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Wielding Law in the Real World

Thursday, Dec 15, 2011

Access to Justice Practicum Serves Students and Clients

by Darren Schenck

Like many law students, Cristyn Chadwick ’11 came to USC Law with the conviction that a legal education would enable her to advocate for clients and tackle real-world problems.

Natalie Quan '11 and Cristyn Chadwick '11

And like many law students, Chadwick spent the better part of two years reading cases and studying all facets of the law – Evidence, Contracts, Torts, you name it. But as valuable as even the most practical of her classes were, they remained arm’s-length from the experience of actually practicing law.

So as a 2L, she signed up for Prof. Clare Pastore’s Access to Justice Practicum.

“I think when you’re taking classes, it’s easy to get lost in the academia of it all,” Chadwick says. “You’re so homed in on what the law is, in the objective sense. In the practicum, you need to get the law right, but the focus is on the client and presenting as strong a case as you can.”

Pastore, a highly regarded public interest attorney and four-time Southern California “Super Lawyer,” established the practicum in 2008 to teach future attorneys how to advocate for clients on impact litigation and advocacy projects in the real world. She works closely with each team of students, who are assigned to one case for the entire semester.

“I view the students as junior colleagues,” Pastore says. “They do extensive research and writing and draft all the pleadings, and I give them lots of feedback. They also get to experience what it’s like to be a member of a larger team, which is an important part of being an attorney.”

Prof. Clare Pastore

Pastore and the students partner with public interest agencies on cases that will provide rich learning opportunities for students and offer desperately needed legal assistance to deserving clients while having a wider impact on an area of law. Since the Practicum began in 2008, they have partnered with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Public Counsel, the Wage Justice Center, the Disability Rights Legal Center, the Alliance for Children’s Rights, and the Coalition of Low-Wage Immigrant Workers’ Advocates.

Last year, Chadwick and classmate Natalie Quan ’11 worked on a case, Gofas v California Department of Social Services, in which a grandmother sought restoration of foster care benefits that had been improperly denied to one of the three grandchildren in her care. As allowed by state law, the not-for-profit Alliance for Children’s Rights had requested a rehearing, but the state denied it on budgetary grounds.

Alliance Legal Director Laura Streimer reached out to Pastore for help seeking back benefits for the grandmother as well as the resumption of administrative rehearings state-wide.

“The partnership was somewhat unique because, in litigated matters, the Alliance typically works with large law firms, not schools,” Streimer says. “We were excited to have an opportunity to co-counsel with Clare, and to have the support of the outstanding students whom she would supervise.”

Chadwick and Quan delved into the case, researching not just the law but also public policy and elements of the foster care system. They say their goal was to present the most persuasive case possible.

“We wrote the complaint that was filed with the court,” Quan says. “It was a challenge and a privilege to write something that would go before a judge rather than just a professor.”

Both Chadwick and Quan say that working on the case helped them to learn more not only about particular statutes but also the “bigger-picture” elements involved in making a compelling case.

“It’s a shame there aren’t more classes like this, because when you practice in real life, it isn’t about finding the law but all in how you present it,” Chadwick says. “You need to write in a way that judges will want to read it. We learned that you need to know who your audience is.”

In the end, the hard work paid off: the government settled the case, restoring the foster child’s benefits and resuming administrative rehearings. Because the latter outcome vindicated a public right, the court awarded attorney’s fees, of which USC Law’s share was $32,000.

The experience was invaluable for Chadwick and Quan, both of whom recently were sworn into the bar. In January, Chadwick will begin working in the Commercial Litigation practice group at Reed Smith, LLP in downtown Los Angeles. Quan is working for a small plaintiff’s-side firm in Orange County, and aspires eventually to work as a federal prosecutor combating human trafficking.

“One of the things I like about the practicum is that it draws students who primarily want practical experience to help them in a private sector career as well as those who see themselves working full time in nonprofit advocacy,” says Pastore. “The public interest students make some important contacts in the nonprofit community, and the students who go on to work in the private sector get an opportunity to see how their pro bono work can help address really important issues for very needy clients.”

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