Clinical Course for J.D. Students
THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CLINIC EXPERIENCE
Students in the Domestic Violence Clinic represent victims of intimate abuse in D.C. Superior Court. The Clinic provides students with an intensive, challenging education in the art of trial advocacy, extensive hands-on experience with family law and poverty lawyering, and the opportunity to alleviate a crucial community need for legal representation. Through course work and client representation, students are exposed to every phase of expedited civil litigation. Students also learn to navigate the criminal justice system by working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in prosecutions against those accused of abusing Clinic clients.
Students litigate to obtain Civil Protection Orders (“CPOs”) that last for up to one year and can include a broad spectrum of relief designed to effectively end the violence in a family or dating relationship. For example, in a CPO, a judge may direct a batterer to cease assaulting and threatening the victim; to stay away from the victim’s home, person and workplace; and not to contact the victim in any manner. The judge may award temporary custody of the parties’ minor children, with visitation rights for the non-custodial parent, and award child and/or spousal support, so that a victim is not forced to return to a batterer due to economic necessity.
To prepare students to appear in court, Clinic faculty provide intensive instruction in evidence, civil procedure, and legal ethics, as well as the civil, family, and criminal law applicable to domestic violence litigation. In the seminar class, students participate in exercises designed to develop and refine essential litigation skills such as conducting direct and cross examination, delivering opening statements and closing arguments, introducing exhibits into evidence, and conducting negotiations. In addition, students hear from expert guest speakers on topics such as the psychological dynamics of battering and victimization, immigration and domestic violence, and counseling programs designed for the perpetrator community.
Students work in teams of two and represent several clients during the course of the semester. Students are fully responsible for all aspects of each case, from conducting the initial intake interview to investigating facts, drafting a complaint, preparing witnesses, crafting oral arguments, and ultimately negotiating a consent injunctive order or taking the case to trial. Each student team has regular meetings with a supervisor to review and discuss litigation strategy. Students receive intensive feedback from their supervisors on drafts of court documents and draft testimony.
Trials last several hours to several days and provide students with the opportunity to present witness testimony through direct examination, introduce exhibits into evidence (including police reports, weapons, and 911 tapes), and cross examine witnesses. While many cases end with a negotiated consent agreement, some cases are resolved through a full trial.
In every case, students put a witness on the stand, present direct testimony, and argue their client’s case in front of a judge in an ex parte Temporary Protection Order hearing.
Clinic graduate Liz Watson says that the Clinic equipped her with the skills necessary to enter practice: “Of all the classes I took at Georgetown, the Domestic Violence Clinic prepared me best for my day-to-day practice. I draw on the skills and experiences from the Clinic regularly in planning litigation strategies, interviewing witnesses, drafting pleadings, appearing in court, dealing with opposing counsel and difficult clients, negotiating settlements, and conducting hearings. The Clinic was my most rewarding and memorable class. The clients are people for whom you want to fight. Participating in the Clinic was a great way to gain valuable practical experience and have a great time doing it.”
Clinic alum Alexander Zuchman says that the Clinic allowed him to provide a service to the D.C. community. “The Clinic gives students a great opportunity to help the D.C. community through student advocacy. Observation by and feedback from the Clinic faculty help students develop themselves as moral and proficient lawyers, while advocating for domestic violence victims gives the students a strong sense of public duty.”
The stories of two of the clients the Clinic has assisted illustrate the scope of our work.
Tyesha’s boyfriend, a crack user, frequently assaulted and threatened her. Most recently, he shoved her and threatened to kill her, and then left home and returned with a gun. He held Tyesha at gun point, punching and choking her until she lay on the floor unconscious. Two hours later, Tyesha awoke and called the police. They refused to arrest her boyfriend or help her to move her four young children out of the house. Afraid for her life, Tyesha was forced to leave her home without her children to seek refuge. A few days later, a Clinic student interviewed Tyesha at the courthouse. She was extremely anxious; her neighbors had told her that her boyfriend had left the children alone with no food, and her two youngest had been seen playing outside, unsupervised, at 3:00 a.m. The student helped Tyesha draft a petition for a civil protection order, and represented her in a hearing to get emergency temporary protection. By the time she left that day, Tyesha had a temporary order directing her boyfriend to leave the family home so that she could safely move back in, awarding her temporary custody of their four children, and ordering the boyfriend not to assault or threaten Tyesha and to stay away from her. Clinic students represented Tyesha four weeks later at her protection order hearing, where they obtained a comprehensive one year protection order after an extensive negotiation with her boyfriend.
Leslie’s husband regularly physically and emotionally abused her, including several incidents when he threw her to the ground and hit her while she was pregnant with their child. At one point, Leslie separated from her husband and he went into counseling to learn how to control his violence. But counseling failed to solve the problem. In October, Leslie’s husband became angry and began to yell and shove her in front of their five year-old son. The boy became upset and placed himself between his parents, yelling, “Don’t hurt my mother!” His father slammed the boy’s head and back into a wall. Leslie ended the relationship and her husband moved out of the family home. But several weeks later, her husband followed her out of a teacher’s meeting at their son’s pre-school, grabbed her by the arm, and told her, “If I’m not going to have you, no one will.” In the weeks that followed, he repeatedly came to Leslie’s home and assaulted or threatened her. Terrified, Leslie was forced to take her son and stay with relatives. In December, Leslie was referred to the Clinic. After two contested hearings on issues of domestic violence and child support, the court granted Leslie a CPO requiring her husband to stay away from her, not to assault or threaten her, and ordering him to participate in domestic violence counseling. The order also awarded temporary custody of the couple’s son to Leslie and directed her husband to pay more than $700 per month in child support.
Over the years, students have found their Clinic semester to be one of the most intense, exciting, exhausting, and rewarding experiences of their lives. The benefits are substantial – by the time students complete the Clinic, they are likely to have more trial experience than most attorneys many years out of law school. On the other hand, enrollment in this litigation-intensive Clinic requires that students commit to fulfilling extensive demands on their time. Students have some opportunity for vacation time during their Clinic semester, but in general, because they are representing clients in fast-paced, emergency cases, students must obtain faculty permission before making plans to leave town, even during school vacations and weekends. Although it is unusual, faculty also may require students to complete case work during the reading and exam period.
Students participating in the Fall semester of the Clinic will need to return to school several days before classes begin for Clinic Orientation. We will hold intensive preparatory sessions in the afternoons to get you up to speed on the substantive law you’ll need to know so you can go to court with a client as soon as possible. Similarly, students enrolling in the Spring semester will be required to attend a multi-day intensive orientation during the week before Spring semester classes begin in January.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
To find out more about the Domestic Violence Clinic, interested students are welcome to stop by our office in McDonough Suite 334 or call us at 662-9640 to speak to faculty, fellows, or students. In addition, please see our website for more information about the Clinic class and faculty. We will also hold an Open House on Thursday, March 15, 2012 from 4:00 - 5:30 p.m. in McDonough 334.
During the 2012-2013 academic year, the Clinic will be taught by Associate Dean Deborah Epstein, Professor Rachel Camp and Danielle Duryea Pelfrey. The students who were enrolled in the Domestic Violence Clinic during this academic year are listed here. Please feel free to contact them.