Campus & Community

HLS’s legal eagles fly for local community

7 min read

There’s nothing more “real life” than this: a notice to appear in court for nonpayment of rent. It’s an eviction notice, in effect, and there’s not much time to act on it.

Frantz Marcelin is shaking as he holds the letter. He could have paid the rent, he explains, but he is waiting for his landlord to complete some long-promised repairs. He can’t move, he says, because he can’t afford to live anywhere else. Now he needs a good lawyer, and one who won’t charge more than he can pay.

Jeanne Charn directs the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center, which, with the help of Law School students, provides free legal service to those who can’t afford it.

Scenarios such as this one play out every day at the Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (HLS) in Jamaica Plain. The legal laboratory is filled with eager HLS students committed to putting their classroom knowledge to work by performing valuable public service for residents in the local community.

Some 20 years after its founding, the center receives an average of 60 requests for assistance every week, and with a professional staff of about two dozen clinical instructors, completes a thousand matters each year. Students work on a wide array of cases dealing with family disputes, real estate law, nonprofit organizations, small businesses, housing law, immigration services, and individual rights for low- and moderate-income residents. Many clients are not charged a fee. Others pay on a sliding scale.

“It’s a medium-sized law firm,” says Jeanne Charn, director of the Legal Services Center and lecturer of law at HLS.

Charn and her late husband, former Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law Gary Bellow HLS ’60, led efforts to establish a community-based legal clinic at HLS in the mid-1970s. “We both came out of legal services,” she says, “and we were both interested in what we saw as an emerging need.

“There are two things we wanted to accomplish: one was to train law students, and the other was to deliver high-quality legal assistance.”

After receiving the support of the faculty and former HLS Dean Albert M. Sacks, and securing $1 million per year in federal funding, the Legal Services Institute (as it was then called) opened its doors in a modest two-story duplex on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain in 1979. The federal government provided most of the funding. Greater Boston Legal Services provided the clients, and HLS and Northeastern University provided the student lawyers.

“We did all the things a legal aid office would do, but they gave us considerable latitude in terms of eligible clients, case selection, and staffing – so we were an experimental law office from the point of view of legal services, legal services delivery, and clinical education,” Charn explains. “It was an extremely controversial [concept] among legal services, but it was not controversial at the Law School. One would have predicted exactly the opposite.”

Despite some major federal budget cutbacks during the Reagan administration, the institute survived. Then, in the early 1990s, the Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr stepped forward with a $2 million contribution to fund the renovation of an old four-story brick warehouse near the Stony Brook subway station. The newly named Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center opened its doors in 1993.

“I was determined that the gift not just be the $2 million we gave for ‘bricks and mortar,’” said John Hamilton HLS ’60, senior partner in Hale and Dorr. “Gary [Bellow] and I discussed how it might provide the basis for a three-way undertaking by a legal services center, a law school, and a law firm. We foresaw the sharing of best practices and providing an opportunity on a continuing basis for lawyers at the firm to cooperate with the staff in the training and supervision of the students and the delivery of pro bono legal services.”

Today, the center operates with an annual operating budget of $1.8 million – funded completely by the Law School. “There is no school in the country that spends what we do to secure high-quality supervision,” Charn says. “We have basically created the equivalent of a teaching hospital.”

Much like the teaching hospital model, student lawyers work side by side with professionals – something they could not do in the classroom. “The biggest selling point about the program is the clinical instructor staff,” says Cheryl Burg Rusk, administrative director of clinical programs at HLS. “Students are supervised by practitioners who are also trained to guide students from the very early learning stages.

“The students want to learn lawyering skills. They want to interview clients, and they want to get into a practice setting,” Rusk continues. “They want to get that experience before they graduate.”

It can be trial by fire for some students, Rusk admits. “Many have no idea what to expect when they go into a setting like this,” Rusk says. “They are very good students, but they’ve never been in a situation where they have to deal with clients, where they have to solve a problem because somebody needs help.”

Rachel Anderson HLS ’02 is helping nonprofit organizations in the center’s Community Enterprise Project. She’s convinced the experience has enriched her Law School career while also helping guide her career track. “I’m very interested in doing public interest work,” she explains, “and this seems like a unique program because it’s working with some of the economic issues that can actually advance communities that are impoverished.”

Greg Roberts HLS ’01 is spending his second semester working in the center’s Housing Law and Litigation unit. “I find that law school is a very academic exercise, and … I wanted to gain more practical experience,” he says. “During my first semester, I actually argued some motions in court, and had to deal with clients and opposing counsel. … [The clinical program] entails more work than a class with comparable credits, but you get so much more out of it.”

The students must juggle their clinical obligations with their other schoolwork, but Mike Ginsberg HLS ’02, for one, doesn’t seem to mind. “The clinic here really gives you the opportunity to actually go through what litigation is like, so you really get a feel for what goes into a trial,” he says. “I really feel like I have a much better understanding of what it’s like to be a practicing lawyer than before I got here. That was the goal, so I’m glad I did it.”

Such sentiment is nearly unanimous, according to Rusk. “The feedback we get from students is [that the clinic] ‘is the best thing I did in law school. It made everything come together, and brought meaning to what I’ve been doing in class.’”

Charn is hopeful other law schools will duplicate HLS’s efforts to provide students with more clinical experience. “No matter where you go to practice law, interviewing any client is useful if you’ve never interviewed one, and introducing any motion is good if you’ve never seen the inside of a courtroom,” she says. “So I think it’s very appealing to our students, and I think it’s right that law schools take on some of the responsibility for training students to practice – not just think – like lawyers.”