Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Just Do It: The importance of training law students in public advocacy

By Professor Laurie Levenson

This op-ed was originally published by the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Last month, The New York Times published an editorial calling on law schools to help fill the "justice gap" by training all law students in public advocacy. See N.Y. Times, "Addressing the Justice Gap" (Aug. 23). The "justice gap" represents America's failure to provide meaningful access to justice for low-income litigants. According to a report by the Carnegie Foundation, four-fifths of low-income people in the United States have little way to obtain the representation they need in order to succeed in our justice system. These litigants cannot afford a lawyer; without a lawyer, they stand little chance to win their cases.

While the Sixth Amendment provides indigent defendants in criminal cases with the right to appointed counsel (Gideon v. Wainright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963); Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 58 (1938)), there is no such right in civil cases. Just this term, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Turner v. Rogers, 131 S.Ct. 2507 (2011), that even when a civil litigant faces incarceration for civil contempt, there is still no automatic right to counsel. So long as there are adequate procedures to govern the proceedings, civil litigants must provide for themselves.

The net result is that many people in society, often the most vulnerable among us, are unrepresented in the civil justice system. Among these individuals are immigrants, prisoners and those whose civil rights have been violated.

At the same time, there is a desperate need to provide practical education to law students to prepare them for the "real world" experiences they will face after graduating. See William M. Sullivan, "Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law" (Jossey-Bass 2007). After more than 25 years of teaching, it has become abundantly clear to me that there is only so much that a student can learn from a book. To become a "real" lawyer - a lawyer who is prepared to interact with and fight for a client's interests - a student must be given the practical experience in law school of working on real cases. We need to teach our students to be "lawyers," not just students of the law.

It is for this reason that Loyola Law School, Los Angeles is adding to its already extensive roster of clinical programs a new advocacy center whose mission is to provide access to justice for the most vulnerable among us. This center will focus on individuals from segments of society who have traditionally been under-represented due to status, deficits in education or income, or other barriers that hinder access to the legal system. Our goal is to help fill the "justice gap" and to graduate compassionate, rigorous attorneys who are committed to resolving legal problems effectively, responsibly and ethically.

This Wednesday, at 1:15 p.m., Loyola Law School will proudly dedicate its new Alarcón Advocacy Center, named in honor of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Arthur L. Alarcón. At an event open to the community, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy will provide the keynote address and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will recognize the new center's contribution toward helping to meet the legal challenges of our community.

In particular, the Alarcón Advocacy Center will host Loyola's Project for the Innocent, a clinic that provides representation for inmates who claim they have been wrongfully convicted. Focusing on cases that do not involve DNA, students must interact with clients in the most challenging of circumstances, conduct intensive investigations, master the labyrinth of statutes and cases forming the law of habeas corpus, and appear in court on behalf of these clients. The students' work serves two important purposes: It provides representation for inmates who have neither the background nor resources to represent themselves in these cases, and it helps the courts by improving the pleadings that the court must review when deciding habeas cases.

The center also has a Capital Habeas Litigation Clinic in which students, working under the supervision of the Federal Public Defender's Office, assist in the habeas representation of inmates on California's death row. San Quentin bears little resemblance to the Ivory Tower, and students immediately appreciate that the challenges of being a lawyer have little to do with memorizing legal principles from a book.

The Alarcón Advocacy Center will also host a clinic to allow students, under the supervision of local counsel, to represent pro se litigants before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the California Court of Appeal. The "justice gap" is not just a gap in representation before the trial courts. There is also a dearth of lawyers to handle low-income cases as they wind their way through the appellate courts.

Finally, the Alarcón Advocacy Center provides a home for a Civil Rights Clinic focusing on prisoner civil rights litigation and an Immigration Clinic providing assistance for clients who seek relief from removal and deportation. Both of these clinics are particularly important in Southern California, where our prisons are overflowing and one third of our population is foreign-born.

The Carnegie Report is right. There is much to do. And students are eager to do it. Challenging our students to step into the world of public advocacy is a step toward closing the "justice gap." Especially at this time in American history, when so many have been devastated by the economic downturn, the opportunity to launch students into the world of public service has become a moral and educational imperative.

We are fortunate that a wonderful leader in our legal community, Judge Alarcón, has provided the inspiration and guidance to create this center. With the support of the legal community, we can close the shameful gap despite the tremendous cutbacks in the funding of legal aid programs. As our students would say: "Just Do It!"

No comments: