Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic: Preparing for Practice, Meeting Needs

Colleen Vitali (JD ’10) still remembers the day she first felt like a lawyer. It was the afternoon that brought a frantic mother to her office, terrified of an abusive ex-husband who threatened to move her only daughter with him to a country on the State Department’s watch list. This client’s fears went beyond her daughter’s safety and distrust of her ex-husband, who claimed to have already purchased the airline tickets. Her fears were deepened by poverty that would prevent her from ever being able to see her daughter again, should she be moved so far away. As a student in the Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic, Vitali immediately got to work on an ex parte motion to block the move. In 24 hours, she interviewed the client and witnesses, researched applicable law, and drafted and filed a motion that succeeded in keeping mother and daughter together.

At the Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic, a community-based clinic located on Los Angeles’s Skid Row, students are given the opportunity to learn valuable, transferable practice skills while making a meaningful difference in the lives of real clients. Like Vitali, currently a family law attorney in the South Bay area, clinic alumni have gone on to utilize this practical training in areas as varied as public interest, international justice, civil and criminal law, corporate tax, land development, and entrepreneurial pursuits. Teaching students how to practice law through the structured experiential learning environment of its legal clinics is one way that Pepperdine School of Law is providing its graduates a much-needed bridge to practice.

The clinical experience is more than an externship. It is a true apprenticeship, more akin to the field of medicine, in which students practice law under the supervision of faculty. In addition to students’ work at the clinic, the course curriculum includes exposure to the leading voices of both academics and practitioners on issues of professionalism, legal ethics, and the complex issues surrounding poverty. Students are encouraged to not only learn what to do as a lawyer, but also to examine what it means to be a lawyer. In conversations both in the classroom and at the clinic, students reflect on the value of their education and its inextricable connection to the responsibility to speak for those who would not otherwise be heard.

The clinic’s location itself, on the fourth floor of the Union Rescue Mission, serves as a valuable part of the students’ education. Students work with clients who, in addition to obvious socioeconomic hardships, often live with the difficulties of addiction, abuse, and mental illness. Simply placing students in a diverse environment exposes the various cultural, socioeconomic, and racial differences that exist between a student and a client. In order to help students begin to understand their clients, and eventually build trust and rapport, a significant portion of the curriculum focuses on cross-cultural lawyering. Students are encouraged to explore their own cultural assumptions and biases and address the ways that these differences act as barriers to successful representation. Developing cross-cultural understanding and self-awareness is essential to effective lawyering in this global economy, regardless of one’s eventual field of practice.

Taking primary responsibility of client cases brings their doctrinal courses to life. For third-year law student Tyler Stock, nothing has invigorated a fuller understanding of the California Evidence Code more than preparing for an upcoming hearing, where he will seek to protect a mother’s custody arrangement. Working in the clinic also forces students to think outside the box and embrace alternatives to litigation. All too often, the significant problems that clinic clients face are not remedied by filing a lawsuit. Other times, clinic clients are not in a position to win such a lawsuit. Regardless of the merit of their case or the available remedy, the fact remains that a client needs assistance in solving a problem. This calls upon the student to clearly understand the client’s goals and think creatively about possible solutions. These creative problem-solving skills will serve students well in practice, as it is unlikely that every client will want to “win” at any cost.

Additionally, participation in the clinic provides students the opportunity to become more flexible and intellectually agile, applying legal reasoning skills to a variety of situations and cases. Due to the nature of the clinic’s docket and clientele, a student may be prepared to assist a client with a post-incarceration reentry issue, only to find that it is a public-benefits appeal that is truly pressing on the client’s mind. Last semester, second-year law student Jonathan Christie was prepared to file a simple tax return for his client. Instead, he discovered and ultimately reported a “community activist” who was preying upon his low-income neighbors and committing thousands of dollars worth of tax fraud. This need to respond to new and unexpected situations requires students to exercise a very different skill set than that of being prepared to be called on in class. However, it is one that more accurately reflects the adaptivity needed for legal practice.

The uniqueness of the clinical setting allows Pepperdine School of Law to train students in both the theoretical and practical aspects of law practice, while providing tangible, essential services to those in need. The Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic is one way that Pepperdine School of Law is living out its mission to prepare students for lives of purpose, service, and leadership.

Brittany Stringfellow Otey directs the Pepperdine Legal Aid and Family Law Clinics located in the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles. Utilizing law clerks and volunteer attorneys, the clinic serves more than 100 homeless and formerly homeless clients each month in the areas of family law, resolving tickets and warrants, expungements, housing, and government benefits. Professor Otey also teaches the accompanying legal aid and family law clinical courses.

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