“Reaching out to others is how you find out who you really are,” said Daniel Nagin, vice dean of experiential and clinical education and faculty director of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (HLS). He was quoting the late HLS Professor Gary Bellow, LL.B. ’60, who in 1979 co-founded the Jamaica Plain center with his wife, senior lecturer in law Jeanne Charn, J.D. ’70. On April 5, Nagin and others celebrated the center’s 40th anniversary, and the quote strikes at the heart of the center’s mission of improving the legal profession through experiential learning while working with community organizations to enact real and lasting change.
Transformational change may be possible only through such a cooperative effort, said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey ’92. Giving the keynote address at the celebration, she pointed out that not only have more than 40,000 people used the center’s services over the years — people “who were shown an opportunity to have a life-changing experience” — but also approximately 4,500 students have worked there. “Students who have learned to see life, experience life, through the circumstances of another,” she said.
The Legal Services Center — or, as Bellow has described it in the past, the “teaching law office” — is similar to the teaching hospital model used in medical schools across the country, including at Harvard, and it has helped change the lives of thousands of clients in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and other neighborhoods in Boston and beyond. Its programs address issues related to housing, domestic violence, predatory lending, and other community needs. The center offers clinics that specialize in areas including federal taxes, estate planning, and accessing veterans’ benefits. Its reach is broad and its results can often be life-changing.
During the 2017–18 academic year, HLS students provided pro bono legal assistance to more than 4,000 clients in Massachusetts, including more than 2,300 residents in the Boston area. The graduating class of 2018 contributed 376,532 hours of pro bono legal assistance, an average of 637 hours per student over their three years at the Law School. This is part of the effort to, in the words of HLS Dean John F. Manning, “make sure we’re always on the cutting edge of clinical education.”
The day’s events showed how this interaction can work. In the first of a series of roundtable discussions on how to narrow the gap between rich and poor and achieve justice for the most vulnerable, “#Connect: A Law Student and Client Discuss Collaboration” featured 2L student D Dangaran and a client recalling how they had worked together, under the guidance of Stephanie Davidson, J.D. ’13, a clinical instructor in the domestic violence and family law clinic. The client had been in the process of freeing herself from an abusive relationship when she met Dangaran, and had already obtained a temporary restraining order against her husband that allowed her and her children to stay in the family home. When Dangaran met her, the order was once again up for review — and her husband had already been arrested for violating it.
“My second week in the clinic and it was the biggest trial of the clinic,” recalled Dangaran. But the client was calm, assured by the student’s focus. “[Dangaran] already knew my case as if they’d been with us the entire time,” she said. “I was very comfortable, and it took a lot of my nerves away.”