Making Legal Aid Part of the Law Curriculum at UVa

May 30, 2017

We often see the struggles for civil rights and racial justice as among the most noble of the legal profession. But the University of Virginia’s Law School recently realized it didn’t have any hands-on practical ways for students to get involved. Until now. WMRA’s Jordy Yager has the story.

Brittney Williams has two words for students considering next year’s pro bono law clinic…

BRITTNEY WILLIAMS: Do it. It’s amazing, I mean it.

Twenty-three-year old Williams was one of 11 students selected for UVa’s very first law clinic focused entirely on civil rights litigation.

WILLIAMS: I know, me personally, something that frustrates me about law school is the exams don’t necessarily reflect the type of work that you’ll do—whatever type of job you decide to do, in whatever capacity after law school.

And that’s exactly where clinics like this come in. In addition to their regular class load, students spent five to eight hours a week working on real cases with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. Angela Ciolfi is Legal Aid’s director of litigation and advocacy.

ANGELA CIOLFI: We really wanted to teach the students about the role of lawyers and lawyering for change, and the role of race and poverty in American life, and we thought that having a civil rights litigation clinic would be the best way to do that.

The clinic was funded with an $80,000 grant from the Jessie Ball duPont fund, and coincided with Legal Aid’s new Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program, which launched earlier this year. 

In the clinic, each student was assigned to an active Legal Aid case. For Williams, it was a case challenging the constitutionality of a little known, centuries-old, state statute nicknamed the ‘habitual drunkard’ law.

WILLIAMS: I had no idea.

And most people don’t. In essence, the statute allows law enforcement to label people ‘habitual drunkards’ if they’re constantly getting arrested for alcohol-related offenses. That label then makes it easier to jail them for future alcohol-related offenses. Across Virginia, hundreds of homeless alcoholics are affected. 

WILLIAMS: Again, it’s one of those things where doing work like this makes you sit back and say, wow, how blessed I am, but not only I’m blessed, but I have a position to kind of try to make a change or at least help towards that change, in cases like this, so I think that was a big deal, but yeah I had no idea, and a lot of the other cases that my peers were working on, no idea, (laugh) at all.

One of those peers is 22-year old Megan Keenan. Also in her second year at law school, Keenan worked on Legal Aid’s class-action suit Stinnie v. Holcomb. The case is aimed at halting a longtime practice in Virginia that allows courts and the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend a person’s driver’s license if he or she doesn’t pay court fines. Keenan said she’d worked on a criminal case as an intern before…

MEGAN KEENAN: But working through a civil case like this, even at the complaint level, where you’re just collecting facts about the plaintiffs and their situation was incredible for me to really see just the real human sides of these issues, especially here in Charlottesville, because at the Law School we don’t really get into the community nearly enough, so it was great to sort of get to see a piece of what life is really like here.

That was the goal, said Mario Salas, a Legal Aid attorney who helped oversee the clinic. Salas said that in addition to their casework, students and attorneys met as a group every other week to share insights and tackle broader issues at play.

MARIO SALAS: We really try to focus in a lot of these discussions to think about the bigger picture, strategy. What do you do when a client comes into your office with a problem? You can take it this way, this way, there are all different types of tools in our tool box, and as advocates, litigation is just one of those tools. And so we had discussions like that.

The group let me sit in on one of those discussions, their last one in fact. Ciolfi asked the class…

CIOLFI: Did you learn anything surprising about the role of race and poverty in American life or in Virginia?

Twenty-five-year old Emily Reeder said she recently wrote a paper for another class on the criminalization of poverty. She dug into Virginia’s Constitutional Convention from the early 20th century, where some our current legal code has its roots. Reeder was shocked. 

EMILY REEDER: And on their face they look like racially neutral, but literally the drafters of these things would say, ‘We are doing this to keep black people either disenfranchised or remove them from society.’ And I think if most people knew that, regardless of your affiliation or your place in life, most people would object to still abiding by constitutional provisions or statutes that are rooted in racism.

The head of Legal Aid’s Civil Rights and Racial Justice program, Adeola Ogunkeyede couldn’t agree more.

ADEOLA OGUNKEYEDE: I don’t know that people know how long or deep or far—how much the criminal justice system reaches into people’s lives. The punishment may be what is specifically dictated by the court at the time, but there are other punishments and enmeshed penalties that affect the accused and the convicted long after cases are quote-unquote over.

And it’s those effects, says Ogunkeyede, that disproportionately impact African-Americans throughout the country, but specifically in Virginia, where race is tightly intertwined with economic status. It’s the ‘how’ that was at the heart of this year’s pro bono law clinic, she said.

And the clinic truly was pro bono. Students didn’t get any academic credit for it. But Kimberly Emery says the clinic will continue next year, and with a successful trial run, credit is bound to come. Emery is the law school’s assistant dean for Pro Bono and Public Interest.

KIMBERLY EMERY: Our hope is that—this is an 18-month grant cycle, so it will be up next May, and at that point we’re hoping this will fall into the curriculum as an academic credit granting Civil Rights Clinic.