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Reflections from the First Class of Clinic Fellows

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Sturm College of Law

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Environmental Law Clinic Fellow Tim Estep

Terry Tempest Williams tells us that “the eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.” There is no question that many prospective law students feel this intuitively, and that, through their law school experience, hope to be able to find a place in the world where they feel valued, and where the work they’re doing means something bigger—for their clients, for broader communities, and for the environment for its own sake. Yet the costs of attendance, the innate stress and competitiveness of law school, and insufficient experiential education are among the many barriers and distractions faced by our students aspiring to public interest work. The true value of clinical education, then, should not merely be “real experience working for real clients.” Clinics, as Professor Stephen Wizner puts it, “teach law students about the actual function (and malfunctioning) of the legal system.” More than instilling the “value and duty of public service” in our students, I think the clinical experience rekindles and develops the students’ already existing values, and serves as a bulwark against the burnout that affects many law students, let alone those who enter the profession after school.

Three years is not a very long time in a person’s life, and it seldom encompasses the full lifecycle of an environmental lawsuit. A few of the Clinic’s cases existed before I arrived at DU in late-summer of 2015, and many will continue on when my fellowship is over. With this in mind, I am especially aware of the challenging expectations we have for our students. Enrolling in the Clinic for just one year, they are expected not only to digest vast amounts of information to quickly “get up to speed” in their cases, but then must surge ahead to serve as lead counsel to the Clinic’s clients. All of this in the world of environmental law where “there’s no such thing as a permanent victory,”—it seems almost counterintuitive, yet my clinical experience was a defining and motivating point during my time in law school, and many of our former students report the same. To have a small place in helping the next group of environmental attorneys see and work for something beyond their own time, is remarkable and humbling.

Whiting Clinical Fellow Casey Faucon

Before I began my teaching career almost five years ago, I spent my time in private practice at a large regional law firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, providing both transactional and litigation services to businesses and professionals in the public and private construction industries. I’ll never forget the day when I stood in the 19th JDC and took a $250,000 default judgment on behalf of my client, a large construction contracting firm, against a small electrical subcontractor, owned and operated by a sole proprietor. The defendant was a single elderly African American gentleman who showed up to court without having responded to my client’s complaint and without having the assistance of counsel—and who I later found out was dying of prostate cancer and couldn’t afford to pay his medical bills, much less afford to pay a $250,000 judgment. I remember telling my assistant at the time Chelly when I got back to the office that day that this was not what I went to law school for. To this day, I still don’t know what happened to that man.

I tell this story to my students in the Community Economic Development Clinic almost every year, in the hopes that after they leave their time in the CED Clinic, they will do so with a higher understanding of the importance of access to legal services for low income entrepreneurs and business owners. Despite all of the substantive law and practical skills I teach my students, I’ve found that the most rewarding teaching moments come when students not only provide high quality transactional legal services, but also demonstrate their individual humanity and empathy for their clients. As an educator, I can only hope that my students stay grounded throughout their legal careers so that they may always feel pride, instead of a sense of guilt or regret, for the work that they will do in the world.

Civil Rights Clinic Fellow Nicole Godfrey

Just over ten years ago, a friend of mine encouraged me to apply to be a student attorney in the Civil Rights Clinic (CRC). I was skeptical – CRC student attorneys represent prisoners in complex federal civil rights litigation, and I had no desire to litigate and knew very little about prisoners’ rights or the criminal justice system. Ignoring my hestitation, I applied and entered the CRC a naïve and nervous novice. My experience as a CRC student attorney ignited a passion for prisoners’ rights litigation that I continued to develop in the early years of my legal career.

Two years ago, as I started my fellowship, I excitedly returned to the CRC in the new role of teacher; I hoped to guide and motivate my students in the same way my clinic supervisors educated and inspired me. Little did I know that my second stint in the CRC would ignite a new passion - a passion for teaching that continues to surprise and motivate me each day. The CRC has an ambitious caseload, one that many seasoned attorneys find daunting and that seems overwhelming to students. Despite the intimidating nature of the casework, CRC faculty push student attorneys to own their cases by carefully considering the legal and non-legal consequences to the client of every decision the students are required to make. I find myself consistently revitalized by supervision sessions where my students thoughtfully and vulnerably grapple with complex questions of law, strategic choices in litigation, and the emotional toll that accompanies representing prisoners experiencing discrimination and abuse. As I push my students to find new and creative ways to challenge the injustices faced by their clients, I am grateful for the small role I play educating new lawyers about the tools and methods available as they search for justice.

Criminal Defense Clinic Clinical Fellow Rachel Moran

“Why should I be passionate? Because things could be different, they could be . . . better.” Zygmunt Bauman

Before I joined the University of Denver Criminal Defense Clinic, I spent most of my career as a public defender in Chicago, defending people accused or convicted of serious felonies. It is easy to spot injustice in that job—a police department with an ugly history of racism, overworked attorneys who turn insufficient attention to each case, and sentencing practices that dehumanize clients and destroy families—but challenging to effect change. Experienced attorneys too often find themselves inured to the criminal system’s dysfunction, rather than striving to create a new culture.

Misdemeanor and municipal courts have their own brand of injustice, manifesting itself in the homeless clients facing months in jail for stealing a single pair of socks, or defendants denied counsel because they fall barely outside the income eligibility standards for public defenders. One of the most invigorating aspects of clinical teaching is the opportunity to work with law students who bring fresh outlooks and creativity to indigent defense practice, and who take seemingly minor cases very seriously. Rather than resign themselves to our flawed system of justice, my students challenge it. They file motions demanding the internal affairs records of police officers who arrest our clients, or challenging the constitutionality of the statutes under which our clients are prosecuted, not because they necessarily will win those motions, but because they should. When my students ask what “typically” happens in court, I ask them what their clients want to see happen, and encourage them to pursue what is right rather than what is normal. As an educator, I get to play a small role in helping the next generation of lawyers awaken to injustice, and reflect on their own responsibilities in effecting change.