Employer Legal Advice Clinic

When Susan Burton started a transitional housing program for women coming out of prison, she thought good intentions and integrity would be enough to ensure her agency's success.

"I didn't understand anything about human resources, personnel policies or contracts," she says. "I just thought you hire a person and pay them."

Then she connected with USC's Employer Legal Advice Clinic. Five years later, Burton's agency, A New Way of Life, has three employees, three houses, four consultants - and personnel policies that meet every legal standard and then some.

The Employer Legal Advice Clinic (ELAC) was created by Professor Noel Ragsdale to provide an opportunity for law students to work with clients in and advice-giving and counseling role. Most clinics involve litigation, but the counseling role is a very important lawyering function in many areas of practice. Initially, the clinic worked with the USC Marshall School of Business to help small businesses regenerate after the 1992 L.A. riots. Over time, the client base evolved from "mom and pop" shops to non-profit organizations serving the Los Angeles community. The clinic has now helped more than 100 Los Angeles-area non-profits navigate the complexities of employment law. The range of services provided by ELAC's non-profit clients is extensive:

  • Providing residential, vocational and day care support for pregnant unwed mothers and unwed mothers with small children;
  • Supporting recovery for homeless military vets with substance abuse problems;
  • Providing housing and social services to the mentally and dual-diagnosed individuals (those with mental illness and substance abuse problems);
  • Supporting homeless shelters in downtown L.A.;
  • Operating hotlines, shelters, and advocacy for victims of domestic violence and homeless adolescents;
  • Providing work programs for homeless adults;
  • Providing after-school educational and recreational programs for K - 12 students;
  • Providing programs for developmentally disabled children and adults;
  • Providing health care, senior programs and after school educational/tutorial programs for adolescents that have a particular focus on segments of the immigrant community, including Korean American, Chinese and Cambodian;
  • Providing services and advocacy for the deaf and hard-of-hearing;
  • Provides senior programs and support for micro-businesses in predominantly Mexican-American neighborhoods;
  • Supporting day care centers;
  • Providing advocacy on literacy issues and educational programs to help children and adults become literate.

Eight students participate in the clinic each year; each student works with two clients. All students are required to have taken Employment Law prior to enrolling in the clinic because they need to be able to address a wide range of possible questions from clients. The students help identify the scope of the representation and then handle all client meetings. This allows the student to develop the relationship with the client and understand the dynamics of the counseling process. Projects worked on by students have included the following:

  • Comprehensive reviews of employment practices/policies to make sure they are current and in compliance with all legal requirements;
  • Analyzing whether individuals performing services are properly classified as an employees or independent contractors;
  • Identifying special exemptions for religious non-profits;
  • Evaluating the legality of employee random drug testing;
  • Designing supervisor training programs on sexual harassment;
  • Advising clients about questions they may and may not ask in the application process because of anti-discrimination laws;
  • Advising clients about the proper classification of employees as exempt or not-exempt from the federal and state requirements to pay overtime;
  • Advising about the employee status of individuals who are performing services as volunteers in order to satisfy state licensing requirements for professional certificates;
  • Advising whether summer employees who work with children have to go through the same fingerprinting/criminal background check required for regular employees;
  • Reviewing job descriptions to make sure they include all essential functions for ADA compliance purposes.

"In the classroom, students see how a legal doctrine applies in a particular case, and then they explore the contours of the doctrine by changing one pivotal fact or another," Professor Ragsdale notes. "In the clinic, the students use these analytic skills to figure out how to get their clients into compliance with the law while still enabling them to meet their operational goals. This can be challenging because, unlike in the classroom where students are playing with the facts in the abstract, the client's operational needs are real."

"Hiring an attorney to write or update and Employee Handbook or answer specific employment-related legal questions is very costly," says Prof. Ragsdale. "Our non-profit clients don't have funds they can allocate to building their administrative infra-structure. Their funds are needed for the services they're providing to the community."

Susan Burton's needs were fairly basic - she needed policies to manage her growing staff and agreements to help manage her relationships with the consultants - but they were also crucial to her ability to successfully operate her agency.


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