Social Justice Then And Now

By Michael Seele
Chronicle Editor

The times may have a-changed since it emerged from the social justice movement of the 1960s, but the mission of the Law School's Legal Assistance Bureau has remained constant. Though LAB has grown in size and professionalism since its founding 30 years ago, it continues to serve the needs of the area's low-income residents.

While the clinic helps clients resolve civil cases, Law School students are benefiting from the opportunity to practice real-world law while still in school. The Law School's recent reaccreditation report from the American Bar Association cited LAB as among the best clinics of its kind in the nation.

"There is a big gap between learning legal rules and analysis in class, and being able to effectively represent clients," said Prof. Robert Smith (Law), who has supervised LAB students since 1975. "This is a middle ground for them to get from class to actual practice while being supervised by an educator. 'Learning to learn from experience' is one of the mottoes we use."

The Legal Assistance Bureau staff includes: (seated, from left) Social worker Lynn Barenberg, students Heather Suffin and Jessica Wright; and (standing) Prof. Robert Smith (Law), student Moya Gibson, Director Leslie Espinoza, and student Michael Rutner. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

The bureau was founded in October 1968 by a group of students who wanted to use their legal training to help the poor residents of Newton, Waltham and Watertown. At the time, Massachusetts was one of the few states that allowed second- and third-year law students to represent, at no fee, indigent clients in civil cases. They set up shop in an old Waltham firehouse under the supervision of Donald Stern, now the United States Attorney for Massachusetts.

Faculty also worked with the students, but only loosely. Students went to court alone to argue cases. But by 1973, the Law School formalized the program, requiring closer faculty-student interaction and offering course credits for clinic participation.

Cases that are accepted by LAB today are assigned to a student and a faculty member, said Adj. Asst. Prof. Leslie Espinoza (Law), LAB's director since 1992. Many cases wend their way from intake to resolution during the student's semester in LAB, but faculty members provide continuity in guiding cases that span semesters, she said.

LAB long ago moved from the firehouse and is located in a more spacious Waltham storefront that features the same modern technology found on campus. Prospective clients are greeted by an intake worker who jots down personal information and details about the case.

A social worker, Lynn Barenberg, also is employed by the clinic. Where appropriate, she can help clients get their lives in order so they can be successful in their legal fights. She also joins students and faculty in regular meetings to evaluate which cases LAB will take on.

Because of resource constraints, LAB limits most of its work to four main areas: landlord-tenant disputes; domestic cases, particularly where there is violence and where child custody and support is an issue; appeals of Social Security disability benefit denials; and appeals of school districts' denials of special education programs to children.

Through a federal grant, LAB also provides some service to the elderly in Newton, Waltham, Watertown, Brookline, Belmont, Wellesley and Needham, Espinoza added.

Espinoza said LAB makes decisions about which cases it will accept based on "which are most needy and where we think we can make the biggest difference." Individuals who have other legal-representation options are directed to them.

LAB does not track winning percentages - except in the Social Security cases, where it has a success rate of over 90 percent - but Smith and Espinoza said LAB wins the majority of its cases. "We end up getting very favorable results," Smith said.

Protecting a battered woman and extracting child support from her spouse, or helping clients keep the roofs over their heads, are rewarding experiences for students and staff, Espinoza said.

"The emphasis is on representing individual clients, rather than on looking for law reform or 'impact' litigation," Smith added. "Our successes are cases where we've helped clients who got through tough times, like drug addiction, have cleaned up their lives, and got their kids back out of foster care."

Public interest law continues to motivate many LAB students, though Smith said that over the years more aspiring corporate lawyers have been seeking the hands-on experience offered by the clinic. A long waiting list was established early on for the 24 slots available this semester, Espinoza said. While preference is given to third-year students, she said persistent applicants can usually gain admission at some point in their Law School careers if they aren't too choosy about which semester they will take.

Over the past three decades, the populations of the local towns have not stayed stagnant, and neither has the LAB. A clinic worker is proficient in Spanish, French and Creole, and LAB has been able to take on more Latino and Haitian immigrant clients.

"It's part of our continuing effort to do community outreach and reach the most needy population," Espinoza said.

Return to Nov. 25 menu

Return to Chronicle home page