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Lawyers Who Lead
"This is not a simulation," says Angelo Ancheta, executive director of SCU's Katherine & George Alexander Community Law Center, as students and attorneys move purposefully through the halls to meet waiting clients. "[Students] are put into casework quickly. They learn by doing, in real cases."
Aiming to make the practice of law real to students and make legal services accessible to the underserved, Santa Clara's School of Law has connected this legal aid clinic with regular coursework in civil law. Hundreds of individuals, mostly low-income residents of Santa Clara County, seek representation every year.
Each semester, about 50 law students participate in skill-building classes within the center's four areas of expertise: workers' compensation, workers' rights, consumers' rights, and immigration.
Students spend time interviewing clients and performing research, then present cases to the supervising attorneys. For many, it's their first experience in actual law practice. "I can see the difference, because I also work as an interpreter. By the middle of the semester, they're pros. They know exactly what to ask and how to speak to the clients," says Sergio Lopez, the center's communications specialist.
Last year, Michael Miranda, now a third-year law student, and two other students were assigned to an immigration case on behalf of minors, who had been victims of sexual assault, and their families. For Miranda, who intends to work in immigration law, and students interested in legal aid or litigation, there are clear benefits: developing skills that lawyers use every day. But in any area of law, Ancheta says, "interviewing, fact finding, and case preparation are all transferable skills."
The students spent several hours with the mothers and relatives of the children, building trust and documenting the details of a very sad story. "It was hard to hear. I didn't know how to handle it," he says. With help from the supervising attorney and legal assistant, Miranda was able to reflect on his reactions and continue to draw out the clients' memories.
Though the center's involvement ended when the families were granted lawful status in the U.S., a criminal trial was still pending, which Miranda followed in the local paper. "I was initially very upset about the injustice of it all, so when that was resolved, then I felt really good."