It was the long Thanksgiving weekend of 2006, and three Suffolk Law clinical program students and their professor were closeted in a first-floor Sargent Hall office, surrounded by stacks of case law. While classmates and coworkers relaxed at home, eating leftover turkey and catching up with family, Director of Clinical Programs Jeff Pokorak and students Nicole Noel JD '07, Nicholas McDonald JD '07, and Stephanie Zywien JD '07 worked straight through the weekend, piecing together an amicus brief for a case involving two Texas death row inmates that was due to the U.S. Supreme Court the following week. The brief argued that childhood abuse should be considered as a mitigating factor in capital sentencing; the three students were part of Pokorak's informal death penalty information group, housed in the clinical programs suite.
"This was what I'd come to law school for--to help someone who desperately needed our help," says Noel, now a public defender in Miami. "It sounds corny, but I kept thinking of our clients, sitting on death row waiting to die, counting on their lawyers--us included--to stop it."
This sort of high-stakes learning experience has been common over the 40-year history of the Suffolk Law clinical programs, which were recently ranked 20th in the country by U.S. News and World Report, tying them with UCLA and the University of Chicago. With certification under rules of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which allows students to represent clients without compensation in civil and criminal cases, Suffolk Law clinical students interview people, prepare witnesses, file motions, try cases, and face head-on the consequences of representing real-life clients.
Clinical programs first appeared in law schools in the 1960s, created in response to the social activism that marked the era as well as the view that graduating law students lacked practical skills. Clinics promised to provide students with experience practicing law under the watchful eye of faculty members while providing essential legal services to community organizations.
Suffolk Law was at the forefront of the movement when its Indigent Defendant Program appeared in the course catalog in 1968. "It's pretty clear that we stepped up to the plate early on," says Associate Dean John Deliso, who came to Suffolk Law as a student in 1969. The clinic was a natural fit for the school, given its historical mission to prepare students to enter professional life while also inspiring a commitment to community involvement and pro bono work.
Suffolk University Trustee Robert B. Crowe JD '73 enrolled in the Voluntary Defenders Clinic (renamed from the Indigent Defendant Program) when he was a Suffolk Law student and went on to run the Voluntary Prosecutors Clinic after earning his degree. He remembers that students grasped the advantages of clinical education right away. "People were realizing that you could get as much education in the courtroom as you could in the classroom," says Crowe, who is head of the government relations practice at WolfBlock Public Strategies LLC.
Kevin G. Powers JD'77, an employment attorney with the Boston firm Rodgers, Powers & Schwartz LLP, joined Professor Eric Blumenson's Defenders Clinic in his second year at Suffolk Law and went on to try several cases in Quincy District Court while still a law student--an experience he recalls as beyond price. "I signed up for the defenders clinic because I knew I wanted to be a trial attorney," Powers says. "Thirty years and hundreds of cases later, I look back and know that I was given a great foundation for beginning my career as a trial attorney."
Despite their benefits, clinics existed for a long time on the margins of academia. Prestige was historically linked to legal analysis and theory, and those who taught practical skills were sometimes derided as "toaster fixers," Pokorak recalls. At Suffolk Law, the clinics also suffered from a lack of uniformity. Many clinicians weren't faculty members, and the number of credits varied among programs.
Then, in the 1990s, clinical education nationwide received a boost when the American Bar Association released the MacCrate Report recommending that schools do a better job of preparing students to practice law. (A second report released last year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching went further, saying that law schools should give students "effective support for developing ethical and practice skills.")
In 1998, Suffolk Law received its own boost in the form of a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs, which established the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC). Run by thendirector Tony DeMarco, the center represented the first major expansion of the clinical programs and greatly increased students' opportunities to participate in a clinic. (Today, under the leadership of Managing Director Lisa Thurau-Gray, the JJC is considered a national model for representing youth in the juvenile court system.)
In 1999 Robert H. Smith came to Suffolk Law as dean with a background in clinical legal education. Right away, he recognized the potential to develop a worldclass clinical program at the school. "It was such a good fit with Suffolk's history and the educational approach of integrating theory and practice, valuing public service, the location in the heart of Boston, and the desire to improve our national reputation and visibility," says Smith, who went on to serve as dean of the law school until 2007. "The clinical programs were to me a natural opportunity to take advantage of those strengths." A committee chaired by Professor Charles Kindregan was formed, and in 2001 the school hired Pokorak to be the director of the clinical programs.
Long a believer in the educational value of clinics, Pokorak had been a clinical professor and codirector of clinical programs at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas. He was drawn to Suffolk Law, he says, by the opportunity to shape the program to meet his vision of clinical education and the certainty that he'd have the support to make it happen. "Suffolk is a place that values the practice of law," he explains. "This is not true of all law schools."
Pokorak set his goals high: to make the clinics at Suffolk Law among the best in the country. He identified the clinics' challenges and revamped the program. With the approval of the faculty, he brought new clinicians into the fold by making them full-time faculty members and by instituting a clinical tenure track. He worked to set new standards for the clinics, restructuring them as yearlong, eight-credit courses that blended field work with weekly classroom time. He set out to recruit additional clinical faculty from toptier law schools. And he brought the Suffolk Law Civil and Judicial Internship Program into the clinical fold, further expanding the number of hands-on learning opportunities for students. (Student interns work in a wide range of legal settings, including nonprofit organizations and private law firms, under the supervision of an attorney.)
"It was an opportunity to build something from the ground up and to put all of our ideas about adopting the best practices of clinical legal education in this new program," says Professor Ilene Seidman, director of the Family Advocacy Clinic, who left her clinical position at Harvard Law School to come to Suffolk Law.
Today, the clinical programs are one of the most celebrated aspects of a Suffolk Law legal education. This year, almost one-third of the graduating class participated in a clinical program or internship. The clinics and internships bring students to a range of settings--including municipal, district, and superior courts; legal services; county lockups; and probate court--where they represent clients in civil and criminal cases as well as at administrative hearings. Each year the programs provide between $250,000 and $500,000 of direct legal services to underserved populations.
"I see the faces of the people who gain these services--we make a significant impact in many lives," says Associate Clinical Professor William Berman, who runs the Housing Consumer Protection Clinic.
Adds Dean Alfred Aman, "Our clinical programs are very strong. They provide real world experience and very meaningful practice opportunities for our students. They are reflective of both our unique hands-on teaching style and our unparalleled commitment to public service and represent a true synthesis of theory and practice."
"The first year we scare you to death, the second year we work you to death, and the third year we bore you to death." If Pokorak had his way, that old law school saying would be banished from the Suffolk Law lexicon. As he sees it, the third year of law school is the ideal time for students to plunge into practice. And after two years of absorbing theory and doctrine, he says, students are ready--and eager--to start applying what they've learned.
On campus, the clinical programs have their reputation as the one place where you can finally practice law instead of just talking about it," says Nicholas McDonald, who was in Pokorak's death penalty amicus brief group.
In addition to giving students practical experience, the clinics deepen and broaden their view of the legal system. They learn that a criminal charge or a civil complaint is often a manifestation of social ills like poverty or domestic abuse, and they're introduced to the social services that can potentially help their clients.
They also learn about the interdisciplinary nature of many legal cases. A student in Seidman's Family Advocacy Clinic, for example, recently teamed up with a student in the Suffolk Defenders Program when her client's spouse filed countercharges of domestic abuse. "It was fascinating for the students, because many crucial decisions had to be made about protecting the client's rights against self-incrimination, and in the criminal case they had to be very careful about how what they were doing would impact the civil case," Seidman says.
Sometimes the lessons learned are difficult to digest. In the Immigration Clinic, students spend hours each week immersed in the disturbing drama of their young clients' worlds while gathering facts to convince a judge to grant political asylum. Assistant Clinical Professor Ragini Shah once brought in a psychologist to talk with students about secondary trauma because of their extensive exposure to case histories of violent persecution. But students say these intense feelings are precisely what feed their sense of obligation to their clients. "It's actually really scary, and that motivates you. You can't let them down," says third-year student Min Wu, who says she plans to pursue immigration law when she graduates.
Wu and third-year student Alison Carrinski recently grappled with a difficult dilemma in a case involving a 17-year-old girl who fled an abusive father in El Salvador to live with her uncle in the U.S. Wu and Carrinski were trying to win the girl special immigrant juvenile status and agreed to help the relative petition the court for temporary guardianship. The problem was, they needed at least one parent's written consent, and the girl feared the request would send her father into a rage and that he would become violent.
During case rounds in Shah's immigration clinic, Wu and Carrinski told their classmates they were considering mailing the consent form to an address the father didn't know about. "Our question is, is it unethical to employ a tactic to get consent from one parent, not the other, knowing that it's in the best interest of the mother and daughter?" Wu asked her classmates.
Wu and Carrinski's classmates offered potential solutions. But by the end of the class, the matter was still unresolved. "The questions never have an easy answer," Wu says.
Students say that one of the most powerful aspects of the clinics is the career guidance they offer and the practical experience they afford students in the pursuit of their career goals. Jared Olanoff JD '04 didn't know what he wanted to do with his degree when he started at Suffolk Law, but his future crystallized for him the summer he worked at Suffolk's Legal Services Office in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which refers cases to the clinics.
That summer, he found himself at the center of a high-profile discrimination suit. The Chelsea Housing Authority had started eviction proceedings against disabled tenants for violating its pet ownership policy. Olanoff, working first under Professor Stephen J. Callahan and then Professor William Berman, argued that the housing authority failed to make reasonable accommodations for the disabled tenants whose pets were central to their quality of life.
The cases wended their way from administrative hearings to District Court to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, eventually landing in Superior Court. They ended in a victory for Olanoff's clients, including a monetary settlement, injunctive relief, and court-ordered procedural changes at the Chelsea Housing Authority. To cap the experience, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) honored Olanoff and Berman with its 2005 Human Hero Award.
"It was the most valuable experience one could ever receive in the area of being a trial attorney. You can't get more hands-on than doing district court trials, superior court trials, administrative hearings--we did everything," Olanoff says. "That definitely is what made me go into criminal defense on behalf of poor people." Today he is a public defender with the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Springfield, Massachusetts. "My mother wanted me to practice corporate law," he laughs.
Not all clinical cases end so successfully, but in a way, winning is beside the point.
Kevin Powers has tried hundreds of cases since graduating from Suffolk Law, including one that resulted in a $5.5 million verdict against the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). But he lost both the first and second cases he ever tried while a student in Professor Blumenson's clinic. More than a quarter-century after the experience, he can still vividly recall his courtroom experience, which involved a client charged with assault and battery and a few other related charges.
"When my client finished his testimony, direct and cross, the trial judge, who seemed to have known my client very well from past appearances before him, told my client to 'slither off the stand,'" Powers recalls. "Even with my limited experience, I figured out that the judge didn't think much of my client's testimony. I lost the case." But he also recalls how Blumenson helped him make sense of the guilty verdicts. "It was nice to have someone who said, 'I know you lost, but you did a great job. Here's what you did right and here's what you did wrong,'" Powers says.
Pokorak is pleased with how far the clinical programs have come and hopes to eventually expand the offerings so every student will have a chance at either a clinic or an internship before graduating. In 2009 he will add to the program by offering a certiorari appellate clinic in which students will represent death penalty inmates in Texas in their appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. Pokorak, who is a member of the Massachusetts, Texas, and Florida bars, is eager to pull his death penalty work more fully into the offerings at Suffolk Law.
For her part, Noel remembers her work on the death penalty amicus brief as a highlight of her legal education. Two months after submitting the brief, the students traveled with Pokorak to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in the case. The students were taken by the gravity of the proceedings, but even more, Noel says, the experience forged a deep connection in her mind between what she was being taught in law school and why it was important. In June 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision, voting 5-4 to accept childhood abuse as an inherent mitigating factor in capital sentencing.
"I keep my copy of the brief in my office, and it's still one of the things I'm most proud of," Noel says.
ALUMNI PROFILESPaul Cherecwich Jr.