Student Attorneys in the General Practice Clinic Secure Victory in Court

Brenda Gonzalez (3L) and Priya Lamba (3L) have begun their last semester at American University Washington College of Law.

Although they have started to think about graduation, the bar exam, and their future careers, both women continue to reflect on a shared experience from last semester.

(Photo L to R: Brenda Gonzalez & Priya Lamba)

Recently Gonzalez and Lamba, aided by the work of Dean’s Fellows and staff members in the law school’s General Practice Clinic, secured an outstanding victory in Montgomery County Circuit Court as student attorneys representing three exploited workers.

Their clients, three manual laborers, alleged their former employer failed to pay them the minimum wage and overtime compensation in violation of the Maryland Wage and Hour Law and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Specifically, the clients claimed they were only paid $5.50 per hour, and that despite regularly working 10 or more hours per day, 6 days a week, they never received 1.5 times their hourly rate for hours worked beyond 40 each week. In response, the defendants claimed they had never employed the workers.

The General Practice Clinic

Gonzalez and Lamba were the 4th team of student attorneys to inherit the case, which has been ongoing since the spring of 2010. Prior teams handled the countless tasks that precede trial, including drafting the complaint, issuing and responding to discovery request, taking and defending depositions, and motion practice.

“Clients generally come directly to the clinic or they often come if they’ve been referred by organizations,” explained Llezlie Green Coleman, practitioner-in-residence in the General Practice Clinic, and supervisor of the case. Richard Ugelow also helped supervise the case.

Students receive seven credit hours for clinic work, but must balance the demands of clinic seminar, client representation, and their other courses that semester.

According to Coleman, part of the clinic experience involves learning what it is like to deal with the “weight and responsibility” of being a practicing attorney representing clients.

With their case, Gonzalez and Lamba were already in court for the pre-trial hearing the second week of the fall semester.

“It became pretty real the moment we met our clients and realized that these were three actual people who had been very much exploited,” said Gonzalez. “At that point we understood that this isn’t like a case you prepare for class. We had three very real faces in front of us the entire semester. The entire conclusion for the case was resting on us.”

Preparation for the trial included reviewing and learning the case file, reading and re-reading depositions, drafting and editing questions for direct examinations, adverse direct examinations, and cross examinations, working on opening and closing statements, prepping the clients for trial, and participating in moot sessions with professors.  Students also met regularly – often multiple times per week – with their supervisor to discuss their trial strategy and vet the various decisions they made along the way.

“We had a week where we had six to 10 hour meetings back-to-back with clients, professors, or with the Dean’s Fellows just getting things together,” explained Lamba. “We were constantly editing to find our weaknesses, and to anticipate what the defense’s arguments were going to be and what they were planning to say at trial.”

According to Gonzalez, much of the semester was also spent honing their case theory. They were also very focused on bringing out the stories of each client.

“We knew the clients’ story so well, but we wanted to make sure their story would translate to the judge,” she said. “Although there were a lot of overlapping features that were common to all three of the client’s stories, we also wanted the judge to realize that they were three separate and distinct plaintiffs and three separate, egregious incidents.”

“I was with them in the courtroom the entire time, and they were very impressive.”

Although the team was thoroughly prepared and extremely familiar with the record, the student attorneys were nervous at trial.

“For me a huge concern was that our opposing counsel was a very seasoned litigator,” said Gonzalez. “I was nervous facing someone who probably felt very comfortable in the courtroom and had won prior cases.”

After three days of trial (which included oral argument on five motions, an opening statement, examination of five witnesses, cross-examination of five witnesses, handling many exhibits, responding to a motion for judgment at the conclusion of plaintiffs’ case, and closing argument), Judge Joseph Quirk of the Montgomery County Circuit Court found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them $97,000 -- their trebled lost wages.

“We were happy with the outcome.” Lamba said. “It was a very gratifying experience. The energy and enthusiasm of our clients as witnesses played into our success.”

“I was with them in the courtroom the entire time, and they were very impressive,” said Coleman. “I think it speaks to their individual strength as well as the strength of Washington College of Law students and their capacities and capabilities. A lot of students come in and don’t think they are capable of this. Clinic in general is an opportunity to realize strengths, weaknesses, and what students are capable of.”

“Life was suspended, but we were living this case.”

The General Practice Clinic recently learned that the case has been appealed.

Gonzalez and Lamba, are no longer clinic students but would like to be involved with preparing for the appeal. However, they recognize that this semester’s students will bring a new perspective to the case.

“As much work as we put into it, I think there comes a time when you have to move on from the case,” Gonzalez said. “New students are going to see things we didn’t see, they’re going to argue things differently than we did which is always a benefit to these cases.”

“It was a lot of work with a lot of long hours and long weeks where life was suspended, but we were living this case. It was so worth it at the end. We would have felt that way regardless of the outcome.”