Two weeks into her coursework with Regent University's Civil Litigation Clinic, School of Law student Heather Moore received her first case, a Social Security disability case referred to the clinic by the local Legal Aid Society.
Moore, who graduated in May, was still a student, but she couldn't pass up the opportunity to put her legal skills to work in the local community.
The Civil Litigation clinic, run by Associate Professor Kathleen McKee, has been a staple of Regent Law for more than 12 years, providing law students with the opportunity to use their legal knowledge to serve area residents who couldn't otherwise afford legal representation.
"The purpose of a clinical program is to give the student a feel for what it's like to work within a law firm, to represent a client from the beginning to the end of a case," McKee explained. "It helps students close the gap between classroom and courtroom."
Students have dealt with a variety of cases over the years, most involving landlord/tenant issues, domestic relations, government benefits, unemployment compensation hearings, Social Security disability, or domestic abuse.
In Virginia, third-year law students who have completed at least 60 hours of coursework—including courses in evidence, civil procedure, criminal law and professional responsibility—are eligible to apply for a practice certificate that allows them to provide legal services under the supervision of an attorney licensed to practice law in Virginia.
"You could be in the classroom for three hours a week, and you're just not getting your feet wet with that experience," Moore said. "I also think you need the opportunity, because it is such a tough economy, to have that experience because it is something to add on your resume."
Students also get experience in front of judges. "I'm glad I had the opportunity, so when I actually start working I know already what's going on and how to speak in front of a judge," Moore added.
Besides the practical experience, the Civil Litigation Clinic also gives students a chance to give back to the local community. All of the clients are individuals whose income places them at or below the poverty line; many are faced with issues of homelessness and unemployment that law students have not encountered before.
"What you will learn in clinic is what it means to be a Christian attorney because you do for your clients what Christ does for us," McKee said. "Christ comes up alongside us during our most difficult times and He walks beside us. He's a good listener; He doesn't prejudge us when we behave like knuckleheads and do stupid things. He's there to support us and comfort us during a difficult leg of a journey. As a Christian attorney, that's what you're doing for these clients."
"It really makes such a difference in the lives of the people you help," recalled Betty Russo '10. "We saw firsthand how employment benefits make a difference between the person sitting in front of you paying their rent or being homeless."
After graduation, Russo went into private practice but continued to work on cases with McKee while establishing her firm. The reward comes in serving the community, she explained. "When you see how much need there is in our local community, it just makes so much sense for us to be the voice for these people."
Learn more about the Civil Litigation Clinic and the Center for Advocacy.
By Rachel Judy
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