St. John’s Celebrates 25 Years Of Clinical Legal Education

St. John's Law Celebrates 25 Years Of Clinical Legal Education
November 5, 2019

Justice for all.

Those words close a pledge made by millions of Americans each day. But they also evoke a promise that remains unfulfilled. In reality, a wide justice gap leaves many people across the country and in New York without the legal help they need when facing foreclosure, loss of retirement savings, cuts in public assistance, eviction, deportation, and other serious legal challenges.

The call to bridge the divide in access to justice, while teaching law students professional skills and values, has animated the clinical legal education program at St. John’s Law for 25 years. Recently, students, alumni, faculty, and friends came together for a special event at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP celebrating the Law School’s clinics and their quarter-century of critical work on behalf of marginalized and under-served New Yorkers.

St. John’s clinical legal education program took shape in 1993, when then Dean Rudolph C. Hasl received a Department of Education grant to establish an Elder Law Clinic. Professor Stephen Ross, head of experiential learning at the time, was instrumental in obtaining the startup grant. Dean Hasl then selected C. Michael Bryce to direct the clinic. Professor Bryce joined St. John’s after litigating the high-profile Love Canal mass tort case as an assistant attorney general in New York.

The pilot Elder Law Clinic launched in the spring of 1994. Over the next six years, the student participants handled cases involving mortgage-related issues, debt problems, social security disability matters, and consumer fraud issues—including obtaining refunds on cynical door-to-door and banking scams. They also conducted weekly presentations at senior and community centers throughout Queens on pertinent legal issues affecting seniors. “The clinic drew Newsday’s attention,” Professor Bryce recalls. “From then on, calls for assistance came in from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan as well as from Queens. There was always excitement in the air as students continued to represent clients successfully and garner the confidence that came from their experience.”  

When Professor Bryce left St. John’s in 1999, Professor Ann L. Goldweber became director of the Elder Law Clinic and then director of clinical legal education. Under her leadership, the Law School’s original clinical education program has grown to include three in-house clinics and seven partner clinics.

While the Elder Law Clinic’s name has changed to the Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic, the one-semester civil litigation and advocacy clinic continues its good work under the supervision of Professor Goldweber and Professor Gina M. Calabrese. Its student interns represent low-income, elderly Queens residents in cases involving deed theft, mortgage loan modifications, foreclosure defense, predatory lending, home improvement contractor fraud, debt collection, and other consumer matters. They also work on policy issues and initiatives affecting their client community.

Students in the in-house Child Advocacy Clinic represent children in Family Court child abuse and neglect proceedings, immigration removal hearings, international child abduction cases, education access proceedings, and other matters relating to children and families. In any given semester, the clinic addresses allegations of parental drug use, educational neglect, domestic violence and gang violence, mental illness, excessive corporeal punishment, abandonment, and transcontinental migration. In the last several years, the clinic has stepped forward to represent increasing numbers of unaccompanied Central American children fleeing abuse or torture in their home countries, who are facing deportation proceedings in New York’s immigration court.

“This isn’t light and easy work,” says the Child Advocacy Clinic’s director, Professor Jennifer Baum. “Our students are exposed to the raw human dimension of the law and witness first-hand the everyday hardships our young clients face. It can be emotionally draining, but it is also incredibly rewarding work that brings home how vital it is for lawyers to take the lead in protecting those who do not have a voice in our society.”

The Securities Arbitration Clinic, directed by Professor Christine Lazaro, along with assistant director Professor Francis J. Facciolo, completes the current trio of in-house offerings. Established with the help of penalty funds collected from Wall Street investment firms, the clinic represents under-served investors in securities arbitration claims involving misrepresentation, unsuitability, unauthorized trading, excessive trading or churning, and failure to supervise, among other claims before the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Its student advocates also respond to requests for public comment on proposed SEC, FINRA, and state regulations, gaining hands-on experience in legal and policy analysis and writing.

The Law School has expanded the scope of its work on behalf of underserved New Yorkers by establishing seven partner clinics with outside organizations:

• Bankruptcy Advocacy Clinic (Partner: Legal Services NYC)
• Criminal Defense Clinic (Partners: The Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services)
• Domestic Violence Litigation Clinic (Partner: New York Legal Assistance Group)
• Economic Justice Clinic (Partner: New York Legal Assistance Group)
• Prosecution Clinic (Partners: Bronx, Nassau, Queens, and Suffolk District Attorneys’ Offices)
• Refugee and Immigrant Rights Litigation Clinic (Partner: Catholic Charities Community Services)
• Tenants’ Rights Advocacy Clinic (Partner: The Legal Aid Society Queens Neighborhood Office)

During the 2018-2019 academic year, 152 students participated in clinics. “Our clinics are the last stop for many New Yorkers,” Professor Goldweber says. “Without our assistance, most of our clients would go unrepresented, without any meaningful access to the courts. Clinic students begin to realize the importance of their work in representing the rights of those who lack any power in society. We take a holistic approach to client representation, striving to meet client needs beyond the initial legal problem presented, 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 challenges.”

Reflecting on his clinic experience and the 25th anniversary event, Adam Heckler ’12 says, “It was great to reminisce about all that the Securities Arbitration Clinic has given me: hands-on experience, lasting professional relationships, and a fulfilling career. My work in the clinic allowed me to realize my love of securities arbitration, a field in which I currently practice.”

Like Heckler, Me’Dina Cook ’17 makes the connection between her current work in the law and her clinical education at St. John’s, where she participated in the Child Advocacy Clinic. “The clinic helped me gain a level of empathy as a lawyer that shapes my everyday practice at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services,” she says. “I can interview domestic violence survivors while respecting how hard it is for them to share details of the abuse they suffered. I try to understand, as best I can, where parents are coming from and what led them to be involved with ACS. And I take it seriously when an attorney for the child tells me their client needs something. I can do all these things because the clinic taught me that the first step to being a successful attorney is to listen.” 

Keren Baruch ’17, an associate at Willkie, also found her clinic experience at St. John’s Law formative, and was delighted to host the celebration at her law firm. “Participating in the Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic and the Securities Arbitration Clinic truly gave me the confidence I needed to be a successful attorney,” she says. “I think Willkie did a fantastic job putting together this special evening to recognize the Law School’s clinical education program and the faculty, staff, and students that make such a huge difference in the communities they serve.”

To learn more about clinical education at St. John's Law, please visit the clinics website.