Learning by Doing
Partnership Power: UVA Law + LAJC
By Michelle Koidin Jaffee
UVA Law alumni working at LAJC include, from left, Kate Duvall '06, Amy Walters '09, Erin Trodden '05, Kim Rolla '13, Mario Salas '14, Mary Bauer '90, and Angela Ciolfi '03.
Six days before her first court appearance representing a client, McKinley Haskin stood before two UVA Law instructors who were acting as judge and defendant.
Haskin, a 3L, referred to her notes, fumbled a bit and started over.
“My client was locked out of her house with no notice whatsoever,” Haskin said, going on to argue that under Virginia law, a landlord is required to provide written notice and go to court to obtain a judgment of possession in order to evict a tenant.
It is a rainy Thursday afternoon in October, and Haskin is not in the classroom. Rather, she is discussing her case at Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), where this academic year 36 UVA Law students are getting hands-on training under the guidance of LAJC attorneys.
The partnership between the Law School and the LAJC goes back many years and only continues to grow, yielding ever-more-robust clinical offerings: The two institutions now co-host a total of five specialty clinics in the areas of consumer law, housing, child advocacy, employment, and health law.
Students in the clinics take the lead on actual cases, determining whether to take a case, interviewing witnesses, and representing clients in court in high-stakes matters such as that of Haskin’s client, a home health-care worker and mother of two teenagers who suddenly became homeless.
“Students get real-life experience and really make a big difference in an individual’s life,” says Kim Rolla ’13, a former UVA Law Powell Fellow who joined the LAJC as a staff attorney and teaches in the housing and consumer clinics.
For the LAJC—the majority of whose attorneys are UVA Law alumni—the clinics provide the manpower to greatly increase its caseload capacity. “There are lots of cases we take that we couldn’t take without the students,” says Mary Bauer ’90, executive director of the Charlottesville LAJC.
The clinics’ cases are all real. “We never give the students assignments that are made up,” Bauer says. “They’re working on stuff we need.”
The outcomes are real, too: The Consumer Law Clinic, now in its second year, already has served 34 clients, recovering $10,845, saving two homes from foreclosure, and cleansing seven credit reports. The [Litigation and] Housing Clinic, meanwhile, spurred an effort last year by Rolla and then third-year Meryem Dede ’15 to help change public-housing eviction policies in Charlottesville, yielding a 91 percent drop in evictions from 2011 to 2014.
Clinic students develop a wide array of skills, from conducting research to drafting affidavits to making arguments.
“Recently, we filed a large, pretty important Fair Housing Act case against the city of Richmond that involved 34 plaintiffs, and the students are helping us to work on that,” Bauer adds.
Students who meet the prerequisites for the clinics attend lectures but spend the majority of their time working on cases. “There are things in the practice of law that you can only learn by doing,” says Erin Trodden ’05, managing attorney of LAJC’s Charlottesville office. “Some of these things don’t come naturally to people. How to conduct an examination or cross-examination—it’s not a natural conversation.”
Clinic students have the opportunity to practice such skills, guided by long-time attorneys in the field, including retired Arlington, Va., prosecutor Dick Trodden (Erin’s father), who volunteers in the housing clinic.
The students dive in immediately: On the first day of the yearlong, for-credit clinics, they begin assessing cases through group discussions.
“We don’t ever just send them off on their own without consulting with us,” says Brenda Castañeda ’06, legal director of LAJC’s Civil Advocacy Program. “We want them to feel supported, and we’re always here to answer questions.”
A supervising attorney always accompanies a student in court, and only students who have earned Third-Year Practice Certification may represent clients in the courtroom. Students also must inform clients that they are in school and not licensed attorneys.
“None of the clients I worked with ever expressed or showed any concern about working with a student, and the LAJC advisers really gave us a lot of control over the contact with the clients,” says Calvin Funk ’15, who participated in last year’s consumer clinic and since has joined Morrison & Foerster in Washington, D.C. “It gave us a lot of responsibility in working with the clients, which I think was very valuable for us.”
The clients, meanwhile, “are so grateful for the help they get because they’re in these hard situations where they’re really at a loss for what to do,” Funk says.
McKinley Haskin’s client is one example.
A 47-year-old home health-care worker whose hours had recently been cut back, she turned to the LAJC after her landlord changed the locks on her duplex, with all her belongings inside. She and her children had to go live with a friend. The woman acknowledged she had failed to pay rent for three months but said she never received written notice nor was taken to court to be evicted.
Haskin pursued the case and readied a tenant’s petition to present in a county General District Court.
In the days leading up to the hearing, she felt nervous, to be sure.
But getting over beginners’ jitters is just one of the many benefits of the clinic. “It allows us,” says Haskin, “to get valuable, practical experience that we can take to our jobs when we graduate.”
For the LAJC, the clinics are a means toward fulfilling its mission.
“We are methodical and committed to looking at this and saying, ‘Is this working for clients? Are we providing better services for clients?’” Bauer says. “And the answer is: Yes.
“The people in need in Charlottesville and beyond get a much higher level of service than they would in other places in the nation because of that relationship.”
LAJC and UVA Law
A look at the five clinics that are partnerships between UVA Law School and Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center:
Child Advocacy Clinic: This clinic provides representation for low-income children in cases involving the juvenile justice system, denial of legally mandated educational opportunities, immigration, foster care, mental health, and developmental disabilities law.
Taught by Angela Ciolfi ’03, legal director of JustChildren, a program of the LAJC; Amy Walters ’09, clinic supervisor with LAJC; and Kate Duvall ’06 and Mario Salas ’14, attorneys with JustChildren.
Consumer Law Clinic: Students help represent clients with debt-collection and other debt-related cases. This clinic offers students experience in drafting court documents, negotiating, and presenting arguments in court.
Taught by Angela Ciolfi; Brenda Castañeda ’06, legal director of LAJC’s Civil Advocacy Program; Kim Rolla ’13, an attorney with LAJC’s Civil Advocacy Program; and Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of LAJC’s Immigrant Advocacy Program.
Employment Law Clinic: In this clinic, students handle matters such as unpaid wage cases, unemployment compensation claims, and employment discrimination charges. This clinic refines trial advocacy skills and offers opportunities to interview clients, draft complaints and discovery requests, draft and argue motions, and conduct trials.
Taught by LAJC managing attorney Erin Trodden ’05; Mary Frances Charlton, attorney and Affordable Care Act Coordinator; and Pat Levy-Lavelle ’05, attorney with LAJC’s Civil Advocacy Program.
Health Law Clinic: This clinic handles matters such as mental health care in prisons, disability benefits claims, and access to health or rehabilitative services. Students help represent elderly and mentally ill clients in negotiations, administrative hearings, and court proceedings. Taught by Amy Walters ’09 and Mary Frances Charlton
Litigation and Housing Law Clinic: Students appear and argue in local courts as part of this clinic, which develops trial skills and teaches basic substantive housing law. This clinic handles matters such as evictions, rent escrow cases, grievance hearings, and abatement of substandard building conditions.
Taught by Brenda Castañeda, Kim Rolla, UVA lecturer Dick Trodden and recently retired LAJC attorney John Conover ’78.