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Access to Justice: The Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics

“When we live in a world where lawyers have the keys to the courthouse, there’s a corresponding responsibility to provide access to justice,” says South Texas College of Law Associate Dean Catherine Greene Burnett. “That’s a message that can get lost if schools don’t make it an explicit part of their mission. We have to insure this aspect of the profession is carried on by future generations of practicing lawyers.” Producing well-trained practicing attorneys is what the clinical programs at South Texas do. Burnett and the faculty leading the clinics at South Texas carry the message of access and professional responsibility through every course and every case.

“You can attack the access to justice problem on several different fronts,” says Houston attorney Randall Sorrels ’87, partner with Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend. “Legal aid organizations and private lawyers doing pro bono work are the two most prevalent ways to provide assistance. But if we can get law students substantially involved in the pro bono effort, not only can they help pro bono clients now, but they are more likely to help pro bono clients throughout their career.” The college’s clinical programs, which put students to work on legal issues in the community, were given a huge shot in the arm this past year. Sorrels stepped forward and dedicated himself and his resources to the clinics. His substantial gift created a completely remodeled, 15,000 square foot law firm on the 10th floor of South Texas.

“I sought out an area  where the return on the gift to the college would be maximized, and hopefully this is a gift that will keep on giving,” he says “We know pro bono needs will continue to increase in the future. And we know lawyers will be needed to do that work. In light of these givens, exposing our students to pro bono work, while giving them the advantage of doing real lawyer work is a win-win that benefits the law school, the students, and the clients.”

“South Texas didn't have clinics to expose us to practice experience when I was a student,” says Sorrels. The newly-named Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics provide students three times the space of the former facility, which was a repurposed tire store two blocks down the street. All of the clinical work being done now is centralized creating a professional feel and look. “This gift of new space creates more interest and excitement about the clinics so more people will participate. The more students participating, the more people who get served. This is a circular, cumulative effect that will change a lot of people’s lives,” says Sorrels. That cumulative effect has also resulted in several generous naming gifts from other alumni including his law firm colleagues Benny Agosto ’95 and Daniel D. Horowitz ‘02, and long-time South Texas librarian Sally Langston ’91.

Daniel Horowitz '02, Randy Sorrels '87, Benny Agosto '95 and Dean Donald Guter 

“We now have interview rooms, conference rooms, a large bull pen, banks of computers, places to meet,” says Burnett. “The physical plant allows us to offer services that we never offered before because we didn't have the space.” An immediate example is that the South Texas Tax Law Students Association organized and ran an IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program this spring. “We never had a VITA program here before because we never had a place for them to work,” says Burnett. “Hundreds and hundreds of new hours were given to the community early this year.”

“That is outstanding,” says Sorrels. “I had hoped this gift would have a starburst effect, making a difference not just in downtown Houston but to the north, south, east, and west as well, and it sounds like it already is. Our clinics may be based at South Texas, but now our students can go out in the community and positively impact the lives of all of our neighbors.”

The South Texas legal clinics started in 1990 with a focus on helping the disabled secure benefits. Then-Dean William Wilks made it a mission to implement clinical training for South Texas students, adding to the thriving internship program. Over the next two decades, the focus and structure of the clinics changed to meet the need in the community. “I think the hallmark of the clinical program is our ability to be responsive to the community needs and to the shifting legal needs,” says Burnett. The clinical program has included an HIV/AIDS clinic, and probate, guardianships, family law, estate planning, death penalty clinics. “We've always tried to provide exposure for students to the range of cases they would likely encounter in small or solo practices as well as experience in hot topic areas,” she says.

This new ability to put all the clinical offerings in one place has consolidated long-standing programs of the college, like the internship/externship program led by Assistant Dean Elizabeth Dennis ‘84 and the mediation clinic led by adjunct Professor Bruce Wettman, with the newer offerings like the asylum/human trafficking clinic and the child welfare clinic. “The new synergies are unbelievable,” says Burnett. “At first blush you wouldn't even know there are connections between the clinics, but there are. For example, in the asylum and human trafficking cases, sometimes those juveniles must appear in family court, so a student in that clinic can turn to Professor Betty Luke or clinic Fellow Emily Bohls who handle those cases just down the hall. We can provide subject matter coverage and advice for one another.”

“Students are coming to law school now with the habit of volunteer service,” says Burnett. “At orientation when I ask how many students have done volunteer work, almost every hand in the auditorium goes up. Not a lot of people can provide volunteer work in a law-related context and that’s the value of our service.” Most clinical classes demand in excess of 150 hours of time from the student during a semester—that’s in class, working with clients, preparing for and making court appearances, and researching. Students seeking to graduate with a Pro Bono Hours certificate must put in 50 hours on a project not related to their clinical classwork.

The clinical course offerings have grown rapidly in the last 10 years. “We've had a lot of student interest in domestic violence, immigration, human trafficking and intellectual property,” says Burnett. “That’s why those are areas of growth using effective partnerships with firms and adjunct clinical attorneys to help—we couldn't do it without them.” Additionally, clinics are offered in animal law, child welfare, family law, disability benefits, guardianships, and actual innocence cases. Cases come to the clinic from the courts, area non-profits and legal aid organizations, law firms, word-of-mouth referrals, and walk-ins. They are screened for a number of qualifying factors, often including the income level of the clients.

The family law clinics, both basic and advanced, have the deepest roots, dating back to the early 1990s. Professor Betty Luke ’92 works with dozens of students a semester on two types of family law cases. “We are limited in my area to family law and estate planning. Family law basic is like family law with training wheels and a lot of hand holding.” This course involves students in simple divorces with no property, no kids. “This is so students can understand the dynamics of a case, how to draft for it, how to talk to the client, manage a file, track their time—the practice without the complexities, but with all the professionalism and responsibility that goes along with a client,” she says.

The Family law advanced course is aimed at students who know they are going into a family law practice. “We look for cases that are unusual. They may have a jurisdictional problem because someone lives outside the state of Texas. They almost always involve children, maybe there’s an order that needs modified, or it may involve a new “honey” and a new child so there are parentage issues,” says Luke. “This course brings the reality of the practice to the students and that’s the value of the clinic.”

Three teaching Fellows, attorneys who are here for a limited period of time, each with an area of specialty, work at the clinic. Emily Bohls ’07 leads the guardianship clinic. “We do guardianships for parents who have incapacitated children turning 18, but who still need to be under the supervision of their parents,” says Bohls. “After and intake process, the first step is to interview the client, then start drafting the initial documents. We take those documents to the client’s house and that’s our home visit. We see what the situation is and then file.” Students in the program can handle multiple cases in a semester. “I actually have a waiting list of guardianship cases,” she says. Because of that need, Bohls will offer a guardianship bootcamp of sorts this summer. Students interested in doing the work for Pro Bono Honors credit can attend an intense, two-day training on guardianship cases, and begin working under Bohls’ supervision.

Bohls also teaches a probate clinic. “The demand from the community and the interest of the students means the probate clinic is always full,” she says. The students handle a simple probate case, sometimes two, a semester. “These are cases with no sizable estate, most consist of a homestead or single piece of property.” The cases come on referral from the courts and other community outreach sources. “I’m also hoping to get appointed as attorney ad litem on an heirship case—it would be a class project and we’re going to do it together.”

Teaching Fellow Crystal Le is teaching the child welfare clinic where the focus is on children between 15 and 17 who are aging out of the foster care system. “I am appointed as attorney ad litem on cases in the 313th District Court. The work the students do on the cases is pretty much everything an attorney ad litem would do: home visits and hearings, but the most important part is that they fill in the gaps on these cases,” says Le. Children placed in the permanent care of the state are not entitled to an attorney once that decision is made. “That becomes problematic on many levels…and I think my students have done a lot on their cases that the case workers just don’t have time to do.”

The students focus on insuring that the foster children are enrolled in the classes and programs they are entitled to for the transition to independent adulthood, that they are at the hearings where their situation is reviewed by the court twice a year, and they bring issues with school or relationships to the attention of the court. “When I take this appointment, it’s until the kid turns 18 and my idea is that the cases will roll over to new students every semester. But this fall, all of my students wanted to keep their cases,” says Le. “We have to teach students about the people they’ll be working with and their responsibility as a person who provides access to the courts. I think working with children is probably one of the best ways to teach that lesson.”

The newest teaching Fellow is Alec Lawton who is working with students in the basic family law courses and teaching the Social Security clinic. “On a national level, about 75-percent of applications for need-based Social Security benefits—low income people with a disability—are going to be rejected,” says Lawton. Houston’s numbers are higher than that. There is an appeals process that takes two years. “You can lose your home in that time, you can lose access to medical care, which may make the disability a whole lot worse, so the situation really compounds,” he says. The goal of the clinic is to improve the quality of applications for those applying for the first time.

“The problem with most applications is the lack of evidence—evidence showing you are disabled to the level of the legal standard of Social Security,” says Lawton. “It’s the difficulty of gathering the right information, evidence of the disability, and then showing how that will fill the requirements.” The students will work on cases referred from area non-profit medical facilities. “We’re hoping the students in the clinic can do 10 to 20 applications a semester,” he says. “We take on a lot of the leg work to get the records and navigate the system with these clients.”

The work being done in the actual innocence clinic includes two large, ongoing projects and a writ in a murder case. Adjunct Clinical Supervising Attorney Gianpaolo Macerola ’09 says the appointment on the writ case is quite a coup for the clinic. “Only two or three percent of writ cases are handled by appointed attorneys. We are in the process of going through the record and separating out every issue we see. The big issue is the difficulty in establishing innocence when you are not relying on biological evidence.” The writ will be completed this semester. The ongoing projects will both result in the publication of comprehensive resources for those working on actual innocence cases. “We are creating a profile on every exoneree in Texas where the case had any element of misidentification,” says Macerola. “Then we are going to do some data clumping and look for patterns, publishing the results along with some potential solutions to minimize what is happening.” A second publication will focus on cases where prosecutorial misconduct is alleged.

The newest clinic, the animal law clinic, is operating this spring for the first time. Professor Fran Ortiz is working with the first six students in the program. “The students can draft, write briefs, work with individual attorneys, and research,” says Ortiz. “I’m seeing more lawyers pulling back from pro bono in this area because nobody wants to pay. I’m hoping the availability of our students to help will lessen the work load and more lawyers will be willing to take the cases pro bono.” Currently, students are interning in the Harris County Attorney and Harris County District Attorney offices working on animal seizure and animal cruelty cases. Others are working on monitoring legislation for animal related proposals of any kind including horse slaughter, shelters, and rescuers. The clinic will also will publish the first edition of the Texas Animal Law Journal this semester for the State Bar of Texas’ Animal Law Section.

Attorney Naomi Bang from Foster Quan LLP leads the college’s asylum and human trafficking clinic, now in its fourth year. “We have several asylum trials set for this spring,” says Bang. “There’s a father and son who are Palestinians escaping torture…an unaccompanied minor who’s been abandoned here by her parents and is about to turn 18…and other cases of kids who've escaped from gangs in Mexico and El Salvador who are here and want to stay.” The students are assigned the cases the first day of the semester and some faced trial as soon as three weeks later. “The students learn how to think on their feet,” says Bang. “They learn the substantive law for asylum cases, special immigrant juvenile cases, trafficking cases, T Visas, U Visas. This is the human rights side of immigration law…how to protect refugees, victims, abused men and women, and abandoned children.” Each student starts the semester with three cases, and more are added as the semester progresses. “They are working nights and weekends,” says Bang. “But this is real life and they learn to prioritize.”

New in the fall of 2012, is the Trademark Clinic, the first intellectual property clinic offered at South Texas. “We are the only trademark clinic in Texas and several surrounding states,” says Professor Phillip Page. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) designated South Texas as one of just 24 Trademark Law School Clinic Certification Programs. Students represent entrepreneurs and small businesses before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office hearing examiners. “The students work in teams on one or two files at a time and our work is strictly to select and protect a trademark,” says Page. “We've been very pleased with their energy and their ability.” The students are taught basic trademark law and then work on individual files digging deeper into the applicable law.

The value of clinical learning shows up not just in the number of people helped by the students, but in what students take away from law school. “Our students can go to a potential employer and say ‘I've interviewed clients, I've interviewed witnesses. I know where the courthouse is, I've filed documents. I know how to draft documents, I know how to keep my time, I know how to deal with state agencies and the attorney general’s office’,” says Luke. “They don’t walk in knowing everything, but it’s really important for our students to say ‘this is what I know how to do’.” And now they can do it in a comprehensive, professional setting designed for this very purpose. Thank you Mr. Sorrels.

By Sheila Hansel

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