Act! In the name of the law

Act! In the name of the law

Like many students, Danielle Jones has somewhere to be a few times a week.

If she’s not there, she misses out on her learning experience. But for the past month, Jones’ education hasn’t involved quizzes, lectures and PowerPoint presentations, and that will be the case for about the next month.

Every Tuesday and Friday, Jones, a third-year Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL) student, makes her way to Dorchester District Court to support abuse victims looking to impose restraining orders on their abusers. She serves as a student advocate in the Domestic Violence Clinic, also called the Dorchester Court Clinic.

The clinic is an arm of the NUSL’s Domestic Violence Institute (DVI).

Jones sits in the back of the Dorchester Court’s Domestic Violence Session – a domestic violence court the Justice Department financed as a model for other American courts and communities to reproduce – and waits for potential clients to come in seeking her services.

She goes all day on Fridays and in the afternoon on Tuesdays.

“I’ve never really had a chance to have client contact,” she said. “[It’s] a lot of learning about interacting with clients and getting comfortable in the courtroom setting.”

She is usually accompanied by a supervisor and is always with one or two other student advocates.

Some days are busier than others. Mondays tend to be busier than Fridays, because more victims come in after the weekend.

“Days go by when no cases come in,” said Jeanine Kilgallen, a second-year NUSL student who is also participating in the clinic. “There’s no set pattern.”

That leaves the student advocates with the real-life practice of having to react to any client who may come their way.

“It’s a walk-in clinic, so we don’t know much about the cases [before the clients come in],” said Katherine Garren, a DVI Supervising Attorney and a 2003 NUSL graduate.

“When someone comes into the court to get a restraining order, they go to the restraining order office, and when we find out that we have a client, students are assigned based on how many cases they already have, otherwise it is really random,” Garren said. “If a client is a Spanish speaker, and if we have a student advocate who’s a Spanish speaker, then we would pair them up.

“[The student advocates] do an initial interview with the client and find out whether the restraining order is the client’s best option,” Garren said. “Sometimes a restraining order could be more dangerous than not getting one, so we teach students how to assess how dangerous a perpetrator is.”

Before accepting service and after their legal options are laid out before them, the clients are left to choose whether they want to go forward with the restraining order independent of the advocates.

Jones said the experience she was gaining is valuable.

“I’ve been in a court before and observed, but I never went up to the judge,” Jones said. “I’m getting more interaction with judges and everything.”

Jones is one of six NUSL students participating in the Dorchester Court Clinic this quarter meant for students to use the lessons they learned from courses in a hands-on, experiential manner. (Unlike Northeastern’s undergraduate schools, the NUSL operates on a quarter system. One reason for this is to accommodate graduating students’ need to review for the bar exam, NUSL Dean Emily Spieler said.)

In addition to the Dorchester Court Clinic, the Public Health Clinic, the Poverty Law and Practice Clinic, and the Certiorari Clinic are in session this quarter.

“I just think that the approach here – it’s true throughout the whole university – is geared toward putting students in experiences that are real,” said Lois Kanter, a clinical professor at the law school and the DVI’s Executive Director.

The Honorable Sydney Hanlon, presiding justice of Dorchester Court, first invited the DVI into the court in 1991.

Second and third-year law students can participate in the clinic in the winter and spring quarters for six credit hours each quarter. Students involved with the clinic in the past can do work at the court for work-study pay, for independent study credit or as volunteers.

More than 100 students participate in the clinics annually, according to the NUSL Web site, www.slaw.neu.edu.

Each of student logs 20 hours every week for 10 weeks, translating to more than 20,000 hours of donated advocacy for low-income clients. Such service would cost $500,000 if each student were paid $25 an hour, a “modest” legal salary.

A commitment to social justice

The Dorchester Court Clinic’s purpose – to provide assistance to battered women who come into Dorchester District Court to take legal action in response to abuse by their spouses, roommates, boyfriends or girlfriends – goes along with the NUSL’s mission. This includes the desire to “fuse theory and practice with ethical and social justice ideals so that students understand what it is lawyers do, how they should do it and the difference they can make in the lives of others.”

For the law school’s programming, two words especially stick out – social justice.

“We have students who come who are very interested in the relationship between law and society and how law affects social change,” Spieler said. “We do, however, as a school, attempt to train all our students in the relationship between law and society, because we think it’s critical to being an effective lawyer. The combination of experiential learning in co-op and clinics and the social justice mission make us a unique law school.”

The law school’s activism against the Solomon Amendment – a federal law that cuts colleges and universities’ federal funding if they ban military recruiting on campus – serves as an example of the institution’s concern for social justice.

Because the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy allows the firing of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals from the military if they present themselves as such, some American law schools and faculties believe allowing military recruiters on campus suggests an endorsement of the discriminatory policy.

Instead of idly accepting the status quo, 36 law schools and faculties formed the Forum for Academic Rights (FAIR), of which the NUSL is a part. FAIR challenged the constitutionality of the Solomon Amendment in a case that eventually was heard in the Supreme Court. Not only did the NUSL join FAIR as an institution in 2004-05, but it also held a teach-in that year to inform students about the impending court case, Rumsfeld v. FAIR, and its consequences, according to a statement Dean Spieler e-mailed to students, faculty, and staff on the day of the Supreme Court decision. (The court unanimously voted to uphold the law as constitutional, not including Justice Samuel Alito.)

In 2005-06, the NUSL’s Office of Career Services (OCS) – separate from the undergraduate schools’ Department of Career Services – told students when military recruiters were coming to campus. Also, when resum

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