Spotlight on Louisville Law Clinic

In the midst of a court fight with his landlord over an eviction notice, Tom Rankin asked
Jefferson District Court Judge Donald Armstrong if he needed a lawyer.

“It wouldn't hurt,” the judge responded, and on heir way out of the courtroom, Rankin was
approached by a representative of Legal Aid, which provides free legal help to people of
limited income, who said she could refer them to an attorney.

Well, he wasn't actually an “attorney,” officially speaking.

The Rankins were referred to the University of Louisville Law Clinic, where they met with Blake Nolan, a third-year law student, one of eight allowed to practice law last semester at the clinic on Muhammad Ali Boulevard, gaining experience while reaching out to an underserved population.

Nolan had never handled an eviction case, “But he was good,” Rankin said, and worked out an agreement with the landlord that led to the case being dismissed.

“He knew what he was doing,” Rankin said. “I was really impressed with the way he handled everything. … I really don't think I could have done it without him.”

Nolan was participating in a program launched in July 2009 that so far has allowed 25 U of L law students to help nearly 300 clients at no charge in Jefferson County Family and District courts — including 187 victims of domestic violence and their children seeking protective orders.

And the clinic is growing, with a record 15 students enrolled for the semester that began this month.

The clinic is primarily funded by gifts to the university and if the students take the clinic as a course, it is part of their law school tuition and fees. They must have at least 60 credit hours to sign up for the clinic, and receive four credits for their participation. They are able to work as practicing student attorneys through a limited license granted by the Kentucky Supreme Court, and only with supervision. In October, the Center for Women and Families, the Legal Aid Society and Law Clinic received a combined $438,000 in grant money to represent victims of domestic violence, allowing, in part, the funding of four more student attorneys and an additional part-time attorney to supervise them.

Shelley Santry, a U of L law professor and former prosecutor who heads the clinic, said the student attorneys funded by the new grant –— the clinic's share is $110,000 — will focus on custody cases for unmarried, low-income victims of domestic violence.

Many of those victims are unable to afford an attorney, and “No one does those kind of cases pro bono now,” she said. “Custody disputes are difficult, time consuming and often emotional.”

Santry said many schools across the country have long had similar clinics, which allow students who have had two years of learning through courses to “apply what they have learned to real people with real problems.”

“Our nurses,doctors and teachers all practice before they go into the real world,” she said. “Our lawyers don't. They graduate and they're like, ‘Where's the courthouse?' You just can't beat learning by doing in my opinion.”

Nolan, who has handled about 10 cases and will be back this semester at the clinic, agreed. “There's nothing better than getting some real world experience in a courtroom and in front of a judge,” he said.

It's also nice to be able to help people in need, said Julie Purcell, a 25-year-old rdthird-year student from Louisville who in December helped an elderly woman who was being evicted because the rent money she had given to a family member never made it to her landlord.

“It's just awesome,” said Purcell, who has handled about 20 cases, and was able to have the case dismissed, got Adult Protective Services involved and saw the woman moved into new housing.“We're able to learn so much, but at the same time provide a service to people that otherwise wouldn't get it.”

Chief Family Court Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald said she regularly sees the student attorneys in her courtroom, usually in domestic-violence cases, and has found them to be well-prepared, asking good questions and “doing an excellent job” in often difficult cases.

“They've really stepped up to the plate to do a much needed service,” she said.

And alumni of the program are turning up as prosecutors and public defenders, and several have opened their own firms.

“Most people will graduate without ever having been in a real courtroom in front of a judge,” said Heend Sheth, who graduated in May and is a prosecutor with the Jefferson County Attorney's Office. “… And at the end of the day, you are helping people. You really do get to see your skills manifest in someone else's changed circumstances.”

Reporter Jason Riley can be reached at (502) 584-2197.

Reprinted with permission.

Source: "Louisville law students gain experience, help underserved through free clinic", by Jason Riley (Courier-Journal, January 23, 2011)