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Justice for All

At LAW, students serve the public interest

Brendan Doherty (LAW’06) in front of Boston’s John F. Kennedy Federal Building, where he represented an asylum seeker in Immigration Court. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Brendan Doherty was a third-year student at the School of Law when he got his first case: a former political activist from Democratic Republic of the Congo seeking asylum in the United States. Doherty was working in the Civil Litigation Clinic, and “given the consequences that could certainly result if I lost this case — persecution, torture, execution,” Doherty says, he felt great pressure to win.

Doherty is among the many LAW students participating in public interest programs, which are available all over the country and the world, in LAW clinics, summer internships, externships, and a variety of organizations. From working with the Neighborhood Defense program in Harlem, which provides criminal and civil defenders as well as youth outreach, to assisting Actione, an international microfinance organization, LAW students serve the public interest through litigation and policy advocacy. “The goal,” says Maura Kelly, associate director of career development at the school, “is to infuse the notion that public service should be part of one’s life.”

The Congolese man had been involved in a church his government viewed as a political opponent, and was detained and tortured on numerous occasions. He managed to come to the United States on a student visa a few years ago, but once here, he learned that his government was still after him.

Doherty (LAW’06) was assigned the case under the supervision of Susan Akram, a LAW clinical associate professor and a specialist in immigration and refugee law. The students’ “realization that possibly people could lose their lives, that this rides on their work, is a tremendous driving force to do their best,” says Akram, who recalls a night Doherty spent on the Greater Boston Legal Services floor waiting for a faxed affidavit from the Congo for a hearing the next day. Because asylum cases can run for years and students spend just a year at the clinic, a case often will be handled by several students consecutively. Akram and other faculty members in their respective clinical areas provide the continuity. By the time Doherty inherited the case, it had been in the works for more than a year.

The case included nine hearings. His client had already given direct testimony and been cross-examined, so Doherty’s initial job was to prepare eyewitnesses for direct and cross-examinations. He also prepared a medical expert witness, who examined the client’s scars and verified that they were consistent with his story, as well as a country expert, who provided the context of the Congo’s political and religious atmosphere.

Doherty won the case. “For me, the focus was less on immigration law and more on what I learned about individuals who have such difficulties and how to help them. In some ways, that’s really what the law is about — how to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves.”

This fall Doherty began a job with the U.S. State Department’s Office of War Crimes Issues, where he monitors a designated region abroad for war crimes and works on developing related U.S. foreign policy. His public interest experience at LAW and his attraction to a career he describes as “helping others, while at the same time helping yourself,” led him to this civil service post.

The rules in action

Thousands of people go through the U.S. courts each year “with no lawyer at all or with a lawyer who does not have the time, resources, or in some cases the inclination to provide effective representation,” according to a 2004 report by the American Bar Association. Manuel Velez (LAW’06) saw the problem firsthand when he worked with public defenders in Boston Municipal Court last year. Despite their professionalism, “often their caseloads are so large that sometimes clients don’t get as much individual focus,” he says. In contrast, because he and his fellow students in LAW’s Criminal Law Clinic had far fewer cases, they could concentrate more on each one. “We’re young and optimistic,” he says. “We’re more willing to try motions, even if there’s only a small chance of success.”

Among the defendants in his eight cases was a Middle Eastern woman accused of larceny. Prosecutors wanted a continuance without a finding, meaning that the charge would be pending but the matter would be dropped in a few years if the defendant was not arrested again. But for an immigrant, according to Velez, that disposition could result in deportation. Young and single, his client was afraid to return to her country, where she had no family.

With the guidance of clinic director David Rossman, a LAW professor, who played devil’s advocate during rehearsals, Velez and his team “investigated every avenue, rehearsed, and anticipated objections,” he says, and finally succeeded in getting the case dismissed. Although gratified and pleased for his client, Velez says that “it’s not my job to determine guilty or not guilty, just to make sure that the commonwealth presents proper evidence and that procedure is followed. It’s up to the judge and jury.”

This fall he began a clerkship for a federal district judge in his native Puerto Rico. He regards the clinic as his best experience at LAW. “The evidence and criminal procedure courses came alive,” he says. “I learned how to apply the rules; I saw them in action.”

Morally satisfying

The Criminal Law Clinic also serves juvenile defendants, and for Deidrie Buchanan (LAW’06), this has become a passionate commitment. A participant in the clinic last fall, she found that she loved working with these children. She was surprised that many of her clients came from homes with two concerned parents, but “somehow, some way, the kids just decided to get involved with the wrong kind of crowd,” she says. Her mission was to “try to help get them on the right path.

Deidrie Buchanan (LAW’06)
works on behalf of juvenile
defendants. Photo by
Kalman Zabarsky

Buchanan and her student colleagues, under the supervision of Wendy Kaplan, a clinical associate professor, defended children aged 7 to 17 accused of misdemeanors ranging from driving without a license to armed robbery (“It was a BB gun, thank God,” Buchanan says).

She believes that ideally the juvenile court should try to discover what leads a child astray and attempt to find a solution before the young person becomes hardened. “If you had asked me when I started law school, I probably would have said I’d like to work in something corporate,” Buchanan says, “but I just have found that, for me, juvenile is the most morally satisfying aspect of the law.”

Buchanan is considering a career as a public defender, advocating for juvenile rights, and is clerking this year at the Juvenile Court Department of Massachusetts.

Top-notch representation

“We are trying to prepare students to resolve disputes,” says Robert Burdick, a LAW clinical associate professor and director of the Civil Litigation Clinic. At the clinic, second- and third-year law students, with limited licenses to practice law in civil cases and under the oversight of full-time LAW faculty advisors, represent clients in cases that include divorce and eviction and other housing-related matters, as well as Social Security disability, unemployment compensation, and immigration appeals.

Akram likens a year in the clinic to the first year in a law firm. “Our philosophy in the clinic is that it’s the student who’s the lawyer,” she says. “We are the second tier.” To support that philosophy, a tremendous amount of preparation is required, including role playing and practice, preparation review by faculty advisors, and “hours and hours of meetings with students and clients before going to hearings,” she says.

The Criminal Law Clinic deals with cases involving drug dealing, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, or larceny, for example. Clinic students act on behalf of people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. “What the clients get is really top-notch representation,” says clinic director Rossman, “because what the students lack in experience, they more than make up for in their intelligence, their training, and most of all, their enthusiasm and the amount of time they put in.”

Through their work in the clinics and other public interest programs, LAW students give their clients “access to the justice system that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” says Maureen O’Rourke, dean of LAW. “I think it enhances the clients’ faith in the system of government we have, and I think that’s important.” Since September 11, she adds, “one lesson should be that we all have an obligation to look out for each other and an obligation to look out for those who don’t have the means to hire an attorney.”


This article was originally published in the fall issue of Bostonia.