Archive for Contibutions/Guest Articles

1Ls & 2Ls: Apply to Sit on the Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee!

1Ls & 2Ls: Apply to sit on the Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee!

Image courtesy of Equal Justice Works

The Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee is comprised of public interest law students and professionals who provide guidance and advice to the organization and help us achieve our goal of expanding public interest opportunities for law students and lawyers. The annual summer kick-off includes an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. and the opportunity to meet face-to-face with national public interest law school leaders during our annual National Advisory Committee Retreat.

Equal Justice Works is now accepting applications for both law students and law school professionals to serve on the Committee for the 2017-2019 term. We are especially looking for applications from 1Ls and 2Ls! The *new* deadline to apply is Sunday, May 14th at 11:59 p.m. (EST).




Email us at with any questions!


Pro Bono Publico Award Winner Gabrielle “Gabs” Lucero

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award.  Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.  This week, the 2016-17 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award winner will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and her public interest commitments.  (Check out posts by the Merit Distinction honorees here and here.)  Today, we’re featuring award winner and Duke University School of Law student Gabrielle “Gabs” Lucero, who has organized pro bono projects that advocate for victims of sexual assault and veterans.

Creating Impact through Infrastructure

by Gabs Lucero, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Winner, 2016-2017 (Duke University School of Law)

My goal in coming to graduate school was to pursue a career in service and advocacy.  I became involved with sexual assault advocacy as a high school student and have since dedicated the majority of my academic and extracurricular time toward advocating for victims of sexual assault.  Early in this process I realized the power of the criminal justice process to either hurt or harm victims of sexual assault, and so I decided to go to law school to be a positive force within the system.  I also recognized the need for legislative changes regarding sexual violence, so I decided to pursue a master of public policy in the hopes of bridging the gap between people with public interest needs and the structures they must navigate in seeking relief or systemic changes.

Through my education and experiences in advocacy work, I have learned that one of the best ways to have an impact is to create a strong and lasting infrastructure.  As such, my activities throughout my time at Duke and in Durham have centered on the goal of creating an infrastructure for veterans and sexual assault victims, especially through my involvement in two pro bono projects: the Veterans Assistance Project (VAP) and the Coalition Against Gendered Violence (CAGV).

It was incredibly important to build an infrastructure that will survive my departure and the continual flux of students entering and leaving the law school.  I can trust that when people know that infrastructure is there, they will continue to utilize it, grow it, and increase the impact of the project on the clients that need help.  My goal at Duke has been to create strong infrastructures that address important community needs and will continue to grow with each new class of engaged students.

VAP is a program that connects students with veterans seeking services from the Veteran Unit in Legal Aid to help with work such as discharge upgrades, access to benefits, and military sexual trauma claims, among others.  My goal with VAP has been to create a self-sustaining foundation that serves local Durham veterans.  My co-director, Sarah Williamson ’17, and I worked closely with the Veteran Unit Legal Aid attorney to restructure the program which was challenged by inconsistent support from supervising attorneys and by changes that Legal Aid was undergoing in its work with veterans.  Working closely with the new attorney, we were able to establish a structured process so that students could more easily and regularly complete the work.  We instituted office hours with the supervising attorney every week, conducted training on the specific types of claims, and streamlined the connection between the attorney and the students on each veteran’s claim.  We created standing documents and templates that students could use in claims.  We also drafted step by step outlines for the process for certain parts of cases so that students could turn to them without having to spend extra time on similar research.  Additionally, we established connections that will be our go-to personnel in future cases, such as a local practitioner who specifically conducts the required Veterans Affairs assessment for claims of military sexual trauma.

When I joined the Coalition Against Gendered Violence, it was a relatively inactive group that put on two or three informational events throughout the year.  Once in leadership, my co-director, Shannon Welch ’17, and I went to work on expanding the group and its impact.  We connected with an attorney at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCCASA) and began to develop a program where law students could represent student sexual assault victims in college adjudication processes.  We recognized that defendants in adjudication hearings were disproportionately represented by counsel, whereas victims often did not have representation and went to the hearings alone.  Victims are often limited by factors of cost, embarrassment, not wanting to tell their family what happened, and many other significant concerns.  In order to have a fairer process, we wanted to create a mechanism for students to have representation and support throughout the adjudication process.  We have worked diligently with NCCASA to create an infrastructure that provides training for law students to work with victims in the college adjudication system.  The training includes, for example, how to help a victim write an opening statement, working with clients on questions, and understanding the nuances between different colleges’ processes.  The goal of the project, for both CAGV and NCCASA, is to create a statewide infrastructure between the different North Carolina law schools where law students represent victims at any college across the state.  My role has been to establish a lasting connection with NCCASA and to build an infrastructure for trainings and volunteer availability for representation of victims.  My co-director and I have also worked diligently to provide more availability and acceptance of resources for members of the Duke Law community who are survivors of sexual assault.  This has included, among other things, creating a successful initiative to include resource stickers in every bathroom stall at the law school and providing a training for law students on working with victims as clients and witnesses.  We hope to further empower students to take better care of themselves as well as their clients in the future.

I hope to leave the Law School with strong infrastructures in place that are ready to be built upon by the many dedicated students that come after me.  After I graduate, I plan to continue a career in public service by first clerking on the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.  I will then serve on active duty with the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.  I hope to one day be a Special Victims Prosecutor within the JAG Corps.


Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction Honoree Lilah Thompson

2016-17 Merit Distinction Honoree, Lilah Thompson

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.  This week, one of the 2016-17 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and her public interest commitments.  (Check out last week’s guest blog by Merit Distinction honoree Derek Mergele, and next week award winner Gabrielle “Gabs” Lucero will be guest blogging on PSJD.)  Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Temple University School of Law student Lilah Thompson, who co-created a workshop that simulated the life of a refugee.

Looking Between Borders to Understand the Refugee Experience

by Lilah Thompson, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2016-2017 (Temple University School of Law)

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. Of the 65.3 million people displaced worldwide 21.3 million are refugees. Over half of the world’s refugees are children. The number of refugees in the world is currently at the highest level ever recorded in human history. To fully understand the stories behind these staggering numbers, I worked with Professor Jaya Ramji Nogales to create Between Borders: A Refugee Simulation Experience. Between Borders is a participatory workshop that simulates the life of a refugee throughout all stages of the refugee process. This simulation is an awareness-building activity that places participants in the “shoes of a refugee” in order to conceptualize the experiences that they face. The simulation focuses on four important aspects: (1) why refugees flee; (2) how they are deemed refugees; (3) how refugees are screened and vetted; and (4) how they are welcomed to a new country.


Why do refugees flee?

Currently, 53% of refugees worldwide come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Every country’s conflict is different, which makes the reasons why refugees flee and each refugee’s journey different. For example, an estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the violent civil war in 2011. This includes over 4.8 million who have escaped to neighboring countries, thousands who have attempted to seek asylum in European countries, and over 6 million who remain internally displaced within Syria. While situations in countries facing mass displacement and flight are different, they share important commonalities, including violence, instability, and persecution.


How are individuals desginated as “refugees”?

In designing Between Borders, one important aspect for me was to define refugees accurately, by also making clear what they are not: terrorists or illegal immigrants. In order to be deemed a refugee, an individual must prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Without falling into one of those groups, the individual is not provided protection as a refugee. Once registered and approved as a refugee, individuals reside in refugee camps where they wait until they can be firmly resettled in a third country, like the U.S. These temporary camps are typically situated in neighboring countries. The situation in refugee camps is dire; health care, food, employment opportunities and education are extremely limted.


How are refugees screened, vetted, and processed to come to the United States?

Under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), an interagency process that includes three primary U.S. Government agencies—Department of State, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—refugees are vetted based on specific requirements. These requirements cannot be waived, and include an in-person DHS interview, security checks, and a medical exam. Due to these strict requirements, the process currently takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months, or even longer.Additionally, many refugees have to wait long periods of time to even be processed, and some wait in refugee camps for up to 20 years before being resettled in a third country.


How are refugees welcomed to a new country?

After being granted a visa and going through all security background checks, refugees finally arrive to the U.S. They are greeted at the airport by a caseworker who works for one of the U.S. private agencies that have cooperative agreements with the State Department to provide reception and placement services for arriving refugees. At this stage, a new struggle begins. Refugees have only 90 days of assistance from these agencies. In that time, they must sign up for English classes, get jobs, enroll children in school, go to health visits, set up their new homes, and obtain government-approved benefits. As the clock ticks, many refugees struggle to become self-sufficient within this three month time-frame.


Why is it important to understand the refugee journey? 

It is essential to understand that refugees are just like anyone living in the U.S., except their lives have been torn apart by persecution and violence. The only difference between U.S. residents and refugees is chance. Imagine switching places with a Syrian child. She is sitting at her desk in school, and suddenly a bomb explodes two classrooms away. She scrambles through hallways trying to find her brother to see if he is okay. Together, they run home through the streets, hoping their parents are there. Her parents won’t allow her to go to school the next day, or the day after. Her fafther, a taxi driver, can no longer work, because no one is taking taxis. Instead, the taxis have been replaced with tanks. She wakes up, day after day, hearing bombs going off, and witnessing the loss of life in the streets. If we put ourselves in the shoes of this child, it is easy to comprehend why her and her family would flee. Why they would do anything in their power to seek safety and stability in the face of violence and uncertainty. As one participant in Between Borders commented: “There are unprecedented amounts of refugees and migrants in today’s world, but here in the U.S. they are ‘invisible’ to us … we need to appreciate the problems that cause refugees and migrants to take this journey and the challenges they faced along the way.”


What does it say about the United States when we turn our back on refugees?

It says that we do not understand. We cannot tell the difference between a refugee, who is fleeing terror, from a terrorist, who is the oppressor. It says that, even with all of the facts about what refugees face, and that they are screened and vetted more than any other individual who sets foot on U.S. soil, we do not care to help. It says that U.S. citizens deserve peace of mind over a refugee child’s safety from violence or death. My goal throughout law school has been to educate individuals about refugees and asylum seekers. Not simply about their legal claims, but about our moral obligation to understand.


The most recent executive order that targets refugees is immoral and a violation of our human rights obligations. But, most importantly, it is misinformed. The goal of Between Borders is to broaden awareness and understanding, and allow that to influence how we treat and understand other human beings. In the face of misinformation, if we can come together as a community to better understand the refugee journey and learn about the refugee process then surely we can change the hearts and minds of others.


Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction Honoree Derek Mergele

2016-17 Merit Distinction Honoree, Derek Mergele-Rust

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.This week, one of the 2016-17 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. (This year’s Pro Bono Publico Award recipient and the other Merit Distinction recipient, will also publish blogs in the consecutive weeks.) Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Texas Tech University School of Law student Derek Mergele-Rust, who helped launch the Texas Tech School of Law Gender Marker and Name Change Pro Bono Project.

Changing Gender Markers in West Texas

by Derek Mergele-Rust, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2016-2017 (Texas Tech University School of Law)

West Texas is the embodiment of every stereotype that people around the country have of Texas: wind sweeping across flat dusty plains dotted with oil wells as tumbleweeds blow between cattle grazing on the prairie grasses. Not included in this stereotypical vision are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families. Lubbock, Texas promotes itself as the friendliest city in the United States, even though the Human Rights Campaign has awarded Lubbock a 0 score on its Municipal Equality Index—an index that measures how welcoming and friendly a municipality is towards LGBT individuals.

The Texas Legislature is currently wrestling with a “bathroom bill,” similar to HB2 in North Carolina, that requires transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matches the gender marker on their birth certificate. However, in Texas, a court can order that the gender marker of a person’s birth certificate be amended to reflect the gender identity of the person. There are no set requirements for the court order, the court simply grants the petition at the judge’s discretion. To run for an elected judge position, Texas requires candidates to identify as a member of a political party. In Lubbock, all judges identify as Republicans. Of the six district court judges, three have granted petitions to amend the gender marker on birth certificates.

In May 2016, the Texas Tech School of Law launched the Gender Marker and Name Change Pro Bono Project to assist transgender people in West Texas obtain the court order to amend the gender marker on the individual’s birth certificate. This Pro Bono Project is the first of its kind outside of one of Texas’s major metropolitan areas, and Texas Tech is the second law school in Texas to have such a project. Since the launch last May, the Pro Bono Project has helped several transgender individuals obtain the necessary court order. The Pro Bono Project has received requests for help from students, residents of Lubbock, and residents of various West Texas communities, some of which are over 100 miles from Lubbock.

When this project started, I thought that simply helping one person would amount to a huge success for Tech Law. The reality is that there is a transgender community in west Texas that needs support. Regardless of age, race, or economic background the west Texas transgender community now has a place to turn to when they need help amending a birth certificate.


Guest Blog Post – Equal Justice Works Public Interest Law Awards!

The Equal Justice Works Public Interest Law Awards are now open!

These awards are presented annually to eight law students at Equal Justice Works member schools who have a demonstrated commitment to public interest law and pro bono work. The Awards seek to identify and honor law students who have provided extraordinary service through clinics, volunteer work, internships, extracurricular projects, and more.


The deadline to apply for an Equal Justice Works Public Interest Law Award is March 10, 2017Click here to apply now!


Please forward all questions to Equal Justice Works at Good luck!


Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Prison Abolition for Transgender Liberation

Lark Mulligan Picture
2015-16 Pro Bono Publico Award Winner, Lark Mulligan

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

Last week, the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees guest blogged about their law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. Today, we’re featuring our 2015-2016 Pro Bono Publico Award Winner and DePaul University College of Law student Lark Mulligan, a multi-talented advocate dedicated to transgender rights.

Prison Abolition for Transgender Liberation
Lark Mulligan, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Winner, 2015-2016 (DePaul University College of Law)

I met her in Cook County Jail, where she was awaiting trial for felony charges.[1] A Black transgender woman from Chicago’s south side, our client spent her late teens and early twenties in and out of prison and jail. Incarceration is an especially dangerous and traumatic experience for transgender people because they are almost exclusively housed according to their gender as assigned at birth, meaning that trans women, like my client, are housed in men’s facilities. Like many other incarcerated trans people, she was placed in “protective custody,” a misleading name for what others might call “solitary confinement.” It was a small cell where she sat in isolation and experienced daily threats, harassment, and slurs from correctional staff. While she was in protective custody, jail staff denied her HIV medications, gender-affirming feminine products like bras and makeup, and hormone therapy, which she had been taking as prescribed for over a decade.

Eventually she was convicted, served two years in a men’s prison, and was paroled out on house arrest to an all-men halfway home. Having been kicked out of her mother’s house after coming out as trans as a teenager, she was no stranger to gender-segregated shelters and public housing, and she knew the risks of presenting her true gender in such an environment. After feeling it out for a week, she began presenting more in line with her female gender identity, wearing feminine clothing, makeup, wigs, etc. But she immediately felt unsafe when the other residents and house staff harassed her for her appearance, calling her names, and threatening to sexually assault her.

She tried to get a job so she could move into her own apartment, but everything was working against her. Because of her ankle bracelet, she was only able to leave the house for a few hours every day. She didn’t have a diploma or GED because she dropped out in tenth grade when administrators forced her to use the men’s room, students harassed and attacked her, and teachers would only refer to her as “he”. When she was able to get her foot in the door with an employer, she would bring in her state ID and birth certificate to fill out the new hire paperwork. However, because of an Illinois law that prohibits someone with a felony conviction from changing their legal name until ten years have elapsed since the termination of their sentence,[2] her documents unfortunately still displayed her masculine-sounding former name and identified her as “male.” Employers would take one look those documents, shoot her some strange glances, ask a few invasive questions about her identity and genitalia, and later she would receive a call saying they “decided to go with an internal hire.” When she was finally hired, she was quickly fired after refusing to wear the men’s uniform.

After a few months of struggling, she returned to her halfway house one day to find all of her belongings on the sidewalk. The Illinois Department of Corrections only pays rent for people on parole for three or four months, and her time limit had expired. Because she had nowhere else to live, that evening her ankle bracelet automatically notified her probation officer that she missed curfew, and the next day she was arrested on a warrant for probation violation and taken back to Cook County Jail.

The United States is experiencing an urgent crisis of hyper-policing and mass incarceration of poor people of color, in particular Black people, and the criminal legal system ensnares people in impossible situations. Transgender people of color living in poverty are impacted by these trends in specific ways; over 50% of Black transgender women can expect to be arrested at some point in their lives, and because the world is so gendered and hostile to people who fall outside gender norms, they face numerous barriers to returning to a stable life. One reason trans people are overrepresented in the criminal legal system is that they experience disproportionate rates of poverty and homelessness resulting from barriers to housing, education, and employment. As a result, trans people might commit survival crimes like retail theft, sex work, or trespassing into a building to sleep at night. Without stable housing and under the burden of a criminal record, it is almost impossible to find a job, and the cycle of poverty and incarceration continues.

Even if they are not committing any crimes, the mass media has very effectively taught police, judges, states attorneys, and the rest of us to assume that trans women of color occupying public space are sex workers. Many transgender women of color report being arrested and charged with prostitution while they were simply walking down the street – a phenomenon some have termed “walking while trans.”

Transgender people are also being murdered at staggering rates, with over 21 murders in the U.S. in 2015 alone, the vast majority were women of color, and many of them went uninvestigated. The global average lifespan of a transgender person is around 23 years. By failing to hold anybody accountable for these deaths, the legal system passively condones this violence and the notion that trans people of color are disposable. Further, transgender people who try to defend themselves from racist and transphobic violence, as in the cases of CeCe McDonald and Eisha Love, are often arrested and prosecuted while their attackers go free.

In short, the criminal legal system is not working for transgender people.

To address some of these injustices, in 2008 a group of prison abolitionist activists, social workers, and lawyers founded the Transformative Justice Law Project (TJLP), which provides free holistic legal services and support for trans people who are criminalized in Chicago and throughout prisons in Illinois. Among other things, we currently help trans people change their legal names, advocate for trans prisoners, conduct workshops and trainings, and publish writing and artwork from trans prisoners in our ‘zine publication Hidden Expressions. After moving to Chicago by way of Vermont in 2011, I became a TJLP Collective Member and have worked on various projects ever since.

Since joining TJLP, I have learned that lawyers can only do so much for criminalized trans people caught in an inherently violent, transphobic, and racist system.  While lawyers have an important role to play in reducing the harm that the legal system inflicts, I believe that the only long-term solution to mass incarceration is a grassroots movement to abolish the prison-industrial complex.

Prison abolition is a movement to dismantle all systems of incarceration, surveillance, and policing, and to build a world that has no need for prisons or police by eradicating the root causes of violence, inequality, and oppression in our communities. Instead of reacting to violence and conflict with more police and more prisons, which do not make society safer but rather cause more violence and poverty and racism, an abolitionist approach would address the root causes of violence by investing in free public education, community empowerment, reparations, healing and restorative practices, non-punitive drug treatment programs, open dialogue, accessible and affordable healthcare, and food justice. Rather than trying to reform an inherently violent system, like conducting police sensitivity trainings, I think the only way to actually make the world safe and affirming for trans people – and for all people – is to get rid of police and prisons altogether.

Prison abolition does not necessarily mean that I want to walk over to the nearest jail and let everyone out. Instead, abolition means recognizing the ways in which systems of racism and transphobia mutually reinforce and are reinforced by the prison-industrial complex, and then taking steps to eradicate them all. Rather than asking the penological question “what do we do with people who commit crimes,” prison abolitionists ask much more fundamental questions like “why do people commit crimes in the first place?” and “how can we prevent people from causing harm to others?” Prison abolition teaches that people often commit crimes because they are poor and need to survive, or because they are reproducing violence that was done to them in the past; they are trying to survive and cope in an oppressive world that criminalizes their existence, and therefore all systems of oppression must be dismantled in order to prevent harms. In the words of abolitionist Alexander Lee, “The absence of prisons is only one way of describing a society free of systems of inequity – white supremacy, male supremacy and the gender binary, capitalism, ableism, among other things – which produce violence, desperation, hatred, and suffering. Such a society would laugh off the outrageous idea of putting people into cages.”

Working with criminalized transgender people has convinced me of the necessity of prison abolition. In 2010, I started as an intern at TJLP. When friends would ask me what I was doing there, I would say “I’m working with trans people who have been wrongfully convicted.” Over time I saw that the reality of our clients’ lives was much more complicated – that regardless of guilt or innocence or whether someone “actually” committed a crime, their very survival was being policed, punished, and extinguished. Eventually it clicked that the term “wrongfully convicted” assumes that some people deserve to be punished and other people don’t, that guilty people deserve to be in cages and innocent people don’t. While many people are incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit – particularly in Chicago, the false confession capital – not every trans person is in prison because of police profiling. Yet regardless of what they may have done in the past, none of the people whom I have met in Illinois’ prison system deserve to endure the abuse, isolation, violence, and fundamentally oppressive environment of incarceration.

Seeing the harsh realities of incarceration for transgender people also challenged me to reframe my concept of community safety. The expansion of the prison system is often justified on the grounds of keeping people safe: the state builds new prisons, police are given tanks and assault rifles, neighbors call 911 when they see a “suspicious” person in their neighborhood – all in the name of community safety. While working with trans people in prison, I realized that we rarely think about the safety of people in prisons and jails; are they not also members of a community who also deserve to be safe? But when I tried to think of ways to make prisons safe for trans people – for example, housing trans women in women’s facilities – I realized that, while such reforms might reduce the harm in some ways, they wouldn’t actually help trans people live longer fuller lives, and they wouldn’t stop trans people from being arrested in the first place. Incarceration and contact with the police cannot be a safe experience for trans people because prisons and police are inherently violent, isolating institutions. How can you be safe when you’re locked in a cage, completely subject to the authority of people who hate you? At the end of the day, the safest thing for trans people – and for all people – is to be free from the threat of incarceration and policing altogether.

The current era of mass incarceration requires that we all ask ourselves fundamental questions about safety, punishment, race, gender, and oppression. Given the authority and knowledge that the legal system has granted to lawyers, we all have a responsibility to think critically about how we can contribute to a more just, safe, and affirming world for everyone whom the criminal legal system fails.


[1] The following story is being shared with permission, and the facts have been modified to protect anonymity.

[2] 735 ILCS 5/21-101 (2007).


Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Inspiration to Fight Evictions

Courtney Brown Picture
2015-16 Merit Distinction Honoree, Courtney Brown

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

This week, the 2015-16 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees are guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Golden Gate University School of Law student Courtney Brown, a multi-talented advocate dedicated to the eviction and housing crises facing San Francisco.

Inspiration to Fight Evictions
Courtney Brown, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2015-2016 (Golden Gate University School of Law)

Having a home is deeply rooted in one’s sense of stability and security; however, too often it can be taken away for the financial benefit of others, especially in San Francisco. San Francisco is currently facing the worst housing crisis in recent history. Here, income and housing inequality is growing rapidly. Increasing rents and evictions displace thousands of tenants, many of whom are low-income senior and/or disabled people. Eviction often displaces people from their long-term homes and San Francisco completely. With each eviction, San Francisco loses more of its culture and history.

Clients are the Inspiration

My clients’ desire and strength to fight for their homes and resist the most powerful eviction push in recent history inspires me every day to continue to do this work. Their inspiration is the driving force behind my late night study sessions, what gets me up in the morning after very little sleep, and what pushes me to stand up in front of often hostile judges to strongly advocate for my clients.

I am blessed every day to work alongside clients who have made San Francisco the city it is known to be. It is difficult to imagine the profound loss my clients feel when they lose not only their homes but also the communities in which they have lived for decades. I see just a fraction of the pain and stress in their eyes when they talk about leaving the community in which they grew up and raised their children and grandchildren. From artists and veterans, to seniors and people with disabilities, our city is being “cleansed” of everyone that gives this city the personality that makes it so unique. And yet, these people persevere in the face of struggle. And so do I.

As I continue my career in tenants’ rights law, I will continue to meet amazing people who helped build this city. While assisting clients in the battle to enforce their rights, I am inspired by their stories and their strength in the face of adversity.

One of my first clients was facing an Ellis Action eviction. In short, the Ellis Act is a California law that allows landlords to exit the rental business by evicting all of the tenants at the rental property. Unfortunately, this law that was put in place to assist “mom and pop” landlords, is now being abused by real estate speculators, who use the law to flip the rental property so they can make a profit. This client was a 69-year old Vietnam War Veteran who suffered from PTSD. Due to his condition, he was unable to leave the house for long periods of time, so when I needed to talk to him about his case or have him sign papers, I would always go to his house. He would tell me stories about the war and about the special unit he was assigned to, and no matter how many times we lost a motion in court regarding his eviction he was always looking for the bright side. Luckily, through our perseverance, the landlord, notorious in San Francisco for using the Ellis Act to flip properties, decided the fight was not worth it and dismissed the eviction action.

We Need You to Get Involved

San Francisco’s Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Ordinance regulates rent increases, evictions, and habitability standards to protect tenants from unlawful actions by their landlords. However, San Francisco tenants are unable to enforce the protections provided by the Rent Ordinance due to the lack of legal representation available for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. Few evictions occur because tenants lose an unlawful detainer action, but of the few, many are lost on procedural grounds. Instead, the vast majority of evictions in San Francisco occur because tenants are unable to find necessary representation when they are faced with eviction notices alleging false claims or when their landlords harass and intimidate them to leave without a fight.

Landlords in San Francisco have power due to income inequality, limited affordable housing, and lack of legal representation for tenants. The power differential allows landlords to use oral notices or serve eviction notices based on exaggerations and lies. For example, in San Francisco landlords have started using 3-day notices alleging nuisances to quickly evict tenants from their homes. The law surrounding nuisance evictions is very grey which allows for landlords to exaggerate allegations in the eviction notice. When tenants fight evictions through legal representation, they generally stop the eviction. However, many tenants are coerced through lack of resources into leaving their long-term homes without a fight. Additionally, many San Francisco tenants’ rights organizations do not provide tenants with the full-scope representation needed to fight these evictions, and instead provide limited-scope representation which has been found to be less effective in ensuring the tenants retain possession. Full-scope representation is when a client is represented throughout the entire eviction process, and the attorney handles every party of the case from the eviction notice to the trial or appeal of the case. Limited-scope representation is generally ghost-writing of documents for the tenants, including answers, and possibly attending a mandatory settlement conference with the tenant. Evictions can be dramatically reduced if more lawyers provide full-scope representation to low- and moderate-income tenants facing evictions.

There is a desperate need for law students and attorneys to provide full-scope representation to tenants facing evictions in San Francisco. The outcome differential between tenants provided with limited-scope representation and tenants provided with full-scope representation during an eviction is substantial. A study entitled In Pursuit of Justice? Case Outcomes and the Delivery of Unbundled Legal Services by Jessica K. Steinberg published in The Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law and Policy found that unrepresented tenants only retained possession 14% of the time and tenants who received limited-scope or unbundled representation only retained possession 18% of the time, while 55% of fully represented tenants were able to retain possession of their homes. The study also found that tenants receiving limited-scope representation did not secure more actual relief when fighting the eviction than the unrepresented tenants. To decrease the number of evictions in San Francisco, tenants must be provided with the full-scope representation necessary.

San Francisco continues to lose tenants every day as the city becomes more gentrified. These tenants want to stop this, and they have the desire and strength to push back against the evictions that are taking their homes. However, for them to be able to fully fight back and enforce the protections they are provided under the Rental Ordinance, they need attorney allies who can provide the necessary representation. Full-scope representation can only be provided if law students and attorneys contribute pro bono services in housing law.

Communities across the country need you to help us stop evictions and community fragmentation by getting involved with eviction defense work during law school. It will not only provide representation to someone facing eviction, it will also provide you with valuable experience, skill, and inspiration to carry forward into your career.


Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Opening Doors for Students and Clients – Temple Law Students and Criminal Record Expungements in Philadelphia

2015-16 Merit Distinction Honoree, Emily Bock

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

This week, the 2015-16 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. (This year’s Pro Bono Publico Award recipient, Lark Mulligan, will be published the following week.) Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Temple University Beasley School of Law student Emily Bock, a multi-talented advocate dedicated to criminal record expungement.

Opening Doors for Students and Clients: Temple Law Students and Criminal Record Expungements in Philadelphia
Emily Bock, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2015-2016 (Temple University Beasley School of Law)

In Pennsylvania, there are 11.1 African Americans and 6 Hispanics in federal or state prison for every White prisoner.[1] Nationally, there are more than twice as many people on probation or parole than there are incarcerated.[2] One in three United States adults will have been arrested by the age of 23.[3] The magnitude of the problem of criminal records is hard to comprehend, especially when we factor in people who are arrested, charged with crimes, and never convicted. In many cities, low-income communities of color are disproportionately policed as compared to higher-income, white communities.[4] This means that residents of low-income neighborhoods often have more criminal records,  adding more barriers to escaping poverty.[5] Around 87% of employers conduct criminal background checks during the hiring process, which makes any criminal record (conviction or otherwise) a potential barrier.[6] Philadelphia has the highest per capita incarceration rate of the 10 largest U.S. cities, with almost 7 out of every thousand citizens behind bars.[7] Additionally, Philadelphia is one of the poorest major cities in the United States, so when we consider the impact of criminal records on those who are most vulnerable, we must understand the extent of the devastation that our criminal legal system has wrought on poor people, especially poor people of color.[8]

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has been a pioneer in the practice of representing people with criminal records. I was very fortunate to learn from them as a Haverford House Fellow and paralegal for their Employment Unit, where I worked almost exclusively on criminal record expungement and pardon cases. When I was a 1L at Temple Law, I was fortunate again to work with their Employment Unit as we developed a new project for taking criminal expungement clinics to neighborhoods with high numbers of arrests without convictions. Since September 2014, the Temple National Lawyers Guild Expungement Project has worked with Community Legal Services to hold 9 clinics in different parts of the city – in Center City, Germantown, West Philadelphia, Kensington, Spring Garden, and Olney. We have interviewed approximately 165 potential clients, accepted 111 clients for representation, and filed almost 400 expungement petitions. During this time, over 100 law student volunteers have been trained to interview clients at the clinics.

Many students are surprised when they learn that in Pennsylvania, arrests without conviction remain on a person’s criminal record until they file an expungement petition. Students are also shocked when they hear that old convictions, especially minor convictions, cannot be expunged. In Pennsylvania, many misdemeanors and all felony convictions are not eligible for expungement or sealing, which leaves those with old convictions only one option for trying to clear their criminal records – applying for a pardon.[9]  However, there has been some progress. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf recently signed a bill into law that would permit sealing of minor (misdemeanor) convictions under certain circumstances.[10] This new law is huge step in the right direction for a state like Pennsylvania where the law on criminal records is fairly conservative.

This year we were lucky to have two first-year law student representatives working with our committee. Here is what they had to say about their work in our expungement clinics:

“I remember sitting with my first client at an expungement clinic. It was early Saturday morning and we were in a part of Philadelphia I had never been to before, that people reference with a certain tone of voice. The client I met with had a low-level conviction when he was very young, then about 10 years later he was arrested and charged with something more serious that he didn’t do. Even though those charges were dropped, he struggled to find a job after that. He currently works full time, and makes the same amount of money I did when I waitressed part time in high school. He supports a family—he has children my age, and several grandchildren. This expungement will mean that he can get a higher-paying job so that his hard work will take him farther.

It has been important to me to put a face to the population that people talk about in class, sometimes in less than respectful ways. It helps me see what a different world I live in than people I inevitably pass on the street every day, and to wonder if people I went to high school with would have such prestigious jobs if we grew up in a different place. I actually keep this client’s initials at the top of my law school to do list to remind me why I’m here and to keep me motivated so I can do as much good as I can.” – Liz, 1L Representative

“I had a very meaningful experience during my first clinic at the church in Germantown. It was an older woman who came in with her daughter. She was incredibly sweet — it was hard to imagine her having ever been in trouble with the law. But one incident about 30 years ago left her record with one conviction and several non-conviction records. I forget whether she was seeking housing assistance or employment; either way, this decades-old conviction was a major roadblock in her life. We told her that she could get the non-convictions expunged. Further, because she was arrest-free for so long, we said that she probably could also get the conviction pardoned. She and her daughter were so happy. It was amazing to me that this woman had lived for so many years with this burden, and we were able to so quickly help her. It was also gratifying to, in one case, employ the several legal tools we have available — expungements and pardons — to help this woman clean up her decades-old record and move forward with her life.” – Aaron, 1L Representative

When I do any work related to the criminal legal system, whether it is working with people who are incarcerated, people with criminal records, or people charged with crimes, I always make sure to emphasize that they are people first. Many people who are charged with crimes are never convicted of the crime, but are left with an arrest record that can create the same challenges as a conviction. They deserve the presumption of innocence that our criminal legal system affords them. I firmly believe that all people deserve a fundamental level of dignity and respect, not conditioned upon whether they have been convicted of a crime or have gone to prison. As one of my heroes, Bryan Stevenson said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”[11]

I am grateful that Temple Law School can now offer many opportunities to its students to see these words in practice – whether through the Temple NLG Expungement Project, or through any of its other excellent clinical offerings.


[1] Christopher Harney and Linh Vuong Created Equal: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, March 2009).

[2] U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Probation and Parole in the United States, 2008, NCJ 228230 (Dec. 2009), at 3.


[4] JPI Report:








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NALP Conference Sneak Peek: The Low Down on Low Bono

PSJD has pulled up stakes this week and decamped to NALP’s Annual Education Conference. At the moment, we’re preparing for the arrival of our conference participants on Wednesday. (We hope to see you there!) In particular, I’m excited for the large number of public-interest-oriented meetings taking place over the course of the conference. To kick your week off, here’s a piece from Niloufar Khonsari, the founder of Pangea Legal Services and a presenter at the conference. Enjoy, and remember–if you’re attending the conference you can follow-up about affordable fee work with her in person on Friday!

The Low Down on Low Bono:
Identifying a Need and Starting up a Nonprofit Organization

While the government funds many important pro bono programs in the United States, low-income communities are still underserved in many legal service areas: housing, family, criminal justice, public benefits, immigration and more.  This article focuses on the gap in immigration and removal defense services in Northern California and how nonprofit organizations can sustain themselves while filling some of that gap.

More than 29,000 immigrants currently find themselves in court proceedings at the San Francisco Immigration Court.[1]  Nationally, there are over 431,000 immigrants in court proceedings. With increased deportations nationwide, there is a clear need for court and immigration defense services. Immigrants in removal proceedings need a lawyer because of the complexity of immigration law and the negative consequences of deportation. Also, many immigrants in the court process are eligible for relief or protection under existing laws, and they may have a pathway to citizenship.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of immigrants have immediate access to legal counsel.  Private immigration attorneys can be prohibitively expensive. And most nonprofits, even in San Francisco, do not represent clients in complex removal proceedings. The key to this gap is providing access to counsel.

Pangea Legal Services (Pangea) is one example of an organization that was created to help bridge the access gap. While it hasn’t come without its challenges, Pangea created a low-fee, sliding-scale model that grew to five full-time employees between January 2013 and December 2014.  Low bono, or affordable fee models similar to Pangea are growing around the country in various areas of law, creating a financially viable avenue to fill the justice gap.[2]

Be Entrepreneurial and Find the Gaps.  You don’t need decades of experience to start an organization. As Steve Jobs said, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you.  And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”  The entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley tend to have three things in common: 1) identifying a solution to a problem, 2) pursuing that solution proactively, and 3) committing to creating social value.  Pangea was able to identify that within the area of immigration, deportation defense was significantly underserviced by the nonprofit community. This discovery was made by volunteering in the immigration nonprofit community, participating in policy advocacy work around immigration issues, and surveying senior advocates in the field about the needs within immigration legal services.  Identifying this gap and focusing on creating a solution for it was central to Pangea’s startup.

Get a Mentor, Ask for Advice.  Founder of ZenPayroll, Joshua Reeves, said that not having industry experience can be a real asset, as long as you recognize what you don’t know.[3]  Identifying what you don’t know then can be addressed by seeking guidance and mentorship in that field. The legal field is vast and complex and so is the world of human resources, employment law, finance, and nonprofit governance. There are many online resources and listservs, but personal relationships with experts in the field are the most helpful.  Many practitioners and experts are open to meeting with and advising nonprofits; connecting can be as easy as making a phone call or sending an email.  For its governance structure and compliance efforts, Pangea is currently in the process of building a team of advisors with expertise in areas such as finance and employment law.  For its legal services, Pangea has a network of at least a dozen senior attorneys from whom attorneys seek mentorship regularly. The organization has a weekly one-hour mentorship session with rotating senior immigration attorneys to consult on legal strategy, procedural questions, and complicated immigration cases.  The key to successful mentorship and seeking advisors is identifying your needs and organizational gaps.

Create Partnerships, Learn from Other Nonprofits.  Nonprofit organizations often collaborate with other nonprofit organizations on advocacy efforts, direct actions, clinics, and other projects.  Join their circles and learn from them!  This can be viewed as an extension of your organizational efforts to seek mentorship and formal advisors. Networks and partnerships with other organizations are essential to strong advocacy and quality legal representation, as they offer many tools, lessons, and resources for your organization.  Your local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) could be a great starting point.  Pangea staff began participating in advocacy coalitions and learning from other nonprofits through the local NLG-Bay Area immigration committee and the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee (SFIRDC).  Many of Pangea’s cases would not be successful, but for the strong partnerships, friendships, guidance and support from partner groups.

Obtaining 501(c)(3) status is not hard.  Registering a 501(c)(3) is logistically easier than you think.  You will need a Board of Directors, Articles of Incorporation, and Bylaws.  The instructions laid out in Form 1023 specify that you should set aside approximately ten hours to prepare and assemble your IRS filing.  While you can do it yourself, there are many pro bono attorneys at law firms, nonprofit organizations such as The Foundation Center, or low fee attorneys that can help you prepare your 1023.  Pangea received guidance from individuals who previously registered organizations, and we prepared our own forms without formal legal assistance.  This IRS process is more straightforward than one might believe; the key is to just do it.

Go Low Bono.  Low bono is an alternative to the corporate method of hourly billing at market rates.  Low bono could mean offering your legal services at below-market rates and allowing clients to pay through a low fee payment plan. The IRS has no cap on fees for services or products for nonprofit organizations, so the only restriction is the ability to pay of the community you seek to serve. There are very indigent clients who cannot pay any fee and require pro bono services.  However, there are also many hard-working low-income and moderate-income individuals who are more than willing to pay relatively small fees in increments (a few hundred dollars a month).  Many clients actually prefer to pay a small fee and invest into their case.  Pangea’s current low bono model is one that has a set fee for service, with a sliding scale monthly installment plan. Organizationally, finding the right balance between being sustainable and accessible can be challenging, and it is a continual trial and error process. While there are ongoing fee adjustments and necessary revenue diversification efforts in place at Pangea, the sliding scale low bono structure has created a starting point to create greater access to counsel for low-income immigrants.

Financial Assistance for Student Debt.  If you are going to hire lawyers straight out of law school and retain them, or, if you are in debt yourself, going low bono in a private practice will likely not pay your student loans. Fortunately, federal loan payment and forgiveness programs exist, and many law schools provide loan repayment assistance to attorneys working in nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Thus, incorporating as a nonprofit organization can provide critical financial assistance to your likely indebted staff.[4]

Scale-up with foundation support and grants.  Foundation and other grant funding is important to help you build capacity, scale up efforts, diversify the revenue pool, and increase pro bono services.  It can also support your engagement in non-revenue producing work such as legal empowerment, education efforts, and policy advocacy work. Starting with a sliding-scale fee structure can make your organization sustainable while leveraging foundation support for expansion efforts. There is a worry that this may reduce the funding pool for already existing free legal service providers; however it is possible that low bono structures will attract a new set of funders that previously did not exist, thus increasing the funding pool for all.  Funders prefer organizations that have diverse sources of revenue and are not solely reliant on one funding stream.  A low bono model allows you to create a consistent revenue stream of funds enabling you to do your work as you build on your organizational mission and vision; it creates a viable platform for funders to see your potential as a partner. For Pangea, the revenue brought in through low fees has leveraged additional resources (from the San Francisco and Silicon Valley Community Foundations) to go further than a new organization could if it were seeking funding from point zero.

Be Excellent.  This means working hard, focusing on thoroughness, addressing all issues and questions head-on, not leaving any pages unturned, and submitting timely products. It also means reacting to developments quickly, going the extra mile, and delivering for the community. Recognition of quality work happens quickly in the nonprofit community and building credibility is vital to a strong foundation. In the long term, the combination of dedication to excellent services and accessibility through low fees is a guaranteed recipe for success.

The nonprofit low bono model is an important capacity builder in developing access to legal services.  It is efficient, sustainable, and scalable. By creating organizations based on the low bono model, the legal needs of our low- and moderate-income communities can be increasingly met to create greater pathways to relief and safety.


Niloufar Khonsari is an immigration attorney and the founder of nonprofit organization, Pangea Legal Services, available at nilou [at]

[2] See, e.g. Open Legal Services,

[3] Joshua Reeves, “A Marathon, Not a Sprint,” Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Podcast, Feb. 25, 2015.

[4] It should be noted that many low bono private practice attorneys can use “Pay as you Earn” to pay back their student loans, which caps their payments based on their income and provides loan forgiveness after 20 years.



Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Restorative Justice at Strawberry Mansion High

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

Today, Christina is in Philadelphia presenting the Pro Bono Publico award to our 2014-15 recipient, Alex Dutton.  Alex, a student at Temple University Beasley School of Law, receives this year’s award for his work supporting Youth Court programs throughout the city of Philadelphia, beginning with his involvement at Strawberry Mansion High School. 

Restorative Justice at Strawberry Mansion High
Alex Dutton, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Recipient, 2014-2015
(Temple University Beasley School of Law)–

Strawberry Mansion High School, “Mansion” as it’s known in the community, is a behemoth of a building that consumes several city blocks at the corner of 31st Street and Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia.  Across the street are abandoned rowhomes, collapsing in upon themselves.  Students, dressed in collared shirts and khakis, scurry over jagged sidewalks under the shadows of the school’s immense façade.  Walking past the police car eternally parked on Ridge Avenue in front of the school, they file in through the front doors.  They wait to be screened by the metal detector.  Some of the students make it to the courtroom on the third floor on time, others straggle in late.  Always, the law students and attorneys are there, waiting, in this gem of a room (fitted with a jury box, witness stand, and bench) in the corner of a forgotten school in a forgotten neighborhood.  From the jury box, one can just barely make out the top of the William Penn statute that stands atop Philadelphia’s City Hall.  Eventually, a diminutive young lady, cloaked in a long black robe, adjourns the court.

No Right to Be Heard: Suspension Law and Due Process

Pennsylvania law provides effectively zero process for students suspended for three days or less.  In contrast, state law, pursuant to the Federal Constitution, requires school districts to provide formal process to students at risk of expulsion. 22 Pa. Code § 12.8(b).  In Philadelphia, a consent decree compels the School District of Philadelphia (“the District”) to provide similar procedural rights to students at risk of transfer to a disciplinary school. Dunmore v. School Dist. of Philadelphia, No. 72-43 (E.D. Pa, Feb. 14, 1973).  That same consent decree requires the District to hold a conference with students suspended on a short-term basis.  This conference is meant to provide staff, by speaking with the student, an opportunity to identify the student’s problematic behaviors and implement corrective techniques.  (Recall: this is still more than most students get in Pennsylvania, because of Dunmore.)

There are nearly 200,000 students in Philadelphia.  Cuts at the state level critically reduced funding for educational support staff, including guidance counselors and conflict resolution specialists.  As a result, these student conferences are perfunctory, if they are happening at all.  (I’m careful not to place blame with the District here; the District has done—and continues to do—a tremendous job reforming the process it provides students who are at risk of disciplinary transfer.)  Most students are just sent home with suspension paperwork and told to come back in a day or two.  In addition, many students are constantly funneled through in-school suspension—as damaging as a traditional exclusion—without any meaningful process or opportunity to be heard.

While this gap in due process may seem insignificant, it means schools suspend significantly more students than they might if each case were more carefully considered.  Research has long demonstrated that students who are suspended fare much worse than their peers.  Short-term suspensions are the entry point to the school-to-prison pipeline.  Suspensions lead to more suspensions, which precipitate expulsions and dropout, eventually pushing students into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  What’s more, recent research posits that students who remain in the classroom when their peers are suspended are worse off, too.[1]  Youth courts purport to fill this gap in due process, staffed with the greatest resource in the District: students.

Youth Courts and Restorative Justice

There are various models for youth courts.  Some use a traditional adversarial approach, assigning students to the roles of prosecutor and defense counsel.  Others use restorative justice techniques.  Restorative justice de-emphasizes school exclusion and challenges students to think constructively about conflict resolution.  At Strawberry Mansion, we used a restorative model.

When we first introduced restorative justice principles, our students were lost.  During a “mock” hearing, the jury wanted to force their peer “respondent” to clean the bathroom with a toothbrush for talking back to a teacher.  This, coming from students whose families had been ripped apart by the criminal and family justice systems?  (Just weeks earlier a student told a federal prosecutor that “all prosecutors and judges should burn in hell!”)  I couldn’t believe it.  I took a step back and thought to myself: Alex, you’re so naïve.  How could you ever expect anyone to respond in any other way other than what they’ve been taught, what they’ve learned through experience?  Our students were raised on punitive discipline.  In school, they were suspended and expelled.  On the streets, they were arrested and sent away.  So when we elevated our students to figures of authority, they reflected these punitive inclinations.

It was up to us to help our students question their assumptions about justice and conflict resolution.  We pressed our students to think about the impact of rules and the policies behind them.  Specifically, we encouraged them to consider the purposes of punishment, with a sharp focus on rehabilitation and restoration.  Why is making a student clean the bathroom an appropriate punishment for acting out in class?  How does the punishment relate to the harm the student caused to his classmates?  They applied these concepts in the hearings.

Our far-reaching goal is that students will apply these principles to their daily lives, in school and in their communities.  In the meantime, the youth court provided an opportunity for student-respondents, previously silenced under more primitive discipline regimes, to be heard.  In addition to providing process, the youth court destabilized the school-to-prison pipeline at Mansion: if the respondent completed his restorative assignment, the offense would be wiped from his record.  More importantly, he stayed in school.  Rather than being alienated from his peers, he engaged with them.

A Day in the Life of the Strawberry Mansion Youth Court: Lawyering Skills Alive in the Classroom

Student-respondents who appear before their peers must admit responsibility for violating the school code.  (And, really, these are minor infractions: cell phone use, uniform violations, talking in class, walking the halls, refusing to do school work, arguing with another student, arriving late to class.)  Effectively, the youth court process is a dispositional hearing; peer questioning exposes facts relevant to determining an appropriate punishment—the restorative assignment.

Prior to the hearing, the respondent meets with his “youth advocate,” a high school student trained to defend him.  With the assistance of a law student, the youth advocate interviews her peer-client.  She listens to him.  She inquires as to his motivations and what he thinks the appropriate punishment should be.  She levels with him when he is unreasonable.  Then, she presents this information to the jury: an opening statement.  Through this process, students learn crucial listening skills and gain exposure to public speaking.

Next, the judge opens the floor for questions from the jury.  To facilitate greater class participation, the jurors ask their peer-respondent questions.  The jurors proceed, guided by the Mansion Court’s mantra: FACTS.  HARM.  FIX IT.  Through questioning, the jurors attempt to uncover the facts of the case, the harm caused to the community by their peer’s conduct, and possible constructive solutions.  By uncovering the facts of what happened, the students assessed his culpability.  By inquiring into harm, the jurors determined the segments of the community that were affected and ripe for restoration.  As they go, the students fill out charts labeled: FACTS.  HARM.  FIX IT.  Their questions forced their peer to critically examine the consequences of his actions and included the him in the restorative process: “now that you have identified the harm caused, if any, what can you do to repair that harm, to restore our school community?”

We provided the high school students with the skills they needed to conduct this process.  We trained them in questioning techniques: open-ended and closed-ended questions, funneling, etc.  We exposed them to principles of restorative justice.  And we trained them to be good listeners.  (These are all skills that are often overlooked in law school.)

Youth Court at Strawberry Mansion HighTogether, the students guide their peers through the restorative process, making objections and requesting sidebars–concepts the Youth Court program staff never taught.
(Photo courtesy of Alex Dutton)

Together, the students guide their peers through the restorative process.  Every now and then, the youth advocate stands up: “Your Honor, they keep asking my client the same questions; make them move on to a solution.”  An objection!  The foreman disagrees: “we are trying to get to the bottom of what happened.”  The judge is concerned: “can you two come over here to talk with me.”  A sidebar!  We never taught these concepts.  The students, empowered with the skills to resolve disputes, improvised.  Advocates called out unfairness; jurors objected because they were untangling important and difficult aspects of the case; judges adjusted to ensure civility and efficiency.  All of this to ensure that their peer received his day in their courtroom.

Eventually, the jury returns a verdict: a parent conference so that the school knows the student’s father plans to call the school in the morning to make sure his daughter arrived safely.  Why?  She had been stepping out of the classroom each morning to pick up her father’s call.

Final Remarks

Of course, youth courts are far from the only solution to the school pushout problem.  In my view, school districts should adopt a variety of interventions—some restorative, some not—that would collectively transform schools from punitive institutions to compassionate, empowering communities.  Our schools expend so much energy excluding students from school, just to kick the can down the road—to another school, or worse, to our public dependency systems, including prison.  Why not spend this energy empowering our students?

My charge to future law students and lawyers is this: be creative, be bold!  Youth courts provide a platform for young people to reform their schools; a legal education is your platform to improve your community.

[1] Brea L Perry & Edward W. Morris, Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools, 79 No. 7 American Sociological Review 1067 (December 2014).