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Now located at 2000 G Street, NW, across the street from the Law School complex, the clinics started in three rooms of now-demolished Bacon Hall. At one time, they were housed in Stockton Hall.
Claire Duggan

By Jamie L. Freedman

For 35 years, GW Law has provided effective legal services to the Washington community and beyond through the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics. Through strong faculty leadership and skillful student participation, the program has grown steadily into uncharted legal and research territories. Today, it boasts several unique clinics that make an international impact felt by thousands of clients each year. Programs including vaccine injury, mediation, and small business clinics were either pioneered by or can only be found at GW Law.

Experienced faculty members guide GW Law’s clinical programs. From left to right, back row: Peter Meyers, Mary Clark Brittingham, Anne Oleson, Suzanne Jackson, Susan Jones, Jennifer Lyman, and Arturo Carrillo. From left to right, front row: Carol Izumi, Joan Meier, Alberto Benitez, Joan Strand, and Jeffrey Gutman.

Claire Duggan

“GW Law has long been at the vanguard of clinical education,” says Carol Izumi, associate dean for clinical affairs and professor of clinical law, who has overseen the operation since 2003. “We were one of the first law schools in the country to have a mediation, small business, immigration law, and international human rights clinic, and are still the only school with a vaccine injury clinic.”

During her 20 years at the Law School, Izumi and her colleagues have helped students work with clients to achieve legal victories. The students gain invaluable practical experience, clients gain much-needed advice—and faculty members guide the process.

Professor of Law Eric S. Sirulnik, LLM ’70, a clinical legal education expert, took the reins of GW Law’s fledgling enterprise in 1972. He has guided it through three decades of growth. During his 31 years as director of the clinics, Sirulnik oversaw the program’s ascent to one of the largest and most highly regarded clinical programs in the nation. “It was quite a challenge to legitimize clinical law, which, for many years, was the stepchild of the Law School,” Sirulnik says. “In the early days, we operated entirely on soft money, and I continually fundraised for grants to keep the clinics running.”

The uphill battle has been worth it for Sirulnik, who describes himself as a product of late 1960s social activism. As a public interest lawyer, he is inspired by the concept of legal services helping people. “I thought, ‘If I can handle 100 cases a year, just imagine the impact of training 100 others to do the same,” he says.

Eric Sirulnik, founding director of GW Law’s clinical programs

Jessica McConnell

GW Law’s clinical program began modestly—in three small rooms on the third floor of the long-demolished Bacon Hall. Staffing was likewise humble: Sirulnik, a part-time Job Corps secretary, and a few students. “The first year, we were so tiny that I lent one of our offices to John Banzhaf, who needed the space.” As grants started coming in, Sirulnik hired two full-time supervising attorneys in 1973, followed by another three lawyers. Early on, he also hired office manager Norma Lamont, who continues to direct the operation’s administrative efforts.

The clinics later took over the first floor of Bacon Hall, then moved to a suite in Stockton Hall, and, in the 1990s, to their current home at 2000 G Street, NW, across the street from the Law School complex.

Initially, clinic projects focused on environmental and civil rights litigation and direct legal services for low-income clients, including income tax assistance and consumer protection. As the clinics grew, their mission increased in scope. Groundbreaking courses were added, such as the Vaccine Injury Clinic, Consumer Mediation Clinic, and, most recently, the International Human Rights Clinic. The IHRC allows GW Law students to contribute to the development and protection of human rights around the world.

Today, GW Law boasts one of the most diverse clinical offerings in the country, with nine clinics, each led by a top-notch supervising attorney. Clinical faculty members—whom Izumi calls the “backbone of the enterprise”—cumulatively train 200 law students annually and offer a broad range of legal experience.

Civil and Family Litigation Clinic

Some have devoted decades to the operation, such as Joan Strand, JD ’75, professor of clinical law and former president of the D.C. Bar. A former clinical student, Strand has directed the Civil and Family Litigation Clinic since 1979. “When I entered law school, I was interested in becoming either a lawyer or a social worker,” says Strand, who studied torts under Sirulnik. As a 3L, she participated in the D.C. Law Students in Court Program, a clinic run by a consortium of five local law schools, and was hooked.

Strand’s students are responsible for cases involving divorce, custody issues, visitation, and property issues, she says, “from the time they interview their client and draft the pleading to the moment they stand up in front of the judge.”

Skillfully transferring legal theory into practice, the students succeed in the courtroom. “Last year, we helped a grandmother get legal custody of a teenage child whose mother had a drug problem, and finalized a divorce for a woman who had been separated for 30 years,” says Strand. “We just finished a case where a client regained custody of her son after his father had taken him. It was an uphill battle, but we won.”

Vaccine Injury Clinic

Like Strand, Peter H. Meyers, JD ’71, became involved with the clinics as a student and went on to make a name for himself in the field. An experienced litigator, Meyers directed GW Law’s Federal, Criminal, and Appellate Clinic from 1992 to 1993. He then engineered the Law School’s expansion into new territory in 1994 with the launch of the one-of-a-kind Vaccine Injury Clinic.

“Our students represent the families of young children and adults who are seeking compensation for vaccine-related injuries and death under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986,” explains Meyers, who established the clinic with Sirulnik in response to suggestions by several judges on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. “We’ve obtained substantial settlements for our clients in a wide variety of cases, through negotiation and litigation, ensuring that people with severe vaccine-injury related mental and physical disabilities receive excellent care for the rest of their lives.”

In one of the clinic’s most memorable victories, students won a multi-million dollar settlement for a client in Iowa whose 10-year-old daughter suffered brain damage and a seizure disorder resulting from a government-mandated measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination. The settlement allowed for greater accessibility to the client’s house, round-the-clock nursing and medical care, and the client to live at home with her family.

Meyers’ students take on “the cutting-edge, difficult cases that other lawyers won’t take.” He explains: “When the Hepatitis B vaccine was added to the Vaccine Injury Act, our students took on some of the earliest, precedent-setting cases.” In the first case to be brought under the act, the clinic negotiated a substantial settlement for an emergency medical technician who suffered serious nerve damage after getting the Hepatitis B shot and couldn’t work in her field anymore. “The settlement allowed her to go back to school, start a new life, and pay her medical expenses, establishing a great baseline for future cases,” Meyers says.

Small Business Clinic

Another GW Law “first” is the Small Business Clinic, established in 1977 as the premier clinic in the country devoted to providing free start-up legal services to Washington-area entrepreneurs, nonprofit groups, and arts organizations. Since 1988, Susan R. Jones, chair of the clinical section of the American Association of Law Schools, has led the enterprise.

At the beginning, “people just didn’t see the connection between business clinics and social justice,” Jones says. “As small business law expanded over the years into a ‘legitimate’ part of the public interest movement, there’s been a huge proliferation in the number of small business clinics nationally, and GW Law has served as a model for many of them.”

GW’s clinic, launched as the local legal specialty center for the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Development Program, represents micro-businesses with start-up capital of $500 to $35,000. “I love walking around town past the businesses and dance and theater companies we’ve helped to launch, and seeing where we’ve made a difference,” Jones says. Recently, that work has expanded to include community economic development efforts in sections of Washington undergoing revitalization. This is an ideal venture for Jones, who is vice chair of the D.C. Bar’s Community Economic Development Pro Bono Project.

One of the clinic’s most rewarding cases this year involved assisting an entrepreneur interested in opening a Maui Wowie smoothie stand at Dulles International Airport. “The airport has a plan for working with economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs, and this gentleman came to us for help reviewing contracts and going over the very complicated, 120-page lease from Dulles,” she explains. “When I was at the airport this summer with my nieces, it was a great feeling to look across and see the smoothie stand and know that our students played a role in making it happen.”

Immigration Law Clinic

Alberto M. Benitez, who has led GW Law’s Immigration Law Clinic since 1996, also has witnessed tremendous growth in his clinical field. Established in 1979, the clinic has an outstanding reputation in Washington for defending the rights of resident aliens. “Despite the abundance of lawyers in the United States, there is a critical shortage of competent immigration lawyers,” Benitez says. “Over the years, clinic students have developed an expertise in representing aliens in removal proceedings, dramatically increasing their clients’ odds of remaining lawfully in the United States.” Benitez’s students also have won cases involving controversial issues such as female genital mutilation, torture, and HIV-status, and have obtained freedom from detention for aliens.

For 35 years, students have supported the clinics through countless hours of research, client interaction, and advocacy. In turn, they gain invaluable practical experience.

Jessica McConnell

“Our clinic specializes in preventing aliens’ removal from the country, and our students are very good at it,” says Benitez. “In immigration law, the bureaucracy is so vast and overwhelming that it often seems insurmountable.” The clinic secured a huge victory in August, when an out-of-status alien who had been in the United States since 1988 became a lawful permanent resident. “He’d been working menial jobs all these years, with no real security, and now he’s out of the shadows and legal,” Benitez says.

Like many of his colleagues, Benitez keeps in touch with students after they graduate. “I’m always getting e-mails and phone calls from former students telling me what’s going on in their lives,” he says, noting that he had lunch with seven law clinic alumni during a recent trip to Chicago.

Consumer Mediation Clinic

Izumi says it is an honor to watch students develop their skills through the clinics. “Over the course of a semester, you can see tremendous development in our clinical students’ confidence, skills, poise, and professionalism.”

She heads the Consumer Mediation Clinic, the oldest law school mediation program in the country; it was the only one of its kind in Washington for 20 years. The clinic helps consumers and businesses resolve disputes by crafting mutually agreeable settlements. “GW Law School embraced alternative dispute resolution early on,” Izumi explains. “For many years, we were the only law school clinic that gave students a chance to work with people as neutral mediators rather than as legal representatives.”

The clinic, which receives several hundred requests for mediation assistance from local consumers each year, added a new component in 2000—the Community Dispute Resolution Center Project, where students mediate misdemeanor cases referred by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “It’s a unique program in the country,” says Izumi, who has chaired the American Association of Law Schools Sections on Alternative Dispute Resolution and on Clinical Legal Education.

International Human Rights Clinic

Another groundbreaking program is GW Law’s International Human Rights Clinic—the newest clinic in the program and one of the few clinics in the country dedicated to litigating human rights cases before U.S. and international tribunals.

“We debuted on the big stage,” says founder and director Arturo Carrillo, JD ’91. “During our inaugural semester in spring 2004, our students were members of the legal team that briefed and argued the seminal case of Sosa v. Alvarez Machain before the U.S. Supreme Court. Last year, clinic student Lina Fattom, JD ’05, participated in a first-of-its-kind international arbitration hearing before the Ethiopia-Eritrea Claims Commission at The Hague, The Netherlands.”

Other IHRC highlights include a case brought on behalf of Guantanamo Bay detainees that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and preparation of an amicus brief on behalf of 20 U.S. law professors in support of extradition proceedings in Chile against Alberto Fujimori, former dictator of Peru.

Federal Criminal and Appellate Clinic

“Meeting your client in prison really brings home the meaning of ‘representation,’” says Jennifer Lyman, co-director of GW Law’s Federal Criminal and Appellate Clinic along with Anne Olesen. Since the early ’90s, the clinic has represented indigent clients on appeal and in state post-conviction proceedings in serious felony cases. Olesen and Lyman emphasize that each student handles a whole case as lead counsel—from opening brief through court decision.

FCAC students recently won a new trial for a client under a 10-year mandatory sentence in a drug case. While the trial prosecutor admitted the key police witness was unreliable, the appellate court only reversed because the trial judge refused to ask potential jurors a question exposing their biases about drug use.

“Even clients facing life sentences seek out student lawyers for their energy and commitment,” says Olesen.

Public Justice Advocacy Clinic

Class-action litigation is the focus of GW Law’s Public Justice Advocacy Clinic, directed by Jeffrey Gutman. “Our students have litigated and successfully settled cases challenging the D.C. Public Schools’ failure to have emergency evacuation plans for mobility impaired students and a D.C. agency’s policy of terminating foster care benefits without notice,” says Gutman, who co-founded the clinic in 2001.

A student-led class-action suit challenging the D.C. Jail’s practice of holding some prisoners beyond their release dates and performing illegal strip searches was resolved through settlement. The PJAC also is serving as co-counsel for plaintiffs in class action cases aimed at reforming the D.C. Disability Compensation program termination policies and seeking to secure special education services for disabled preschoolers in Washington. The clinic also has been successful in securing partnerships with private law firms and public interest organization to help with cases.

Health Rights Law Clinic

Large numbers of low-income Washingtonians benefit from the Health Rights Law Clinic, created in 1995 to help residents resolve disputes with public health programs, private health insurance companies, and medical providers. Each year, the clinic serves more than 4,000 community members through direct legal services, counseling, and information sessions.

“Student advocates have helped countless seniors and people with disabilities escape from crushing debts for health care, some big, some small, none insignificant to the people whose problems were solved,” says Suzanne Jackson, director of the clinic. “Our students are honing their lawyering skills in this area of rapidly growing national importance.”

Domestic Violence Project

Also under the clinical umbrella is the Domestic Violence Project, directed by Joan S. Meier, a nationally recognized expert on domestic violence and the law whose domestic violence clinics at GW Law have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice as leading national models. “The Domestic Violence Project is the third of a series of new models for teaching about domestic violence in the clinical setting,” says Meier, who previously founded and directed the Domestic Violence Litigation Clinic and the Domestic Violence Emergency Department Clinic. “In this new program, students work as domestic violence advocates with public interest and pro bono lawyers in the field, providing them with the opportunity to help prepare domestic violence cases for trial, work on legislative and policy reforms, and experience what it’s like to be a real-world domestic violence lawyer.”

Meier, who founded the non-profit Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project, has involved her students in Supreme Court and other appellate court litigation. Last year, Rebecca Hoffman, JD ’06, wrote a key part of a Supreme Court brief that had an impact on the court’s decision in Davis v. Washington—resulting in a significant victory for victims of abuse. Lissa Percopo, JD ’07, who as a student spent a year as an intern in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, was the first student to receive a Victim’s Service Award in recognition of outstanding field work and two class projects she designed that provide information and support to victims and to other interns.

In addition to honing professional skills, Meier says her students are “developing their sense of the realities of domestic violence law.”

Experience in Action

Faculty members and students involved with the clinics are eager to turn support they gain from the GW Law community and external sources into further growth and action. “We’ve never been content just to maintain the clinics,” Izumi says. To aid that effort, funds from donors ensure that GW Law stays at the forefront of clinical legal education, including a $2.4-million cy press award from attorney Phil Friedman and a $2-million pledge from the Jacob Burns Foundation to endow a clinical faculty chair.

Dean Frederick M. Lawrence says the clinics are a point of pride for the Law School and will continue to be so in the future. “I am delighted to congratulate the GW Law Clinics on providing 35 years of exceptional legal service to the Washington community,” Lawrence says. “We have been blessed with dedicated faculty and with committed students, who come to understand that public interest is not just a branch of law, it is a way of life, incumbent upon all lawyers in our society. I look forward to all that can yet be accomplished in this extraordinarily important part of our legal education program.”