Students in St. John’s Law Clinics Live the Vincentian Mission of Serving the Greater Good

Monday, March 31, 2014

The clinical legal education program at St. John’s Law embodies and animates St. Vincent de Paul’s zeal for serving the poor. Through clinics offered in house and in partnership with outside organizations, students build essential lawyering skills by representing elderly victims of mortgage fraud; by helping clients secure public benefits; by serving as attorneys for abused and neglected children; and by seeking asylum for refugees, among other assistance offered to New York City’s neediest. Working hands-on in this way, students see how the law can uplift people and benefit communities.

St. John’s Law students and clinic directors gathered recently to share their experiences in the clinics program with Rev. Hugh O'Donnell, C.M., the Vincentian Chair for Social Justice and Board of Trustee member, and Rev. Gerard Luttenberger, C.M., Executive Vice President for Mission at St. John’s University. Opening the program, Director of Clinical Legal Education Ann L. Goldweber said that the program gives students a unique opportunity to represent real clients in real cases under attorney supervision. Stressing the importance of promoting access to justice for the underrepresented, Professor Goldweber said, “We’re the last stop for many low-income New Yorkers. We give them a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have.” She also explained that the clinics take a holistic approach, striving to address client needs beyond representation, as well as the needs of the larger community. “We work to have a wider social impact, to educate community members about their rights under the law, and to listen to them so we can address their concerns and unmet needs.”

The program continued with presentations by student advocates and supervising clinicians from several of the Law School’s 10 current clinics, including the:

Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic
• Associate Director Gina M. Calabrese, St. John’s School of Law
• Robert Nussbaum ’14
• Benjamin Clack ’15
• Jennifer Prevete ’15

Bread and Life Immigration Clinic
• Director Sharone Schwartz Kaufman, Catholic Migration Services
• Abhay Kotwal ‘15

Child Advocacy Clinic
• Director Jennifer Baum, St. John’s School of Law
• Alison Goldsmith ‘14

Economic Justice Clinic
• Director Christopher J. Portelli, New York Legal Assistance Group
• Teresa Perez ’15
• Justin Wax-Jacobs ’15

Refugee and Immigrant Rights Litigation Clinic
• Co-Director Mark R. von Sternberg, Catholic Charities Community Services
• Kristi Scriven ‘14

The students expressed how they grew personally and professionally through the clinic experience. For Jennifer Prevete, securing justice for an elderly victim of deed theft and mortgage fraud took on a significance she couldn’t have imagined before joining the clinic. “I came away with a better understanding of what it truly means to be an advocate, and how important it is to stand up for people who struggle to gain access to our legal system,” she said. Abhay Kotwal learned that empathy, honesty, and non-judgment were critical to his work with immigrants seeking assistance through the Bread and Life Immigration Clinic. “I also discovered how important it is to listen to clients. Listening can have a cathartic effect,” he said. “This is exactly the kind of work I imagined myself doing when I went to law school and I’m thankful for this opportunity to do it.”

Teresa Perez similarly credits her clinic experience helping an elderly woman gain restoration of Medicaid benefits through the fair hearing process. “I’m really proud of the work the Economic Justice Clinic does to help clients secure basic necessities,” she said. “My work there made me feel like a real lawyer and that’s very empowering.” Alison Goldsmith was so dedicated to seeking justice for a persecuted Hungarian family seeking U.S. citizenship that she chose to stay in her Child Advocacy Clinic placement for two years. Kristi Scriven, who helped a young woman from Mali fight removal proceedings and petition for asylum, also found her work with the Refugee and Immigrant Rights Litigation Clinic engaging and formative. “The clinic provided that ‘aha moment’ when I realized that the legal profession is my vocation,” she said.  

Fr. O’Donnell thanked the presenters for illustrating “how St. Vincent lives at St. John’s through the clinics.” Sharing that St. Vincent de Paul saw the poor not as a burden, but as a transformative gift, Fr. O’Donnell observed that the clinic students understand this very well. He also recognized how the clinics, and the many people who support them, offer the poor much-needed hope at critical moments in their lives. Dean Michael A. Simons, who attended the presentation, echoed this point, stating: “Our clinic students are learning to not just serve the poor, but to encounter the poor in the true spirit of St. Vincent.”