Georgia State College of Law students have a chance to get hands-on experience through a trio of off-campus clinics. In addition to three in-house clinics, students also have the opportunity to work with clients before graduation through the Capital Defender Clinic, Mediation Clinic and Olmstead Disability Rights Clinic.
All three off-campus clinics are dealing with new challenges this year working remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In spite of these challenges, students are continuing to gain valuable practice experience beyond the classroom.
“We are fortunate to have long-established relationships with expert lawyers and legal organizations that partner with us to offer these unique clinics,” said Lisa Bliss, associate dean of experiential education. “Our off-campus clinics provide students with opportunities to learn from experts through the seminar component of the course, and to explore the role of a lawyer in those practice contexts through fieldwork with their course professors.”
In the Mediation Clinic, students receive intensive training and become registered as mediators at the start of the school year. For two semesters students mediate real disputes between landlords and tenants in Fulton and DeKalb Counties.
When an agreement is reached, students draft legally binding settlements between the parties. As many as 150 cases are mediated by the 16 clinic participants, and 85 percent of the clinic’s cases are settled.
“Nothing takes the place of practical experience,” said supervising attorney Bonnie Powell. “Students are able to immediately apply skills they learned in training. Within weeks, their skills improve tenfold.”
For students, the clinic offers more than a chance to get out of the classroom. It also offers a chance to explore possible career paths. A direct interest in landlord-tenant law may not exist with every student, but the skills used in mediation translate to other fields and can be valuable to any student.
“I just thought it would be a good opportunity to learn the skills,” said student Drew Smith (J.D. ’22). “I’m not sure whether I would want to mediate or not, but I think it can make me a better negotiator. You can see how these things play themselves out and learn from it.”
While students would typically be preparing to mediate their first cases, much of the court’s calendar remains in flux, and even once mediations do resume, they may be done remotely.
“We’re 100 percent reliant on technology,” Powell said. “That’s tough in our field. You like to be able to get the parties together in a room, but we’re learning as we go, and students are now being trained to conduct virtual mediation sessions in response to this pandemic.”
Regardless of ultimate career paths and the nature of this year’s mediations, Powell said she hopes the experiences of the clinic will continue to benefit the students throughout their careers.
“Former students frequently comment on how their mediation skills help them in their practice,” she said. “Students develop strong interpersonal skills, learn the importance of negotiation and compromise, and get familiar with the details of drafting agreements. Hopefully they move on appreciating the process and making it available as an option to future clients.”
Capital Defender Clinic
The Capital Defender Clinic gives students experience working in one of the legal system’s most important areas, assisting criminal defendants who are facing the death sentence or are on direct appeal from a death sentence with the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender.
Students in the clinic conduct investigations interview clients and witnesses, compile evidence, conduct research, draft pleadings and stay involved in each phase of the case.
“I think it fills in the gaps in their legal education,” said supervising attorney Josh Moore. “Working with clients is a big deal. It brings those legal principles into the real world and gives students a chance to work with them.”
There is no easing into the real-world experience, though, as students are immersed in high-stakes cases with real-world implications. Moore said the experience is never something “you never get comfortable with,” but getting exposure to it as early as possible is beneficial.
“It gives you appreciation for the awesome authority of the law,” he said. “We have to act as checks on that. I think seeing it from this close up gives you a different perspective.”
The opportunity to get that different perspective on the criminal justice system is not the only thing drawing students to the clinic, though. The chance to interact with clients and hear their stories also proved to be a draw for students.
“We’re learning to be there for the clients as people,” said participant Emma Riedley (J.D. ’22). “Everyone is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done, and we focus on that.”
Both aspects have been strained this year with new procedures put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of any video conferencing provided by the Department of Corrections has made things even more difficult.
“All we have are phone calls, so it’s hard to communicate with clients openly and honestly sometimes,” he said. “I’ve been pleased with the remote learning in the clinic so far, though. They’ve been conducive to it, and we’re making it work.”
Olmstead Disability Rights Clinic
While participating in the Olmstead Disability Rights Clinic, student have a chance to help disabled adults and children enforce their Olmstead rights to receive aid. Students work alongside Atlanta Legal Aid, performing administrative advocacy to help qualified individuals secure the aid granted to them by the Olmstead Act.
“The students work right alongside us,” supervising attorney Susan Walker Goico said. “We have cases come in, and it’s really just about trying to help people get what they need.”
Olmstead cases can be lengthy, so students are not always able to handle a case from the beginning. Instead, Goico said she asks them to jump in wherever needed to get through the caseload.
“If we have a case that’s just beginning, we like to start them there,” she said. “Oftentimes, we ask students to drop in wherever we are. We just have them dive right in. They come up to speed really quickly in my experience and do a lot of good for our clients.”
While the clinic keeps its six-student roster busy, that is part of the appeal of the program. The more cases the clinic can handle, the more people students can help.
“I really liked seeing how it all works,” said participant Mia Falcon (J.D. ’22). “There are a lot of moving parts I didn’t really know about before. It all goes toward doing good, though. What we’re doing matters. The little projects lay the foundation for a lot of good.”
There is plenty of foundation laying to be done too. Students do case work, research, client interviews and intake interviews alongside attorneys, who also benefit from the relationship.
“The students are very helpful,” Goico said. “Just having their extra hands and brains around to do client interviews or drafting is a huge help. The clients love them too.”
The clinic will look somewhat different this year than it has in the past. In addition to being shortened from two semesters to one, all of the work has also moved virtually as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s all online,” Goico said. “Atlanta Legal Aid’s offices are closed. We have been remote since March, so the students are remote too.”
Written by Alex Resnak