Each year, as many as 200 UB law students take part in clinical programs and internships to get real-life experience in interviewing, counseling, case planning and presenting arguments before a judge. University of Baltimore School of Law clinics — covering the areas of criminal practice, tax law, disability law, community development, appellate, civil and family law — not only teach students valuable skills, but also provide free legal help to people in the community who couldn't afford it otherwise.
-- Kate Hummel, former Rule 16 Student Attorney in Family Law Clinic
Every Wednesday morning at 9:45 a.m. last semester, the three of us walked into a room and sat down at a table with our supervising attorneys, Leigh Goodmark and Margaret Johnson. And every Wednesday morning at about 11:15 a.m., the three of us walked out of that room with a little more knowledge of substantive and procedural laws, a little more of the confidence necessary to be effective lawyers, and a little more fondness for our clients, our work, our profession, our supervising attorneys, and each other. For Dave Nowak, Nicole Harvey Ryan, and me—as Family Law Clinic II students during the Fall 2007 semester—this was the weekly ritual we called “team meeting.”
As a group, we worked through the issues presented in our cases each week by brainstorming, thinking creatively, offering possible solutions, reviewing the law, considering options, listening to each other, and asking and responding to questions posed among group members. Though our supervisors guided us by asking the right questions and helping us to consider certain ideas, the process itself and the solutions it yielded ultimately belonged to us. And while appropriate preparation for these meetings required substantial individual work and research, as well as one-on-one time spent between each student and that student's supervisor, team meetings fostered an unbelievable number of breakthroughs. Many times the breakthroughs involved finally grasping and effectively applying the law, the rules of procedure, or the rules of evidence. The most valuable breakthroughs, however, involved learning to appreciate, understand, work with, and advocate for our clients as real people with real lives and real problems.
Outside the context of team meetings, the three of us have accomplished a great deal. Collectively, Dave, Nicole, and I have successfully prepared for and represented clients in protective order, divorce, child access, and contempt hearings; mooted countless hearings and trials; drafted and filed motions which were subsequently granted; drafted an appellate brief; investigated ways to collect child support owed to clients' young children; completed discovery requests; drafted and filed pleadings; represented a father in a two-day divorce and custody trial; successfully introduced evidence during trial; negotiated with opposing counsel to reach agreements; represented a client during mediation; advocated for the victim in a criminal domestic violence proceeding by aiding the state's attorney's trial preparation; and represented a loving mother of six by arguing in front of the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland. Like the breakthroughs made in team meetings, however, the accomplishments that the three of us consider to be most substantial are those involved with getting to know, understanding, and learning from our clients.
Nicole reflects on representing two separate clients with similar legal situations but completely different approaches to dealing with their problems and writes, “I discovered how the choices that they made affected the outcomes of their cases and how they were treated by attorneys, judges, court personnel, and opposing parties. They sometimes made decisions differently than I would have, but I had to learn that at the end of the day, representing them is just an interesting job for me, but that the decisions they made affected their whole lives.” Of the client she represented in final protective order hearing who became very angry and uncontrollable during the hearing, Nicole says “She taught me how important it is to spend as much time as possible with a client preparing them for court and how the clients and facts themselves often determine outcomes in family law, rather than precedent. But most importantly, she taught me that no matter how hard I tried to help her and no matter what I wanted her to say, it was her life and that she had to take responsibility for it herself.”
In contrast, Nicole writes of a client she represented in a child custody and child support matter: “She has taken complete ownership of her case and it has benefited her in many ways at the various custody, visitation, and child support hearings. She is a wonderful mother and a strong young woman and she fights for what she wants. Her dedication to her daughter and to her case again showed me how much the client determines outcomes in family law. While this client is still waiting for a positive outcome from the court system, I know that she will not give up until she gets it.”
Dave writes of his experiences representing clients, “Interacting with clients is the most rewarding aspect of being a student attorney. On the highway of life, I am a brief exit ramp. They come to me for help, let me into their lives and depend on me to help them solve their legal issues. Family Law is about people. Nothing brought home the gravity of the work the Family Law Clinic does more than actually meeting the young child at the center of a custody dispute. He was the kind of child that made me smile automatically. He was bright, happy, smiling and interested in everything around him. My job as a student attorney came into sharp focus. This child is what this case is about. Although I've read endless case law about custody disputes, learned the ins-and-outs of evidence and procedure, and sat through class after class, none of that compares to the realization that I must give 100% to serve this family, to better their lives, to ensure their rights are protected and to make sure all their needs are met.”
For me, a divorce client I represented who had been very seriously abused by her husband for years taught me about how to manage the emotional aspects of practicing family law. Throughout the two semesters I worked on this client's case, I often struggled with the emotional weight of her personal struggles and the complexity of her various legal issues. It was my client, however, who showed me that if she could keep fighting after all she had been through, that I could fight with her. I learned through her case that it is okay to be a lawyer with feelings, as long as those feelings are dealt with in an appropriate way at the appropriate time. Another client taught me that having pre-conceived notions about how a client should act, especially in a case involving domestic violence, can seriously detriment a lawyer's ability to advocate for that person. And my most recent client taught me that although our clients may not be perfect and although they may have made mistakes in the past, they can be very good people and parents and very deserving of legal representation.
The combination of our supervising attorneys' guidance with the structure of the Clinic and the invaluable experience of working with actual clients has made the Clinic an exciting and rewarding experience. There is simply nothing else in law school that has prepared us for the successful careers we will have as lawyers like the Clinic.
— Kate Hummel