’19.

HLS JD and LLM students pictured with Estrella, Environmental Affairs Manager at ENLACE (middle). Credit: Alexis Farmer

Twelve students traveled to the Texas-Mexico border working with asylum seekers – 8 with American Gateways and 4 with ProBAR. American Gateways, a nonprofit organization that provides immigration legal services to low-income individuals and families throughout the Texas region. Students worked with individuals seeking asylum, a few having done so in their clinical work. “HIRC [the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic] prepared me extremely well for this work,” said Krista Oehlke JD ‘20. The significance of their work is heightened by the fact that immigrants in detention, particularly in remote locations, are the least likely to secure legal representation. Oehlke commented, “I was able to help asylum seekers in a very concrete way.” According to a 2015 study in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, only 14% of detained immigrants had legal representation. 2% of immigrants obtained pro bono representation from law school clinical, nonprofit organizations, and law firm volunteer opportunities.

Students working at American Gateways during spring break 2019

Civil Rights Corps employs advocacy, public education, and systemic civil rights litigation to challenge the injustice of the criminal justice system. Students assisted attorneys in their lawsuit against two private probation companies in Tennessee, contending that the companies “extort impoverished people to generate profit” to fund its court system. Jimmy Biblarz a first-year law student reflected, “I knew little about private probation or how the practice affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the 14 states who utilize it. Private probation has wreaked havoc on the Pulaski community – it seemed like nearly everyone in town was on probation. The informal slogan I heard from respondents was ‘Come to Pulaski for vacation, leave on probation.’ The week gave me wide exposure to the issue and I am much more committed to abolishing the practice than I was at the start of the week.”

Students traveled to Giles County, Tennessee to assist with a class-action lawsuit against private probation

In North Carolina, four students worked with Legal Aid of North Carolina. The organization provides free legal help to low-income North Carolinians in civil cases. The students worked on the office’s disaster relief efforts from Hurricane Florence and also researched housing and gentrification issues in mobile home parks. Students were able to attend a community organizing event that brought together tenants in mobile home parks with legal aid advocates to brainstorm solutions.

Students didn’t have to travel far to make an impact. On just the other side of the state, Jonathan Korn, JD ’20 spent his spring break in Springfield, MA, working with the new Consumer Debt Initiative through the Hampden County Bar Association. Working with Western Massachusetts Law School students, Jonathan represented underserved individuals facing housing, civil, probate and family law matters, as well as individuals with day-of evictions hearings in the Lawyer of the Day program. Locally in the Boston area, students contributed to working to close the access to justice gap at the Volunteer Lawyers Project and Project Citizenship.

Jonathan Korn JD ’20 (second from the right in the top row) pictured with students from Western New England Law School at the Roderick J. Ireland Courthouse in Springfield, MA.

Learn more about student experiences below:

See more photos here.


Needing Proof of Property Ownership in Puerto Rico

By: Daniel Oyolu JD ‘21

From left to right: Brian Beaton, JD ’21, Mayor Mayita Meléndez, and Daniel Oyolu JD ’21

When I first learned that there would be a Spring Break Pro Bono trip taking students to Puerto Rico, I felt compelled to apply. I had followed the slow recovery of the island post Hurricane Maria and was excited to have an opportunity to do pro bono work in service to the island. My partner, Brian Beaton, and I worked with the municipal government of Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico.

We helped the municipality interview residents who were in need of FEMA assistance, but did not have the titles to their home. We learned more about each client’s story and updated their files to ensure the transfer of title occurs properly. According to Reuters a 2007 study found that an estimated 55 percent of properties on the island are informal.

Brian and Daniel interview a client

Brian and Daniel interview a client

In Puerto Rico, many homes have been passed down for generations, built without permits of a title. Community members found undeveloped plots of land had not yet been developed and began constructing their own residences without formal permission. Many residents have lived these communities for decades, but do not have a proper deed of title to the land. In the event of a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria, not having title to your land complicates and potentially eliminates the possibility of receiving resources from FEMA. The Municipality of Ponce has been working to grant land titles and transfer ownership to one of its informal communities. The residents had been organizing for decades to get land titles from the Municipality and it felt like finally they had reached the final stages of the process. Since the hurricane, the process has been expedited. If another natural disaster occurs, the residents will hopefully not face the same obstacles in receiving relief.

The trip also functioned as a primer on Puerto Rican local government. We spent most of our time with Ponce’s legal department who managed the project of title transfers. Additionally, we had the opportunity to meet the mayor of the city, Mayita Melendéz, who welcomed us to Ponce and encouraged us to take in all of Ponce’s beautiful colonial architecture. We met members of the municipality’s legislature (the equivalent of a city council) and sat through a live session. All of the legislators graciously welcomed us and allowed us to listen and observe as they deliberated over different proposals to move Ponce forward economically. Despite the conversation getting contentious at times, it was clear that the legislators shared a sense of camaraderie. We also sat in on a couple of cases in a local court and met a judge.

Overall, our trip allowed us to see different layers to Ponce, from the ordinary citizen making ends meet, to the government officials deciding the direction of the city. Although the impact of Hurricane Maria could still be felt, the people of Ponce have resiliently weathered the storm. Their hope in the future of their city seemed as strong as ever. They welcomed me with open arms, and readily shared their life experiences, while curiously listening to my own.

We study law, not in a vacuum, but in a world where laws directly impact the lives of citizens no matter who they are. Our trip to Ponce allowed us to see an initiative in which city lawyers were working to respond to the needs and concerns of the citizens and prepare them for the future. I’m thankful to the City of Ponce, Licenciada Lorraine Bengoa Toro and her team of lawyers, as well as the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs for this incredible opportunity.

Facing unexpected realities in North Carolina

By: Merve Ciplak J.D. ’21

Photo of mobile homes

Credit: Lee Mestre

As an international student that had never been to the South, my understanding of North Carolina was limited to what I had heard about Charlotte, the universities, and the food. But from my experience in Pembroke, I learned about the extent of rural poverty and hardship in a community that I really did not have much understanding or awareness of, and a side of America that is probably unknown to many students coming from abroad like myself. My experience was incredibly invaluable as a result of this stark exposure.

Over spring break, I got to work with the Legal Aid of North Carolina in their Pembroke office. We were placed within the office’s disaster relief efforts and set out with the intention of supporting the Hurricane Florence relief efforts, but quickly found ourselves involved in a number of housing and gentrification issues and community organizing efforts.

Credit: Merve Ciplak

The Pembroke office oversees cases in some of the poorest and most rural counties in North Carolina: Hoke, Scotland, and Robeson. According to the information our supervisor gave us, over 30% of the residents of Robeson County live in mobile home parks. The counties are also incredibly racially and ethnically diverse and Pembroke is home to the Lumbee, a state-recognized tribe. On the surface, it seemed like North Carolina needed legal help with FEMA appeals in recovering from Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018). We quickly realized, however, that the hurricanes had brought more pervasive issues to the surface. We ended up working on a mobile home park gentrification issue. The research we conducted uncovered that more than 20 of the parks in Robeson County have been bought up by a single company since 2017, and residents are being forced out of their homes with rapidly increasing rents despite homes that remain in very bad shape after the hurricanes. A site visit we conducted at one of the parks really brought the whole thing and the conditions people are forced to live in to life for me.


Credit: Merve Ciplak

The most surprising thing, however, was probably the level of community engagement and organizing that we saw is taking place around gentrification. We attended a regularly-hosted community organizing event where tenants affected by this mobile home park company, community organizers and lawyers come up with solutions.  I’ve been exposed to a number of community organizing events in the Harvard community, but I realized how different these events are when the organizers are members of the impacted community themselves. The mix of frustration, urgency, motivation, and hope in the air was one I had never felt before, with the forty or so attendants sharing their frustrations to come together and lift each other up. The event also laid out the true extents and limits of legal intervention into issues like this; at some point, efforts need to go beyond what the law can provide and are cross-institutional and truly societal.

Working in a local office with people that had incredible ties to and passion for their community was a really great opportunity, especially given that our main supervisor was Lumbee himself. The people we worked with exposed us to so much Southern hospitality and a willingness to share the realities of the community they were a part of, and really made sure we understood the nuances of the environment we were working in. This exposure to the community from the inside is probably the part of my experience that I wouldn’t have been able to acquire any other way, and the most valuable part overall.


Against All Odds at the South Texas Detention Center

By: Krista Oehlke J.D. ‘20

Exit sign for Pearsall

Credit: Krista Oehlke

Most immigrants at the South Texas Detention Center (STDC) in Pearsall, Texas will bide their time, in limbo, for months: they will don prison uniforms, they will go outside and see the light of day only once a week if they are lucky (the detention center is windowless), and they will scour the law library so that they can represent themselves in Immigration Court. Residents at STDC do not have access to the internet; however, reports on current conditions in their home countries serve as vital corroboration for their claims that returning back to their country would be dangerous or fatal. When the residents are finally up for their merits hearing, the judge will call them by a nine-digit number, not by their name, and will scrutinize them from a three-foot-wide television screen. Most immigrants will not have a lawyer. Most will be turned away and returned to their home countries: one of the judges at STDC denies 85 percent of requests for immigration relief. The other, nearly 70 percent.

STDC is a jail. It is white concrete walls edged by razor-wire fences. For spring break, I traveled with seven other students from Boston to Pearsall, Texas to assist the pro se respondents inside. On the first day, we met the team of American Gateways, a nonprofit legal service provider, at 7:00am, and drove the 40 miles south of San Antonio to get to the detention center, the bread and butter of the desolate town of Pearsall and a source of income for Geo Group, the private company who runs it.

My task was to help three women complete their I-589 applications—a form that is used to apply for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture—and provide translation assistance for declarations that support their claims. To provide a contrast, as a student attorney at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), I represented one client during a school semester, with the help of a supervisor and another student attorney. At Pearsall, I spent a week providing legal services to three respondents.

One woman I met wrote a declaration that was a homage to her father. *Luisa outlines in clear detail her childhood and later teenage years, spending time with her father who campaigned for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. It details the campaign events she attended with her father, and the events leading up to his speaking out against the government. Luisa’s father later dies at the hands of the government. Fearing for her own life, Luisa flees to Mexico. There, she becomes victim to domestic violence and ends up on the streets. As a migrant, she receives little to no state protection and has no choice but to turn herself in at the U.S. border.

Another woman, *Nory, is barely old enough to be inside an adult detention center. As a Garifuna young woman in Honduras, she has faced discrimination all her life. But, she tells me, she fled Honduras because the 18th Street gang was after her and her younger brother. I have to ask her why she thinks the gangs targeted her so that she can establish “nexus”—the legal term used to connect the persecution suffered or feared to any of the five grounds contained in the refugee definition. She cries. Her first hearing is next week. We try to fit her experiences into neat boxes that constitute the five protected grounds for asylum: race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.

Back in Cambridge, the stories of the brave individuals inside the Pearsall detention center stay with me. The right to asylum has been a part of U.S. law for nearly 40 years, and yet STDC is evidence that our legal commitments are not meted out, especially for immigrants who cross our southern border. Moreover, last year, a decision issued by the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it even more difficult for asylum seekers to obtain relief based on domestic violence or persecution by gangs, causing confusion amongst immigration judges throughout the country and enabling conservative judges, like those in Pearsall, to take a much harder line against asylum seekers.

The result is not only a failure to comply with domestic and international law, but also the U.S. government’s complicity in creating policies that disparately impact Latinx immigrants. We should be ashamed of this period in history. Luisa and Nory should be given a chance. They are instead criminalized for seeking a life free from violence.

*Names anonymized to protect the identity of the individuals.

To Seek Refuge in Texas

By: Madeline Kane J.D. ‘21

Madeline Kane is the third from left in all black

It’s 4:50am, and I’m up before my alarm sounds. The time change may be to blame—Texas is one hour behind Cambridge—but more likely, I’m awake because I’m thinking about the detained immigrants and asylum-seekers I’ve met this week. Together with a small group of HLS students, I am spending spring break at a border detention center.

We are here to support American Gateways, one of the largest legal nonprofits working in the immigration detention centers of Texas.

We are here because we believe in the rule of law. Congress has granted refugees and many classes of immigrants the right to stay in America. But certain detention centers seem beyond the reach of these laws: while some immigration judges deny fewer than 10% of asylum claims, others deny over 90%.

We are here because only one in seven detained immigrants has access to counsel. Immigrants have no right to a court-appointed lawyer—so those who can’t afford one have to face ICE attorneys alone. This week we will help prepare immigrants and asylum-seekers to defend themselves pro se.

We are here because the merits, not money, should control this process. Yet poverty dictates outcomes: asylum-seekers with no lawyer are five times less likely to be granted refuge, according to a 2016 study by Syracuse University. Those odds are sobering, considering that a person who is denied asylum stands to lose her freedom—or even her life.


It’s 8:30am, and I park our rental car outside the South Texas Detention Complex (STDC) after an hour’s drive toward the border. STDC is managed by a private corporation and houses nearly 2000 men and women from around the world.

We proceed through double interlocking doors to find dozens of immigrants in prison uniforms, sitting quietly on benches, waiting to ask us about their cases. They could be mistaken for patient passengers at a train station. But this place is a way station for people with nowhere to go.

The guards bring in Gloria*, a woman from central Africa who has escaped horrific violence. We speak in French—mine rusty, hers breaking into sobs as she explains she was separated from her kids along the journey. We work together to prepare for her final hearing before an immigration judge in two days. Gloria is terrified because she made a mistake on one of the forms she must present. If the ICE trial attorney uses the mistake to discredit her, it is likely she will be deported.

I switch to Spanish and meet with Fernando*, a father who has been working the fields in the United States for more than two decades. He may be eligible to stay, but only if his deportation would create “extreme hardship” for his two young children, both US citizens. Fernando is terribly shy, and I worry he will be too intimidated to make his case. I help him fill out an official form. “How tall are you?” He shakes his head. “Approx. 5 feet,” I write. “Weekly earnings?” $350 per week. “Assets in the United States?” He shakes his head, laughing softly. Zero dollars, he has zero dollars.

Another woman tells me she received death threats when she fought for poor farmers’ land rights. But her asylum claim was denied for insufficient detail. “I thought if I spoke the names of the bad men in court, they would find out and torture my family,” she says. “They killed my nephew.” She hands me a final deportation order and asks what it means. Tears stream down her face as I translate. Apparently, no one has explained to her that the court ordered her to be sent back. We will do everything we can to get her another hearing, I promise.


We will meet countless people whose strong claims may be doomed simply because they didn’t get legal help in time. A few have been imprisoned here for years. They have done nothing wrong but to seek refuge in Texas.

The injustice is striking, but the situation is not hopeless. Early legal orientation from nonprofits like American Gateways can help detained immigrants forced to confront our broken system pro se. What’s more, lawyers who take on pro bono cases can make a tremendous difference: in fact, our American Gateways supervising attorney will win relief for a Haitian man before our trip is over.

As for our HLS group: our work is just beginning. We will be headed back to Cambridge too soon, but we plan to follow up on our cases and continue this work in our legal careers. This week we’ve entered a dark corner of our justice system that few Americans have the opportunity to witness. Now our job is to keep shining a light into it.


*Names changed for clients’ confidentiality 


Restoring El Caño From Within

By: Alexis Farmer

A square block of tires serves as a fortress, protecting the browned soil. It is the only space in the immediate area that isn’t completely littered with plastic bottles, wrappers, napkins, and other garbage. The trash is a distraction from the colorful murals in the underpass and greenery. Melba, owner of the ecotourism company Excursiones ECO and 4th generation community member, tells us the youth of El Caño Martín Peña created the barrier and the mural to promote beautification in their community. They know they must do what they can to help themselves.

An underpass in El Cano Martin Pena. A mural of colorful birds and water adorns the wall. Tires border a large square of dirt, slightly littered with trash.

Standing under the underpass in El Caño Martín Peña. Credit: Alexis Farmer

10 Harvard Law School students traveled to Puerto Rico as a part of Harvard Law School’s Pro Bono Spring Break. 2019 was the second year Harvard Law School has partnered with organizations in Puerto Rico to help with hurricane relief efforts and other legal services needs in the community. As the Communications Coordinator for the office that organizes the trip, I joined the students mid-way through the break to document their experience and to highlight the community-initiatives active in Puerto Rico.

On Puerto Rico’s Emancipation Day, the students and I learned about the communities along El Caño. Half of the group spent the week working at an organization that provides social programming and legal advocacy for these communities. It was important to learn about the communities they were serving for the week and to see how communities were still crippled from the devastating hurricane.

A pile of trash - boards, papers, and other miscellaneous items sit next to a bush.

Credit: Alexis Farmer

The eight communities along El Caño Martín Peña, a 3.75-mile long tidal channel in San Juan, Puerto Rico are among the most impoverished communities in San Juan. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that in 2017, the average median income in Puerto Rico was roughly $19,800. A site historically polluted and neglected, the communities are facing critical public health and environmental challenges as a result of Hurricane María. El Caño was already in critical condition prior to the hurricane, but once the storm hit in September 2017, the need for environmental sustainability became even more urgent.

A turtle and fish swim in clouded water.

Credit: Alexis Farmer

Many of the pastel colored homes are without roofs. The lush greenery surrounding us feels refreshing, but Melba tells us murky water nourishes the roots. Power lines bend towards the street, weathered and weary from Mother Nature’s wrath. The channel is clogged with debris and sediment. In a written testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Lyvia Rodriguez, executive director of ENLACE said that the lack of a sewer system and storm water system has led to pollution in homes and flooding. If it rains hard enough, El Caño floods tread back into the community, exposing residents to polluted waters.

Electric poles bend in towards the street.

Credit: Alexis Farmer

Approximately 130,000 people, nearly 4 percent of the population, left Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland after the hurricane, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But for many with low-incomes, moving is not a possibility. “It’s not sensible,” said Estrella, the Environmental Affairs Manager of ENLACE. “It would cause mass displacement, [particularly] for low-income communities.” The Corporación del Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña is organizing an ecosystem restoration project, which includes dredging the water. Estrella, a tall young woman, is passionate about making a change. She’s been supervising five HLS students over the week as they conduct legal research on whether ENLACE can access federal community block development grants to help rebuild homes and help residents access formal banking. She fervently remarks on how gentrification damages communities and that ENLACE’s goal is to improve the conditions of where people already are. Estrella asserts that the organization is committed to help residents avoid eviction and ensuring the community reaps the benefits of new investments.

HLS JD and LLM students pictured with Estrella (middle).

HLS JD and LLM students pictured with Estrella (middle). Credit: Alexis Farmer

To further complicate matters, many residents of El Caño cannot access FEMA assistance because they cannot prove they own their homes through titles of deeds. Last May, FEMA only approved 40% of applicants for disaster assistance to fix their homes. Michelle Sugden-Castillo, a housing nonprofit consultant in Puerto Rico, told NBC News that some homes were passed down through generations and didn’t get properly registered. According to the agency’s guidelines, those who cannot prove ownership can still meet FEMA requirements by providing alternate verification of home ownership, including mortgage payments, property tax bills or receipts, a bill of payment record, or some proof of occupancy (a credit card statement, utility bills, driver’s license, etc).

A large grass field. Three homes are pictured missing some sort of its structure: windows, a roof, etc.

Credit: Alexis Farmer

Community members are intent on staying. Ana is a community legend. A small, silvered hair woman, began a community garden in her neighborhood, but not without a fight. She used to see people dumping trash in the empty lot across from her house, until she began to chase them off. Other community members noticed her efforts and joined her – organizing a plan to begin a garden. The garden now covers nearly two New York City blocks. Students come to help tend to the garden. It is now a source of food and fellowship.

A community garden

Credit: Alexis Farmer

Outside of her tangerine flat, Ana shares limbers, a tropical twist on Italian ice, with her neighbors and those who pass by. The sweet treat is a nice relief in the sweltering heat and blissfully sunny day. Melba, a young activist herself, shares Ana’s story. Melba has been active in the community fighting for ecological and environmental justice since she was 17. She started off with the Sierra Club, but has since joined ENLACE and started her own ecotourism company. Melba is small, but mighty. She is committed to staying in her community and helping it improve. “We understand the value of the water way and we want to restore its value.”

10 HLS students traveled to Puerto Rico. Here, the group sits on Ana's porch. Ana pictured in the top right. Melba is the first on the right-hand side in the bottom row.

10 HLS students traveled to Puerto Rico. Here, the group sits on Ana’s porch. Ana pictured in the top, second to the far right. Melba is the first on the right-hand side in the bottom row. Credit: Alexis Farmer

Life along El Caño still exists. Turtles and fish swim in the water. Plantains and vegetables are among the shrubbery between homes. People sit outside on their porches, watching kids ride bikes and others walking the smooth pavement. The work to rebuild is already set in motion. It is clear that El Caño is a recreational, economic, and environmental asset of Puerto Rico. It is not only for the people, but will be reshaped and developed by the people.

The channel

Credit: Alexis Farmer


Learn more:  

Lee Gelernt: A Fierce Advocate Reuniting Separated Families

Lee Gelernt, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project

In the spring of 2018, the Trump administration implemented a “zero tolerance” policy on immigrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border by separating families and children.  A new report from Amnesty International cites that over 6,000 people, half of whom are children, were separated from their families at the border since the policy was implemented. The ACLU promptly sprung into action, initiating a national class action lawsuit against the Trump administration to stop the practice. The case sought to reunite a mother and daughter who had been forced apart and detained separately 2,000 miles away from each other. The pair was seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lee Gelernt, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who spearheaded the lawsuit, spoke to HLS staff and students about the litigation’s claims and the ongoing efforts to reunify families.

The lawsuit claimed that Trump’s separation policy violated the Constitution’s due process clause, the asylum statute, which protects asylum seekers, and the government’s own directive to keep families intact. On June 26, federal Judge Dana Sabraw issued an injunction declaring Trump’s separation policy unconstitutional and required the administration to reunite the families. The administration suggested that the ACLU should use its networks to find the parents, but the judge retorted that it was “100%” the government’s responsibility to find the migrant parents it had separated and deported. The ACLU did organize efforts to help, and first prioritized reuniting children 5 and under with their parents. The task was quite daunting. In September, NPR reported that 304 parents had been deported and remained outside of the U.S. – many of whom were in Guatemala. Gelernt said the government kept poor records of the individuals they deported, and that they were “sitting on information, including phone numbers, [that they had] that could help find these parents.” Gelernt himself traveled to Guatemala to search for some of these parents. “I never expected to be in Guatemala looking for parents.” For those parents that he and other volunteers found, they explained to them their rights and presented them with a distressing choice: to be reunited with their children or to let them remain in the U.S. to pursue asylum independently. Gelernt said that two-thirds of the parents who were deported let their children remain in the U.S., reasoning that having their children return to their home country was too dangerous.

In his 25 plus years of civil rights work, Gelernt said the family separation policy is worst thing he’s ever seen. “It’s as The Washington Post described it: “gratuitous cruelty.” Being detained is a traumatizing experience in and of itself, especially for a child, Gelernt said, compounded with the fact that these children were being forcibly torn from their parents. In some cases, young children had been separated from their parents for so long, their children no longer recognized them. Judge Sabraw asserted the severe consequences of policy and leaving families broken, warning that, “For every parent who is not located there will be a permanently orphaned child.”

As heart wrenching as the issue was, Gelernt says it rallied political unity among conservatives and liberals. Immigration policy is a polarizing issue in Washington, but the public outcry denouncing Trump’s “crack down” on immigration mobilized politicians from both sides of the aisle to speak out. A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll found that eighty-eight percent of voters opposed the policy, and said that the families should remain together while their cases move through immigration court. While the bipartisan calls against inhumane policies helped stop the administration, lasting immigration reform won’t come from this administration any time soon, Gelernt said. Any real, substantive change will have to be through the courts and through large public outcry, as many civil rights victories in the past have occurred. Gelernt noted that the ongoing challenge will be to maintain public scrutiny on the administration’s immigration policies and decisions, and not letting the public lose focus on the issue. He encouraged students to organize, volunteer, and to continue to keep the issue in the public light.

Thank you to our co-sponsors, HLS ACLU, Child and Youth Advocates (CYA), HLS Immigration Project, and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC).

Recording Artists Project: the foundation to my success at HLS

By Jennifer Mar J.D. ’18

Group photo of RAP students

Group photo of RAP students

My participation in the Recording Artists Project (RAP) has been my most important experience at Harvard law School. In fact, it was one of the reasons I came here in the first place. I had a fledgling interest in the music industry and RAP offered a hands-on opportunity to explore that interest while helping real industry clients. I have always felt music is a foundation of our culture and artists are accordingly vital stewards to protect. Moreover, it’s one of the only Student Practice Organizations at HLS with a practical focus on transactional legal training – hard to find in a law school classroom.

My first client was a musician seeking to release a multi-artist album on his newly founded label. My team and I drafted a form agreement that our client used to license the works from each of the album artists. My second semester at HLS we represented a band that was breaking up. Based on a pre-existing band agreement, we drafted a memo advising the members of their various rights with regards to their discography. Both semesters, I was a Team Leader where I acted as liaison between my team, the client and our supervising attorney. My responsibilities also included setting deadlines and discussing progress with our supervisor – it was a wonderful opportunity to practice client communication.

Portrait photo of Jennifer Mar J.D. '18

Jennifer Mar J.D. ’18

Through RAP I’ve gained skills and knowledge in three major areas: 1) entertainment/music industry norms; 2) transactional legal practice; and 3) project management. First, RAP trains its students in the complex business structures that make up the music industry and its key actors. Working with my clients showed me firsthand how different industry actors work together and how important their roles are; and furthermore how actors might take advantage of each other. Second, I learned how to read a contract and understand the relevance of “boiler plate terms” to real transactions – something which proved valuable in my 1L and 2L summers. Last, I gained practical skills related to project management including setting timelines, managing group dynamics, and client communication.

I expected RAP to be a fun way to learn about the music industry, get some transactional experience, and fulfill my pro bono hours. I was surprised that instead it became the foundation of my success at HLS. My second year I became the President of RAP – an invaluable lesson in leadership. RAP is the reason I secured my dream internship at Sony Music my 1L summer in New York City, and gave me the confidence to accept an offer to practice transactional entertainment law in Los Angeles after graduation. When my research paper on music copyright law won a UC Berkeley writing award this past Spring, I owed all my thanks to my RAP supervisor. More importantly, I have been surprised by the breadth of individuals RAP has helped, both directly through its clinical work and indirectly through its community work. Through activities like hosting the Boys and Girls Club of America on campus to organizing the Entertainment Law Symposium, I have had the privilege of making important lifelong connections. RAP is proof of the depth that work in entertainment law can offer.

Harvard Law students honored for their pro bono service hours

The Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs offers its heartfelt congratulations to the 27 Harvard Law students who received a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Certificate in recognition of their pro bono work. The ceremony was held at the Adams Courthouse on October 18th and the students are listed on the SJC’s Pro Bono Honor Roll website.

The recognition is presented annually to law firms, solo practitioners, in-house corporate counsel offices, government attorney offices, non-profit organizations, law school faculties, and law students who certify that, in the calendar year of 2016, they have contributed at least 50 hours of legal services without receiving pay or academic credit.

Pro Bono Honor Roll Students:

Katherine Ambrose JD ’18 Jyoti Jasrasaria JD ’18
Heather Artinian JD ’18 Mark Lee JD ’18
Katrina Braun JD ’18 Megan Lee JD ’18
Elizabeth Carter JD ’18 Zachary David Smith Lenox JD ’18
Gianna Ceophas JD ’18 Yaacov (Jake) Meiseles JD ’19
Emily Chan JD ’18 Melissa Mikail JD ’18
Cameron Clark JD ’18 Emil Natanson Nachman JD ’18
Alicia Daniel JD ’18 Madaline O’Neill JD ’19
Andrene Dabaghi JD ’17 Leah Juhyun Park JD ’18
Hayley Evans JD ’19 Charlotte Robbinson JD ’18
Nadia L. Farjood JD ’18 Jacob R. Steiner JD ’18
Aaron Francis JD ’17 Thaya Uthayophas JD ’18
Angie Geng JD ’18 Iris Won JD ’18
Claire Horan JD ’18


Spotlight on Student Practice Organizations

Harvard Law School has 11 Student Practice Organizations (SPOs) providing students a wide range of opportunities to gain practical legal experience starting in their 1L year.  Each SPO is headed by 2L and 3L students who serve in leadership positions and one or more supervising attorneys who provide legal oversight and supervision. Most SPOs also work closely with an HLS clinic so students enjoy a cohesive experience in the respective area of the law during their time at HLS.

Every fall semester, Student Practice Organizations host information sessions to familiarize new students with their work and application process. A list of these events and deadlines can be found here. Most (but not all) SPOs require an application and all of them require students to complete a training. Everyone, including LL.M. students, is welcomed and encouraged to participate in SPO practice.

While students do not receive academic credit for participating in SPOs, their hours can count towards the 50-hour pro bono graduation requirement starting 1L year.

Student responsibilities and time commitment vary across SPOs. Students who participate have found the experience to be positive and meaningful. They report they enjoy the community they build with other students while helping real people and communities in need of legal services.

SPO Student Reflections

PLAP court victory helps disabled parolees

Via Harvard Law Today

In May, Massachusetts’ highest court extended the American with Disabilities Act to mentally and physically disabled prisoners seeking parole, ruling that the state must help them get support systems in place in the community. The Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project filed the lawsuit, Crowell v. Massachusetts Parole Board, and Tabitha Cohen ’18 argued the appeal.

Tabitha Cohen

The suit was originally brought in state Superior Court but was dismissed on the motion of the defendant, the state Parole Board. PLAP’s Mike Horrell ’14 represented the plaintiff in the 2012 parole hearing that led to PLAP’s later lawsuit. Tucker DeVoe ’15 briefed and argued the case in the Superior Court. Erin DeGrand ’16 worked on PLAP’s appeal to the state Appeals Court, including coordinating the drafting of the appellate and reply briefs with Keke Wu ’18, Beini Chen ’18, and Ethan Stevenson ’17.

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A Call for Pro Bono Attorneys Interested in Serving Veterans

In 2015, the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School established the Veterans Justice Pro Bono Partnership (VJPBP) to help veterans who were discharged with a less-than-honorable discharge to upgrade their discharge status. Over 200,000 service members have been discharged with a less-than-honorable discharge since 9/11. In many cases, service-related trauma contributed to the conduct that led to their less-than-honorable discharge. A service member who was discharged with a less-than-honorable discharge status can have lifelong difficulties accessing healthcare and educational opportunities and securing stable employment and housing. Though the need is tremendous, most veterans do not have access to the critical legal representation necessary to help them upgrade their status.

VJPBP aims to close this access to justice gap by helping to train and support pro bono attorneys who are interested in providing pro bono assistance to service members seeking discharge upgrades. The VJBP screens and refers veterans seeking discharge upgrades to private pro bono attorneys and provides these attorneys with ongoing support, training, and expert resources throughout the case. Attorneys who are interested in serving as pro bono attorneys with the VJPBP are eligible to participate in the partnership after attending a training related to discharge upgrades. Attorneys can be licensed in any state but they should work in one of the New England states to join this pro bono partnership. For attorneys interested in becoming pro bono attorneys with VJPBP, the Boston Bar Association is sponsoring the next training on Tuesday, May 23, 2017 from 4pm to 5:30pm at 16 Beacon Street in Boston. The training is titled Representing Veterans in Discharge Upgrades: Building a Persuasive Case.

Dana Montalto

Dana Montalto

Dana Montalto of the Veterans Legal Clinic and Robert Cuthbert of the Urban Justice Center will conduct this training with a focus on how to build a strong evidentiary record to support a discharge upgrade application. Since VJPBP’s establishment, there have been two other previous trainings – an introductory training in June 2015 and a more advanced training in May 2016.  Attorneys who did not attend the prior trainings are welcome to attend this upcoming advanced training. Attorneys without prior training are encouraged to watch the introductory training beforehand, which is available online. Please email Cassandra Shavney at for access to those trainings. The 5/23 training is eligible for 1.5 hours of CLE credit. Law students are welcome but are not eligible to take pro bono referrals from the Veterans Justice Pro Bono Partnership.  Harvard Law School students who are interested in representing veterans in these types of matters are eligible to register in their second and/or third years to participate in HLS’s Veterans Legal Clinic.

For attorneys who are interested in taking on a pro bono case through VJPBP, you can contact Dana Montalto at  Dana is also happy to connect attorneys from other states with the pro bono panel in their geographic area.

To register for this upcoming training, click here:  Pro Bono Training:  Representing Veterans in Discharge Upgrades: Building a Persuasive Case.

HLS students travel to Mexico to provide free tax services for migrant workers

Written by the team of students who traveled to Mexico

HLS students on their Spring Break Pro Bono Trip to Mexico

HLS students on their Spring Break Pro Bono Trip to Mexico

Our enthusiastic team of eight HLS students and one supervising attorney ventured into the state of Queretaro, Mexico to provide free tax services for migrant workers in coordination with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM). One week, many tacos, and $6,799 in refunds later, we are headed back to Boston with new perspectives on the challenges that migrant workers face in the US.

About 1,200 workers settled a class action against an employer in the US following poor working conditions and missing back pay. Some workers had federal taxes withheld from the settlement amount, which we were able to reclaim. We also helped migrant workers claim back year taxes for 2014, 2015, and 2016. For other migrant workers who did not have federal taxes withheld from the settlement amount, we helped them fill W-7 forms for individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITIN) in order to claim their dependents and file tax returns in the future.

While preparing tax returns, many migrant workers recalled cramped bunk houses, illegal and non-reimbursed recruiting fees, withheld W-2 forms from their employers, and paid tax preparation fees by the employer, often claiming fraudulent tax credits. On each of these issues, we tried our best to inform them of their rights remedies should they encounter these problems again.

None of this success would have been possible without the fantastic people at CDM. The CDM team organized workshops for community members in tandem with our tax clinics to discuss the resources available to prevent labor abuses, to navigate the immigration system, and to understand the American political climate. CDM’s history, expertise, and passion for advocacy on behalf of migrant workers have earned them the trust and respect of local communities. We learned so much from them and would urge other law students to work with them in the future. CDM is on the front lines of migrant worker labor rights, which have become more critical since the recent election. The anxiety among the population was palpable, especially in terms of their visa status and heightened racism. For many migrant workers, their US wages earned within a few months each year is their only income.

Outside of our work, we found time to soak up the culture and explore all that Mexico has to offer. We hiked La Pena, the world’s third largest monolith, which watches over the officially designated Pueblo Magico and is rumored to have mystical energy. Many of our group can now attest to its power. We sampled many delicious local dishes and indulged moderately in local liquors such as mescal and aguardiente. We even had a piñata to celebrate the birthday of Joanna Cornell (JD/MBA ’19)!

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to learn about direct client services while providing tangible assistance to an underserved community. We were able to save the migrant workers $6,799 through tax returns and $1,000 through saved tax preparation fees. We learned so much about the lives and challenges of migrant workers and had an unforgettable experience along the way.


Spring Break Pro Bono Project: Helping asylum seekers

By Pamela Yaacoub, J.D. ’17

“I’ve been talking about this for so long. Every time we go somewhere, questions, talking, talking. I hope that one day, I never have to talk about this again.”

My client said this to me while I was visiting him at the South Texas Detention Complex. I spent my spring break with 7 other HLS students, helping detainees complete asylum applications under the supervision of American Gateways in San Antonio. That Wednesday, I was focused on finishing my client’s “declaration,” a statement by an asylee telling the immigration judge their story, and why they are afraid to return to their home country. In my overzealous pursuit of detail, I forgot that my client was tired, that he has been trying to prove his family’s humanity for months, traveling through 10 different countries only to arrive to the United States and be imprisoned, without family, without friends, without comfort, without liberty.

We made our way to the detention center every day, driving an hour from San Antonio to Pearsall. We were each assigned 3-4 detainees to assist throughout the week, and we tried to meet with them every day. We scrambled to answer all the questions on the asylum application, explaining that one mistake or one omission could lead to a fatal (and irrational, and cruel) perception of inconsistency. We did our best to help our clients produce detailed declarations (which had to be in English) that conveyed their story and their pain. One of the most difficult obstacles was the lack of adequate language services. My clients spoke Arabic, Fulani, and Wolof; others spoke Haitian Creole, Somali, French, Spanish, Garifuna, and Portuguese. Most days, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO, the private corporation that runs the detention center, only allow American Gateways to use one phone, two at the most, in order to access a language interpretation line. Between bad service, dropped calls, limited time, and limited phone access, I sometimes had only 20 minutes to talk to a client before time was up. How can they answer questions requesting every possible detail of their lives in 20 minutes? How can they access justice like this?

So often, we talk about immigration in numbers and hypotheticals. But it’s important to remember that immigrants are people with lives and loved ones, values and dreams. They are vendors and engineers, managers and construction workers, political activists and salespeople, doctors and farmers, ministers and students. They are unfathomably brave women from Haiti fleeing years of domestic violence, they are a gay Senegalese man who was beaten by an entire village, they are a Sudanese woman who stood up for the rights of rape victims from Darfur. They are a Salvadorian baker and father of four who was tortured by both the Barrio 18 gang and the police. And here we are, forcing them to fit their suffering into narrow legal categories. But they are human beings, and they have every right to be treated as such, everywhere they go.

It was my privilege to listen to the stories of my clients, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to play an infinitesimal role in their legal empowerment. I am also outraged at the inherently corrupt power structure that diminishes and dehumanizes them, that requires a national quota of 34,000 beds filled, that benefits from their chained bodies. But then I remember that there are heroes at American Gateways and elsewhere who have dedicated their lives to immigrant justice, and we can join them. We can channel our rage into action. If this story resonates with you at all, please take the time to support local immigration advocacy and community organizing, volunteer whenever you can, and actively engage others on issues of social justice.

Working with non-profits and local governments to improve economic well-being and quality of life in the Mississippi Delta

Via the Mississippi Delta Project Spring 2017 Newsletter

Economic Development Team

The Economic Development Team works on solutions that improve economic well-being and quality of life in the Mississippi Delta.  In previous years, our team has worked with both non-profits and local governments, producing policy papers on subjects including public corruption in Arkansas and philanthropic innovation in the Mississippi Delta. This year, the team has partnered with the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi to develop paid family leave policy in Mississippi, which we believe will help support Mississippi families and businesses. Our team members spent the fall semester researching the status of paid leave throughout the United States, ultimately producing a policy paper presenting recommendations for potential legislative strategies to pass paid leave legislation in Mississippi. In the spring semester, we hope to work with the Women’s Foundation to cultivate partnerships with organizations and individuals who can help bolster support and advance paid leave legislation.

Student Spotlight

Marissa Marandola, 1L
Hometown: Cranston, RI

Marissa Marandola, 1L

Marissa Marandola, 1L

Marissa Marandola is a first-year student on the Mississippi Delta Project’s Economic Development Team. Hailing from Cranston, Rhode Island, Marissa received her undergraduate degree in Political Science from Boston College. She worked on paid family and medical leave issues for the United States Department of Labor Women’s Bureau during her senior year of college and this past summer before beginning law school.

Marissa’s passion for government work and experience at DOL has made her a particularly strong asset to the Economic Development Team, which is currently working with the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi to explore potential paid family leave legislation in Mississippi.

“I grew passionate about the potential of paid leave as a vehicle for upward mobility and opportunity, especially for mothers and their children,” Marissa says of her time working for the government. “Coming from a state that is a pioneer on paid family and medical leave, I was initially surprised at the dearth of PFML programs, particularly outside of the New England states. I joined MDP both to broaden my perspective on the national paid leave landscape and in the hopes that my experience at DOL could contribute to our work to bring paid leave to Mississippi.”

Marissa has stayed busy outside of MDP. She serves as a Technical Editor for the Journal on Legislation, works as a research assistant for Professor David Wilkins in the Center for the Legal Profession, is a first-year representative for the Law and Government Program of Study, and is a member of the Catholic Law Students Association. After law school, she hopes to continue to pursue labor and employment issues and a career in government.

“The Mississippi Delta Project strongly influenced my decision to come to law school at Harvard”

Via the Mississippi Delta Project Spring 2017 Newsletter

Student Spotlight

Emanuel Powell, 1L
Hometown: Liberty, MS

Emanuel Powell 1L

Emanuel Powell 1L

Emanuel Powell is originally from Liberty, MS and went to high school in Greenville, MS. He studied finance at USC in Los Angeles, CA and worked for four years as a nonprofit strategy consultant in New York City before coming to Harvard Law School.

“The Mississippi Delta Project strongly influenced my decision to come to law school at Harvard,” he says, “both to explore a different way of having positive social impact through policy as well as to build community with others that care about the South and supporting my home state.”

After law school, Emanuel’s goal is to support community development efforts back home in Mississippi. He is thankful to have the opportunity to work with MDP to to begin exploring what that work may look like after graduation.

Strengthening the Farm to School movement in Mississippi

Via the Mississippi Delta Project Spring 2017 Newsletter

Food Policy Team

For the past few years, the Food Policy Team has been working to strengthen the Farm to School movement in Mississippi. Through Farm to School programs, schools purchase food from local producers to feature on their menus and use in classroom activities. Farm to School seeks to improve child nutrition, teach children about agriculture and healthy diets, and build relationships between schools and local farmers. Last year, we conducted a 50 state survey, interviewed stakeholders in Mississippi and around the country, and compiled a report identifying recommendations which could be adopted in Mississippi.

This year, we have been working on narrowing in on particular recommendations and turning them into reality. In the Fall of 2016, we carried out a series of projects on behalf of the Mississippi Farm to School Network (MFSN). These included a pamphlet summarizing our recommendations for strengthening the Farm to School movement in Mississippi, a survey of the recommendations, and a series of interviews with interested stakeholders. The goal of these projects was to identify which recommendations would be most valuable and feasible in bolstering farm to school.

In the Spring of 2017, our team has three primary objectives. First, we will complete a legislative advocacy toolkit to assist MFSN in advancing farm to school legislation. This toolkit will include, information on how the legislative process works in Mississippi, as well as how advocates can affect and direct it. Second, we will write a short report analyzing how other states have utilized relationships with University Extensions in their Farm to School programs. Finally, we will encourage the Mississippi Department of Education to issue a guidance promoting the use of the Mississippi Farm Food Safety Checklist. The checklist is intended to be a substitute for costly formal food safety certifications, and its widespread use could help remove administrative costs that make it difficult for small farmers to sell to schools.

Student Spotlight

Sarah Atkins, 1L
Hometown: Lexington, KY

Sarah Atkins, 1L

Sarah Atkins, 1L

Sarah Atkins is a first-year law student on the Food Policy Team. Having grown up in Kentucky, she was excited for an opportunity to stay connected to the South. Sarah joined the Food Policy Team because it fit naturally with her lifelong interest in childhood nutrition.

“Food policy is such a critical area of law,” she says, “It has the potential to help a phenomenal number of people, especially children.”

Prior to law school, Sarah earned a bachelor’s degree in English from
Yale University. During college, she managed a charity bookstore whose proceeds supported local homeless shelters, and she taught sex ed to girls living in orphanages in Vietnam. After graduating, Sarah worked for two years as a paralegal in New York, which confirmed her interest in the law.

At law school, in addition to the Food Policy Team, Sarah participates in the Journal on Legislation. While she is not exactly sure what she will be doing after law school, it will likely involve healthcare law and the South.

Testifying at the Department of Corrections

By Katherine Robinson, J.D. ’18

Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project

On Thursday, October 6th, PLAP Board Members Dennis Dillon, Annie Manhardt, and I testified at a public hearing regarding proposed changes to the Massachusetts Department of Correction regulations. Executive directors Judy Flumenbaum and William Ahee also helped to draft our comments. As an organization, we submitted testimony regarding proposed changes to the regulations that govern disciplinary hearings, use of force, and grievance procedures. A few of the department’s proposed changes we support as long-overdue amendments to DOC policy, such as prohibiting the issuance of disciplinary reports for self-injurious behavior and providing that defendants in disciplinary hearings may seek accommodations for their disabilities. However, PLAP students reviewing the proposed changes identified a number of issues that concern us including the use of overly broad language that would give correction officers little guidance in assessing aggravated assaults and the reasonable use of force, vague and redundant offense definitions that could lead to further abuse of disciplinary ticketing, failures to clarify aspects of sanctions procedures that could lead to inconsistent and unfair outcomes, and new language that runs the risk of deterring the submission of valid grievances.

At the hearing, we voiced our concerns before DOC representatives, along with our supervisor Joel Thompson (who spoke on behalf of Prisoners Legal Services), families of incarcerated people, and representatives from the correction officers union. Though it remains to be seen whether the DOC will incorporate any of our comments into the amended regulations, I’m glad we had this opportunity to voice our clients’ concerns, share the experiences of student attorneys who navigate these regulations, and help shape the rules that dictate so much of our clients’ lives. In a system designed to silence incarcerated people and hide abuse within prisons from public view, PLAP is honored to speak on behalf of our clients and hold the DOC accountable for their policies that authorize the inhuman conditions in which prisoners are held.

Formerly Incarcerated Youth Share Their Powerful Stories

Via Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project

In this photo, three students can be seen talking to Nick, one of the Free Minds Poet Ambassadors who traveled all the way from DC to meet with us and share his story.

In this photo, three students can be seen talking to Nick, one of the Free Minds Poet Ambassadors who traveled all the way from DC to meet with us and share his story.

[On March 2nd], members of Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, came to Harvard Law School to speak to a group of students. Free Minds uses books, creative writing, and a peer support system to awaken incarcerated youth to their own potential. Their motto is “Books and Brotherhood.” Through creative expression, job readiness training, and violence prevention outreach, these young poets achieve their education and career goals, and become powerful voices for change in the community.

We heard from two amazing formerly incarcerated youth who are now Free Minds Poet Ambassadors. These young men bravely shared their stories and backgrounds, and discussed how working with Free Minds enabled them to recognize their skills and value. After learning about the organization, HLS students had the opportunity to read the work of incarcerated youth and provide encouraging feedback. It was a powerful event that demonstrated how books, creative writing and social support have the incredible power to teach, build community, and change lives.

PLAP student argues case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Via Prison Legal Assistance Project

Recently, Tabitha Cohen JD ’18 argued the appeal of a lawsuit, Crowell v. Massachusetts Parole Board, filed by the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project (PLAP) in the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, formally known as the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). The suit was originally brought in the state Superior Court, but was dismissed on the motion of the defendant, the state Parole Board.

The plaintiff, PLAP client Richard Crowell, is a septuagenarian prisoner who, in 1987,  suffered a disabling traumatic brain injury. He was originally arrested in 1962 as a teenager for a convenience store robbery in East Boston. He was recruited by several older men to drive a getaway car. During the robbery, one of the older co-defendants shot and killed the storekeeper and as a result, Crowell and his co-defendants were charged with first degree murder under the felony murder theory of culpability. To avoid the death penalty, which Massachusetts had at that time, Crowell pled guilty to second degree murder and received a life sentence in prison. In 1974, his sentence was commuted from life to 36 years to life. He was then paroled and spent several years successfully living in the community, with the exception of some minor parole violations that were not serious enough to prevent re-parole. However, after he was attacked and suffered his brain injury in 1987, his behavior worsened. Since 1990 he has remained in prison, except for a few brief weeks while out on parole and then returned to custody, and has otherwise been repeatedly denied parole.

PLAP’s Mike Horrell, JD ’14 represented the plaintiff in his 2012 parole hearing that led to PLAP’s later lawsuit. During that hearing the Board strongly suggested it considered the plaintiff impossible to parole because of his disability, a decision which would effectively consign Crowell to prison for the remainder of his life. After the client was again denied parole, Horrell helped to draft a complaint filed in the Superior Court seeking to reverse the Board’s decision and obtain a new hearing for Crowell. The central claim in PLAP’s Complaint was that the Parole Board had discriminated against the plaintiff because of his disability. In addition, PLAP argued the plaintiff was entitled to annual parole reviews, rather than reviews every five years as contended by the Parole Board.

After Horrell’s graduation, another PLAP student attorney, Tucker DeVoe, JD ’15, briefed and argued the case in the Superior Court, but PLAP’s lawsuit was subsequently dismissed. After DeVoe’s graduation, Erin DeGrand, JD ’16 worked on PLAP’s appeal to the state Appeals Court, including coordinating the drafting of the appellate and reply briefs while working with Keke Wu, JD ’18, Beini Chen, JD ’18 and Ethan Stevenson, JD ’17. After the briefing was concluded in the Appeals Court but before the case was scheduled for oral argument, the SJC took the case for direct review and solicited amicus briefing on the disability rights issue raised by PLAP. In response, civil rights and advocacy rights groups including the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU, Massachusetts Prisoners’ Legal Services, the Center for Public Representation and the National Disability Rights Network filed a consolidated amicus brief in support of PLAP.

After DeGrand’s graduation in June 2016, Tabitha Cohen, JD ’18 picked up the baton of PLAP representation and argued the case before the Supreme Judicial Court on January 6, 2017.

“Tabitha was superb.” said John Fitzpatrick, JD ’87, one of PLAP’s two supervising attorneys in attendance that day along with Joel Thompson, JD ’97. Fitzpatrick added that “Her poise and the content of her argument, along with her ability to comprehensively answer every of the many questions put to her by the SJC justices, was equal to or even better than many experienced appellate attorneys arguing before the court.”

Tabitha said that “It was a tremendous honor and privilege to represent Mr. Richard Crowell in his prisoners’ rights and disability rights appeal before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Thanks to the tireless work of my amazing supervising attorney, John Fitzpatrick, and all of my predecessors at the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project who worked so diligently on Mr. Crowell’s case, Mr. Crowell was able to make his voice heard in the state’s highest court. Arguing before the justices as a 2L has unquestionably been the highlight of my law school experience, and I cannot thank PLAP and everyone who worked so hard on this case, especially John, enough for this opportunity, and for entrusting me with this profound responsibility.”

Fitzpatrick said the oral arguments “went very well. Though that never predicts the eventual outcome of an appellate case, it is certainly better than the alternative.” He added that the SJC could issue its decision in the case during the next several months.

Hundreds Of Mass. Volunteer Poll Monitors Ready For Election Day

On November 2, 2016, the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs organized a training session aimed at helping volunteers spot common voting problems on election day.

Via wbur 90.9

A voter marks his ballot inside a voting booth at a polling site for the New Hampshire primary February in Nashua. (David Goldman/AP)

A voter marks his ballot inside a voting booth at a polling site for the New Hampshire primary February in Nashua. (David Goldman/AP)

A nonpartisan Boston-based organization is training election protection volunteers to monitor the voting process across the country on Election Day.

Given the heated political rhetoric ahead of Nov. 8, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice says it’s seeing increased desire from folks wanting to get involved, including here in Massachusetts.

At a recent packed, all-ages training session at Harvard Law School, Sophia Hall detailed volunteer poll monitoring.

Hall is a staff attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee and is coordinating the volunteers in collaboration with local partners like the ACLU and the Women’s League of Voters.

The groups are banding together to help monitor polling places for issues like voter intimidation and access to translators — basically anything that could prevent someone from being able to cast their ballot.

Many of the volunteers at the training will be deployed into 11 cities throughout the state on Election Day — including Boston, Springfield, Lawrence and New Bedford.

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An interview with TAP student leaders

The Tenant Advocacy Project (affectionately known as TAP) represents clients in benefits termination, public housing eviction, and application denial hearings at housing authorities. TAP co-presidents Emily Seelenfreund, J.D. ’17 and Laura Dismore J.D. ’17 reflect on their time with the organization.

OCP: What interested you in working with TAP?

ES: I came to law school because I wanted to use a legal degree to make an impact in the public sector. It’s all too easy to spend 1L in a bubble but I didn’t want to become removed from the issues that impact my future clients. I chose TAP because of the opportunity to directly represent clients right from the get-go and because equitable access to housing is such a vitally important right.

Laura Dismore J.D. '17

Laura Dismore J.D. ’17

LD: TAP caught my attention from the very beginning – I remember realizing that I had never thought about how much housing (and particularly housing instability) can affect other aspects of people’s lives. The more I learned about TAP, the various local and state bureaucracies our clients (and, by extension, TAP members) have to navigate, and the areas of law that intersect with housing, the more excited I was to participate.

OCP: Can you describe a memorable case or project that you have worked on?

Emily Seelenfreund, J.D. '17

Emily Seelenfreund, J.D. ’17

ES: I met one of my most memorable clients last year at an outreach event I coordinated with Haley House. She was facing termination of her Section 8 subsidy, without which she was unable to afford housing. At the hearing my client gave powerful testimony about how the abuse she had suffered as a child had led to a life of addiction but how with the help of Haley House and other programs she was taking control of her life. The Housing Authority found her mitigating evidence persuasive and our client retained her subsidy and was therefore able to continue turning her life around.

LD: Last year, I worked on a priority status denial case. My client had been displaced by a fire, but the housing authority had denied him natural disaster priority status because he hadn’t been able to provide documentation of his tenancy (or of the fire itself). That’s because his lease and all his other documents were burned up in the fire that made him homeless, and because the Fire Department had no record of the blaze despite multiple news articles describing its devastation. I was able to track down his landlady and get her to sign sworn statements about his tenancy. The fire report was tricky, but we eventually found it thanks to one firefighter with an incredibly good memory: the report had been filed incorrectly, which is why my client couldn’t retrieve it despite diligent efforts. The housing authority ultimately reversed their decision and gave him priority status on the waitlist, which was an exciting victory. But even now, six years after the fire and almost a full year after he went to the top of the waitlist, my former client has yet to be given a voucher and is currently still homeless.

OCP: How would you evaluate your learning experience? Do you feel you’ve gained new skills in working with TAP?

ES: TAP has been an invaluable learning experience and among the most compelling experiences during my time at HLS. I’ve come to really understand the importance of coordination among legal services organizations, as so many of our clients are facing battles not just with their housing- but also their disability, veterans, childcare, and other services. I’ve also learned the importance of persistence- oftentimes receiving necessary documentation from other service providers requires multiple follow-ups and perseverance. TAP has two experienced clinical instructors and working with them allows students to gain experience working under supervision while still managing their own caseload.

OCP: What would you say is your biggest learning experience? 

LD: Aside from the substantive legal concepts, the biggest learning experience for me has been the importance of fighting for our clients in whatever way we can. Working on a case last year, I had to follow up with a client’s former landlady who did not want to talk to me. In fact, she hung up on me the first time I called. I told my supervisor the landlady was unresponsive and that there wasn’t much we could do. My supervisor’s response will probably echo in my ears for the rest of my life: “Wow, you’re giving up on this very easily.” No one had ever told me that before, but I realized she was absolutely right. We came up with a strategy to try to get the landlady to work with us, and it succeeded! We got the documentation we needed and ultimately won the case. And I learned that if your clients need you to go to the mat for them, you do it, even if it’s scary and you’re not sure how.

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