10 October 2017 | King’s Legal Clinic
I am Ke Hui, a fourth-year student on the Law with American Legal Studies Programme at King’s College London. During my third year abroad at Cornell Law School, I participated in three legal clinics. Each one of them was a valuable learning experience and each is a story of its own.
Family Law Clinic
I first participated in the Family Law Clinic during the Fall semester. I received an email from my professor stating that my client was seeking a divorce and sole custody of her two children. My task was to conduct the initial client interview with the minimal information I had been given.
Having never dealt with cases independently in the past, I was unprepared for the many challenges involved. I discovered during my initial interview that my client was a victim of domestic violence in her marriage. When it fell to me to document the ground for divorce, I had to retrieve details of every incident of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from police reports and other documents as my client found it difficult recounting her stories. I was taken aback by how direct and unabashed some of the statements I read were. “I thought he was going to kill me” was just one of the many fearful sentences peppered throughout the reports.
Another major difficulty I faced was that the defendant (i.e. the husband) did not want a divorce. He was in a residential rehabilitation facility and it was very difficult for me to contact him directly. There were times when he would agree to communicate with me to discuss a settlement agreement, then suddenly decide to instruct facility staff to stop me from calling him. I relayed these problems to my clinic professor and she told me to meet her the next day.
“So, what do you think we should do for this case?” Those were her first words when I stepped into her office. It was a puzzling moment, but I soon realised that I was just beginning to understand how clinics work. They are an opportunity for students to appreciate the thought processes and practical difficulties behind managing legal cases. My professor patiently explained the options available to my client, and her strategies for dealing with recalcitrant defendants. Despite my scarce legal experience, I had the opportunity to contribute by sharing what I knew about the client and her priorities. I felt like a valuable member of the team as my input was appreciated and adopted to make our strategy more suited to the client we were helping.
Shortly before I left Cornell, the divorce judgment was finally handed down. After eight long months of negotiating, counseling, and waiting, my client told me she almost cried tears of happiness when she read the divorce complaint I drafted. Looking back on this experience, I realised that as a student, I do not have the ability to solve most of my client’s problems, but I did have the skills and knowledge to help to tell her story. I hope that my work has gone some way in helping her to achieve closure and take steps to leave a marriage that has been nothing short of heartbreaking for her and her children.
Legal Research Clinic
After an enriching first clinic experience, I decided to participate in the Legal Research Clinic in the Spring semester. The clinic, as its name suggests, allows students to conduct legal research for individuals who have a legal question but do not require full representation.
One thing I noticed through my participation in this clinic is how supportive the legal community was of students doing pro bono work. Before starting any case, we had to inform clients that law students would be working on their case under the supervision of an attorney. Much to my surprise, none of the clients I came across refused the clinic’s services because of this. Whenever I worked with volunteer attorneys from other legal aid organisations, I was also pleasantly surprised to find that everyone was willing to offer help and correspond directly with me despite my status as a student. These conditions created an ideal supportive environment for us to gain experience with real clients and learn alongside experienced attorneys in the field.
Participating in this clinic also provided me with rigorous training in legal research and writing skills. I worked with a range of clients and this gave me the opportunity to conduct research into various topics, including child support, landowners’ liability, and immigration law. I realised that legal research is not just about trawling through statutes and cases. Self-help brochures from legal aid organisations and guidance published by administrative agencies are just some examples of the many other resources available. Taking full advantage of such materials helped me to draft my research memorandum in a concise and easy-to-understand manner.
Lastly, working in this clinic showed me the reality of working in legal aid. In one case, our client was annoyed that we were unable to expunge his criminal records, which were preventing him from getting his job back. He was verbally abusive over the phone, lamenting that lawyers are incompetent and unhelpful. It was frustrating that our client seemed to disregard all the effort that we had put in, but the reality was that there were some people we could not help and so not every case had a happy ending. I found it helpful to accept such criticisms humbly as part of the job and to use these challenges to motivate myself to do good for those we can help.
I also participated in the Farmworkers Clinic, which provides legal representation for the farmworker population in upstate New York. The case I worked on taught me a valuable lesson on how the law can have devastating effects on an individual’s life and the role lawyers can play to mitigate these.
I was assigned to a client who was facing expedited removal proceedings. The client was detained in Texas, miles away from where we were, while his mother lived about an hour’s drive away from Cornell.
The point to make in the client’s hearing was that he had a credible fear of persecution and torture if he was deported. Through interviews with the client’s mother, we learnt how their family had lost several members to gang violence in their home country, Guatemala. We sought to convince the judge that our client was being targeted by gangs and would be “next in line” if he was removed from the United States. Unfortunately, we lost the case and our client was deported.
Having to break the bad news to our client’s mother was the worst part of it. We called her minutes after the hearing and the interpreter told her how the hearing went. There was a string of Spanish, and when it all ended, there was a moment of silence. What followed was the most disheartening “oh” that I have ever heard. She had high hopes of meeting her son for the first time since she fled their home country several years ago, but this was not going to happen.
Most students enter law school with a desire to use their legal skills “for the public good”, wanting to help those in need. Witnessing how the law can have such cruel effects on an individual’s life, however, I wondered about the impact one can leave as a law student.
However, this experience was nevertheless a valuable learning experience. Although my partner and I were both students who had never appeared in court before, the judge was very patient with us. The opposing counsel also never sought to intimidate or take advantage of the fact that we were inexperienced. This support given by the courts assured us that our client was treated fairly, even if we found ourselves in very tense situations and eventually with a disappointing outcome.
So, what is the point of this article? The message is simple – legal clinics have had a huge impact on my legal education, and I sincerely encourage every law student to participate in one. A well-developed clinical education programme requires a legal community that is confident in the abilities and contributions of law students and a supportive court system that accommodates amateur lawyers in training. Of course, students should also do their part in building a reputation for being reliable and committed to clinical work. Clinical education allows students to gain a whole new perspective of the law, acquire practical legal skills, and rediscover their initial motivations for joining the legal community.
By Ke Hui Foong | Law Student, King’s College London