Solving Problems 'in the Messiness of the Real World'

Photo: Rod Searcey

Calculating what food preparation workers were owed for unpaid overtime under California’s complex wage and hour laws was a challenge for third-year law student Jason Gonder. But the spreadsheet he developed at the Stanford Community Law Clinic was worth the effort: Gonder discovered that one client who was paid less than the minimum wage was owed $82,000, and another couple was owed $75,000.

Second-year student Amanda Major assisted a client at the clinic who suddenly began receiving $75 less each month in Social Security benefits because of past overpayment. The woman could hardly pay her rent, and Major scrambled to come up with social-service agencies that might help. The client didn’t have evidence to support a court action, “but we gave her information about what she could do in the future to prevent [unexpected reductions],” Major says. “So sometimes we can’t offer an immediate fix, but we can educate clients.”

Margaret Stevenson, one of three supervising attorneys at the clinic, says one of the toughest lessons for students who work in public-interest and poverty-law programs is that the law doesn’t always provide adequate answers. “It’s especially hard when students are sitting face to face with a client who’s been mistreated and who is saying, ‘It’s not about the money—I just want justice.’ ”

Stevenson is former director of the East Palo Alto Community Law Project, which served local communities for 19 years until it closed last summer because of funding problems. Director Peter Reid and attorney Yvonne Meré join her in overseeing students’ work at the new clinic on University Avenue. Funded by the Law School, the University president’s fund and local law firms and run in collaboration with the San Mateo Legal Aid Society, it can accommodate 16 students per semester. Each works 20 hours a week on cases involving workers’ rights, housing and government benefits. The students also take a seven-unit course on campus, where they talk about the kinds of ethical issues that arise in attorney-client conversations and discuss practical aspects of interviewing and negotiating.

The community law clinic is the newest of the Law School’s offerings in clinical education. Stanford was a pioneer in the field in the early 1970s, when professor Tony Amsterdam taught a death penalty clinic, and three years ago the school decided to hire additional faculty to add to the clinics already in place—criminal prosecution, environmental law and cyberlaw. Since then, William Koski has come aboard to set up an education advocacy clinic, and Michelle Alexander, JD ’92, has spearheaded a civil rights clinic. The course for students working at the community law clinic is taught by Gary Blasi, a visiting professor from UCLA.

“One of the reasons for the growing importance of clinical education is the recognition that there are limits on what you can teach in the classroom,” says Law School vice dean Barton H. Thompson, ’73, MBA ’75, JD ’76. “If you want to teach students how to solve problems in the messiness of the real world, and teach them how to help clients from a wide range of backgrounds, the only way to effectively do it is to have them learn while doing.”

At the community law clinic, that means both representing individual clients and working on larger, policy-related projects. Students have been invited to collaborate with California’s department of industrial relations to assess how effectively the state is resolving workers’ claims that their employers retaliated against them for complaining about unsafe conditions. They’re also preparing a report on housing-code enforcement for the East Palo Alto city council.

As her students graduate from the clinic and from law school, Stevenson hopes they have learned to collaborate with community groups to effect change and to harness the power of the media to publicize unfairness. “I would hope students would be challenged as legislators or policy-makers or pro bono attorneys to find ways to enforce rights that clients have, but can’t afford to enforce.”