Civil Advocacy Clinic Provides Evening Program Students the Opportunity to Have their Day in Court
Dec. 5, 2017
American University Washington College of Law’s nationally recognized Clinical Program offers 10 in-house clinics throughout the year. One clinic in particular, devoted to civil advocacy, is held in the evening to accommodate part-time students, most of whom work full-time.
“One important characteristic that distinguishes the clinics at AUWCL is that we give students primary responsibility, under the supervision of full-time faculty, for representing their real clients on real cases,” explains Professor Richard Ugelow, who teaches the evening clinic. Before joining the AUWCL faculty, he was a senior trial attorney and deputy section chief in the Employment Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Moving beyond the classroom to the courtroom.
“There’s nothing theoretical here,” continues Ugelow. “Our cases are trial by fire. The students, who are certified as student attorneys in D.C and Maryland, do all the work—the investigation, counseling the client, and trying the case in court. And they perform admirably. I believe our students give the clients better representation than they would get from most attorneys.”
The students work in pairs, so if one has a timing issue with work or family obligations, the other has it covered. The cases, heavily weighted toward family law cases involving divorce and child custody, are referred to Ugelow by the Montgomery County Bar Foundation and nonprofit organizations like the Catholic Charities and Legal Counsel for the Elderly. The clients are poor and can’t afford representation. Many of the students come into the clinic with a social justice background, and the experience opens their eyes to the need for attorney representation for the disadvantaged.
Looking back on an exceptional experience.
One of the cases this semester, a divorce case involving custody and overseas property rights, was tried by the student team of Brittany Donnellan, a 3L who is currently a legislative correspondent for Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Mohammed Loraoui, a 4L who works in the Commercial Law Development Program at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Both students were effusive in their praise for the clinic experience.
“This has been, by far, one of the best things I’ve done at AUWCL,” says Donnellan. “A lot of what you learn in law school is abstract and theoretical. This class helped me gain real-life experience—and gave me the confidence to know I have what it takes to try a case in court. Professor Ugelow guided us and showed confidence in our abilities. At times, he trusted us more than we trusted ourselves.”
The case was particularly challenging because the client spoke very little English. Loraoui, who is from North Africa, was able to communicate with her in French, his native language. Although the final details of the case are still pending, the student team was able to secure a successful outcome for their client.
Winning the case is just part of the reward.
“Unlike so many experiences in law school, this one is real,” adds Loraoui. “You get the chance to make a true impact on people’s lives. My success trying the case helped me overcome my own self-doubt entering a real courtroom for the first time. As a law student I had never been to court before, while the opposing counsel had been practicing law for decades.”
“Even though we were student attorneys, everyone in the courtroom—especially the judge—treated us with the utmost respect. That really impressed me. And the best part of all is that we earned the gratitude of our client, who was so appreciative of our efforts,” says Loraoui.
“We recommend this class wholeheartedly, to part-time and full-time students alike,” the two agree. “The skills and confidence you acquire will help you throughout your law career.”
“A lot of what you learn in law school is abstract and theoretical. This class helped me gain real-life experience—and gave me the confidence to know I have what it takes to try a case in court."3L Brittany Donnellan