Representing survivors of domestic violence, assisting transgender clients with changing their names, and determining the need for guardianship are some of the types of cases UMass Law students are working on as they develop their legal practice skills in the Human Rights at Home Clinic (HRAC).
“This is an amazing group. They’ve really dug into their cases,” said Professor Margaret Drew, director of the HRAH Clinic, of last semester’s students. “Students interview clients and do research like they are operating their own practice. They get a sense of working with others. They ask for help and advice from each other. They understand the pressure of working with clients. Sometimes they prepare clients, but don’t represent them. There is lots of hands-on experience in clinic work.”
UMass Law students participate in law clinics and real-world field placements to put into practice the knowledge they gain in the classroom while providing free legal services to the community. In fact, the law school offers students a 100% guaranteed clinic or internship placement rate.
In addition to various internship field placements throughout MA, including two new sites–UMass Medical School and Fall River Family Services–UMass Law students can choose to participate in one of five clinics, including HRAH, Community Development, Criminal Prosecution, Immigration, and Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Legal Services. Each clinic typically includes eight second- and third-year law students who work from 17.5-20 hours/week and represent clients who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. During their second or third year of law school, students can obtain a provisional student license to appear in court on behalf of clients in civil cases. In their final year of law school, they may also represent the commonwealth in criminal cases.
Under the guidance of Professor Drew, students in the HRAH Clinic conduct research, handle court appearances, and prepare clients for hearings. In a two-hour seminar component, students discuss their work in “case rounds,” as well as a reading or presentation on other topics such as mindfulness, self-care, or skills building.
This past semester, students participating in the HRAH Clinic worked on a range of current issues, including:
- representing survivors of domestic violence in Family Court
- the CORI Project, which works with clients to seal their criminal records for crimes that are unrelated to their potential as an employee or tenant but may interfere with access to both
- the Transgender Name Change Project, assisting transgender clients through the process of name changes as part of their transition. Since its founding four years ago, this project has grown much more active, said Drew, due to student outreach to the LGBTQ community and their parents.
- the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls to assist with research, legislative education, and issues related to an early release and other concerns
- field placement at UMass Medical School, which involves competency hearings for those seeking release from psychiatric care or hearings for those whom a hospital, or others, believe should receive such care
- field placement at Fall River Family Services, a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive services for those in need of guardianship, usually elderly clients. Students, who work directly under the agency’s full-time lawyer, observe physical and psychological assessments, as well as the legal side of the work, to determine if guardianship is needed.
In an international experience, UMass Law students worked with students in a Brazilian human rights clinic focusing on reproductive rights, namely access to birth control and legal abortions. They are researching and developing a handbook on U.S. cases while students in Brazil will do the same with cases in their country. Both groups of students–at UMass Law and at Ibmec University in Sao Paolo—strategize about advocacy measures that work well.
Experiential opportunities reinforce classroom experiences for law students
Through their clinical and field placements, students are able to integrate their law classes with real-world experience. Emily Dillan, JD candidate ’23 from Sandwich, MA, worked in the HRAH Clinic and is a Rule 3.03 student attorney. She has represented two clients before the Bristol County Probate & Family Court.
“My time in the clinic has been very rewarding. It has been an incredible experience to work directly with clients, and I have learned so much from Professor Drew and my peers throughout this process,” said Dillan. “I also find that my time in the clinic has synthesized and expanded upon my classroom learning in a very practical way.
“For example, I took Professor Drew’s Domestic Violence class last fall, which was invaluable to working in the clinic because there is so much overlap between the course material and the clinic’s work. I am also taking Evidence right now and regularly see a real-life application of the course’s concepts as I prepare for hearings. It’s simultaneously powerful to learn something in the classroom one week and then practice it before a judge the next. It’s helped me to build both my skillset and my confidence as an attorney as I apply our coursework in the real world.”
Emily Tumber, JD candidate ’23 of Providence, RI, is a part-time night student; by day, she works as a long-term policy coordinator for Rhode Island Medicaid. Tumber’s financial background has been helpful in assisting her HRAH Clinic colleagues with their cases.
In a divorce case, Tumber and her clinic partner, Michelle Fotev ‘23, guided their client through next steps and long-term options for her client and her children. For an adoption case, the clinic provided limited representation to coach the client in preparation for a fair hearing. “The client reported that the hearing went well and that the clinic’s support helped her make the strongest case possible for herself,” said Tumber.
“I have certainly put my classroom learning to practice in the clinic and have also developed some soft skills that can’t be taught in the classroom,” she said. “The clinic has also helped me to bring several areas of law together and it is helpful to see how they work in tandem. I have primarily seen the crossover of Civil Procedure and Family Law, but also some of the skills we learned in our practical courses, such as client interviewing and counseling taught in Legal Skills III.”
Nikki Medeiros, director of adult day health and guardianship services for Fall River Family Services, is enjoying working with Taylor Holland, JD candidate '23. “She is working directly with our attorney. She has done everything, is a quick learner, and we couldn’t ask for a better intern. We’ve been very lucky to have Taylor with us.”
Field placements offer similar real-world opportunities
In their field placements, students work between 130-170 hours per semester. UMass Law’s field placements range from judicial internships, government placements, and private practice, and include a new placement at UMass Medical School in Worcester.
Kylie Hammonds, JD candidate ‘23 from Lumberton, NC, worked at the Worcester Recovery Center & Hospital (WRCH), an affiliate of the medical school. She prepared legal documents on behalf of WRCH for when an individual is civilly committed to the hospital, and she helped to prepare mental health expert witnesses for trial. Hammonds also worked on a case that involved WRCH filing a petition to continue treating a patient who had reached the expiration of his commitment, which was revolved in favor of the hospital.
“This field placement has rewarded me with trial preparation, developing strong legal arguments, drafting legal memoranda, case management, professionalism, statutory interpretation, and many other skills,” Hammonds said.
According to Drew, students gain a larger view of what a case might be about and the best approach for the client. “Sometimes a legal remedy is not the best solution. Students have to interpret what the client is telling them and develop a case plan by doing research and collecting evidence. But I want them to have a sense of compassion for their client, as well as a good professional sense of who they are as legal professionals. That way students can handle the case professionally without getting bogged down in particular aspects of a case.
“It’s important to be able to work with clients who are traumatized and listen to their history and why they need counsel,” Drew added. “It’s important for law students to see their clients from a human rights perspective.”
Following their work in the clinic and after graduation, some UMass Law students work in human rights while others work for legal service organizations. Most pursue private practice or work in courts, and virtually all credit their experience working in the clinic as essential preparation for legal practice.