UCI School of Law & PLC Collaborate to Involve Students
Any new law school would be exciting for the local legal community, but for non-profit legal organizations, a new law school that publicly advertises its commitment to public interest work as a way of recruiting students and providing experiential learning is almost too good to be true.
When PLC learned that the long hoped for University of California, Irvine law school would be a reality, and that the goal of that school was to provide their students with real-life experiences in public interest work, we immediately got to work. We began brainstorming to develop ideas as to how we could engage and encourage the UCI law students. We had big plans of hosting the entire first year class at our office for various parts of a semester (this one was quickly vetoed; anyone who has seen our office in Santa Ana knows that we have maxed out our space with the approximately 25 full-time employees). We talked about having a significant portion of our summer class come from UCI; until we realized we could not ignore every other law school in California (and around the country) from which we get applications for our few summer clerkships.
We weren't certain of the mechanics, but we knew our goal was clear – we wanted PLC to provide an environment that would teach UCI law students the importance of pro bono work and would persuade them to participate in pro bono work throughout their career, no matter what path they chose as an attorney.
Working closely with Carrie Hempel, the UCI Law Associate Dean for Clinical Education/Service Learning, PLC developed a program that would provide a real-life interview experience for the UCI first year law students. As part of the students' Lawyering Skills class, 26 UCI law students worked with UCI to enhance their client interviewing skills. The four part program began with a training, run by two Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellows. The Fellows provided an overview of the type of issues, legal and otherwise, that the UCI students would encounter, some interview techniques and general information about PLC so that the students could share this information with their clients. Next, once the students had been trained they visited one of PLC's clinics for an hour to observe an interview (or three!) and to become familiar with PLC's clinic process and procedures.
At this point, the students were ready to conduct their own interview. Each student was given one client (and sometimes an interpreter) to interview client. Prior to the client walking into the interview space, the student had no idea what type of legal issue the client was facing. Despite this, and with the help of PLC's many questionnaires, the students did an incredible job of getting the details of the clients' potential cases. The issues ranged everywhere from the very typical legal aid issues, such as dissolution and immigration, to the slightly more unique, such as persecution and discrimination based on a client's disability.
Finally, once the interview was completed the students drafted an intake memo, including a summary of the client's eligibility for PLC services, a list of the adverse parties and a summary of the client's case and then presented their case at PLC's weekly case review meetings, which is never an easy task. Each participant in those weekly sessions (staff attorney, law student, paralegal or otherwise) has to be prepared for the many questions that are bound to come from the panel during the meetings. Topics ranged from whether or not a client was stopped at the border to the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship, for the uninitiated) to whether a client had any assets that needed to be protected by filing for bankruptcy.
The client interviewing experience, as well as the insight into the workings of a legal services organization, was eye-opening for many of the students. One student confided that after she presented her case, she waited until she was back in her car before she started crying given how emotionally draining was the experience. Other students enjoyed the experience so much that they keep coming back for more.
As part of UCI's mission to focus on pro bono work, the school also implemented a pro bono program for their first year students through the efforts of UCI Law School Pro Bono Director Anna Strasburg Davis. PLC provided opportunities for 21 of UCI's inaugural class of 60. Eight students worked with volunteer attorneys at Snell & Wilmer to assist with U-Visa cases; four others worked with PLC immigration attorneys on similar cases. Seven students worked with PLC bankruptcy attorneys on helping clients file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Four students helped PLC's housing and homelessness attorney draft letters for clients involved in disputes with their landlords. Two students continued to help PLC with intake interviews.
All the students who participated in these various efforts became familiar with PLC and developed an appreciation of both the issues facing low-income clients but also the atmosphere in which public interest lawyers work. Meeting with clients and providing assistance, or even just being someone who listens, and seeing first hand the camaraderie at a place like PLC is an invaluable experience for anyone, but particularly a first year law student who is exploring the type of lawyer they want to become.