New Civil Justice Clinic seeks economic justice for low-income clients
In Spring 2024, Georgetown Law’s new Civil Justice Clinic will commence its inaugural semester. The Clinic will advocate for clients’ economic justice interests and seek to provide representation to those who otherwise would remain voiceless in the legal system. Students will primarily provide legal services to low-income clients who have suffered exploitation such as wage theft, but the Clinic will also take unemployment benefit appeals and other cases involving employment, public benefits, consumer, and housing matters. In learning through the lens of economic justice, students will grapple with issues related to how the law intersects with the economic viability of clients, and particularly its impact on low-wage workers, Clinic Director Llezlie Green said.
In helping clients pursue wage theft claims, Clinic students will largely represent clients in small claims courts in D.C. and Maryland. These claims frequently range from $500 to $1000, which may seem small compared to high-stakes class action cases but are huge in how they impact the Clinic’s clients. The Clinic’s help in successfully recovering withheld wages can be a determinative factor in whether clients will be evicted or fall behind on other bills.
“The ripple effects of economic insecurity are very real for our clients and are very central to how they are experiencing their lives,” Professor Green said.
The Clinic offers students the opportunity to provide direct services to individuals and—as a litigation-based clinic that only lasts a single semester—to hit the ground running with work. Students are welcome to participate whether they have a long-held commitment to representing low-wage individuals or are curious and wish to learn more about litigation and individual client representation as a potential career path. Additionally, students with language skills or an interest in learning how to navigate language barriers in legal representation are helpful, as the Clinic’s clients may often be immigrants who do not speak English. Ultimately, the main requirement for participation in the Clinic is excitement for doing the work and learning in the process, rather than interest in a particular subject matter.
“I think that there’s a depth in the learning when we have students that are coming from different perspectives,” Professor Green said.
Students will work in pairs and will typically have two or three clients during their semester with the Clinic, depending on the flow and transition of past cases and the complexity of their clients’ claims. Only six students will participate the first semester, but that group will expand to 12 students per semester starting in the fall of 2024.
An essential piece of the Civil Justice Clinic experience will be learning how to develop relationships with clients and engage in client-centered lawyering. This will focus on how to develop appropriate client-attorney relationships that create space for clients to openly share their experiences in order for students to engage in the best advocacy possible, Professor Green said. Students will learn about how to engage in effective client-centered counseling in the Clinic’s seminar portion, which they will be able to further develop through working with their clients.
Additionally, the Clinic’s seminars will teach students lawyering theory, which involves the practices of interviewing clients, building a narrative around one’s case and developing a case theory, undertaking fact investigation, and other various processes involved in litigation. As with client counseling, Professor Green said that students will extract the theory they learn in seminars and apply it with their clients to further broaden their understanding of the theory. Students will learn transferable problem-solving skills, such as identifying what they do not know, what questions to ask, and where to find the answers in whatever jurisdiction they practice in after they leave the Clinic.
“For me, it’s not as important that students know, for example, how to file a complaint in D.C.—it’s important for me for them to know what questions to ask so that they can file a complaint anywhere,” Professor Green said. “They need to know that there are rules. They need to know that there’s a basic structure.”
Students will also be introduced to thinking about the formation of their professional identities and how they want to present themselves in their work. Professor Green emphasized that students who grew up without lawyers in their families may only have the attorneys on television shows as general options for what a professional identity could look like, whereas what it means to be an attorney may be a broader spectrum than what’s shown by those characters. Another important piece of the students’ experiences will be learning about their own roles in deciding what kind of lawyers they want to be.