Peter Edelman, Georgetown University Law Center, addressed attendees at the 2015 AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education and discussed how law schools can positively affect major societal issues. He detailed how race, gender, and poverty all have important implications for the work of law schools, especially in terms of clinics and experiential learning.
“Whatever we’re teaching, we need to make sure that students know the historical and structural context for the issues they are working on, particularly in clinics that represent people on an individual basis,” he said in his keynote address at the conference. “Law teachers throughout the school should take part in the conversation about expanding access to justice in all the meanings of the phrase.”
Whether supervising students offering direct services in clinics or providing students a better understanding of the social issues contributing to inequality in the country, he emphasized that law schools have a critical role to play. “Everyone leaving law school should understand these issues as part of their legal education.”
Professor Edelman also noted that there are plenty of opportunities for law students and faculty to make a significant impact on important community needs. He mentioned employment, healthcare, sentencing, and ex-offender re-entry as areas that need extensive legal research and direct action.
Professor Edelman not only urged action; he has been a leader in this field himself. He is the faculty director for Georgetown’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and four years ago conceived the idea of creating a nonprofit “low bono” law firm dedicated to providing affordable legal representation. Arent Fox LLP came on board and more recently, DLA Piper joined as well, giving new momentum to this project. Together with Georgetown Law, the two law firms will support the new D.C. Affordable Law Firm. Staffed by six lawyers from this year’s graduating class, the clinic will begin taking clients in the fall. In addition to his work at Georgetown Law Center and with this new firm, Professor Edelman serves as Chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, an entity seeking to increase the resources for civil legal services and to reduce the barriers that prevent equal access to justice for low and moderate-income District of Columbia residents.
AALS sat down recently with Professor Edelman to discuss the creation of the new firm and the role law schools and the legal profession have in serving unmet needs.
Professor Edelman, reflecting the theme of the 2015 AALS Clinical Conference, you said “all of us have a responsibility to make the new normal better than the old one.” How are law clinics seeking to close the access to justice gap? What else needs to be done?
Peter Edelman: Everyone at law schools has a responsibility to contribute to widening access to justice. Everyone can build on the great work of clinics. Specifically, we need more clinics that connect lawyers to low-income communities and provide representation not only on an individual basis, but also by way of activities that help to build community, in terms of empowerment and concrete transactional projects. We need to think more about how we can configure our work so that in addition to helping people one-by-one, we think about the structural problems that contribute to people being in poverty—problems like low-wage work, education, housing, healthcare, and public benefits. I think it is possible to confront structural problems in our teaching, in our writing, and in other advocacy.
You noted in your address that significant progress was made in the so-called “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, although that is not the public perception. What other misunderstandings are there about poverty in this country?
PE: There’s a widely held view that the main cause of poverty in this country is due to failures of personal responsibility and bad choices that people make, and included in that are views of race that are not constructive, to say the least. Skepticism about the “War on Poverty” and the perception that public policy on poverty in general has not been effective reflect a lack of understanding of a number of things.
Number one, we’ve become a low-wage nation. The fact is that we have done quite well with the public policy that we have. Without the public policies that we have we’d have twice as many people in poverty in this country. We would have well over 90 million people in poverty. There are certainly gaps and inadequacies in our public policy, but the policies that we do have are effective and are making a huge difference. The big thing that’s happened in our country over the past 40+ years is that we have millions and millions of people who are struggling to make ends meet on very low-wage jobs. So that’s a major part of the problem. Families all over this country know that they are living in a low-wage nation, but policymakers don’t seem to fully grasp that and do the things they should do to help raise incomes.
Besides that, I think that people don’t understand the deadly mix that we have of mass incarceration, what’s happened to the education system for low-income children and youth, what’s happened to changes in family structure that leaves so many single mothers trying to cope and earn enough to support their family in a low-wage economy, the real crisis in affordable housing, the deterioration of mental health care issues—a long list of things which come together to create the problems that we have. In addition, issues of race and gender infuse all of it. To say that the “War on Poverty” itself or that the totality of the public policies that we have failed, is not right. To say that we haven’t done enough is absolutely right.
Can law teachers help give their students a wider context to understand how these inequalities are created and perpetuated?
PE: The problem of access to justice is not just an issue of having a lawyer when someone has to go to court, although that is vital in itself. We have a crisis in terms of the magnitude of pro se representation when people find themselves having to go to court, especially in courts that have very large dockets. But the broader question is how we increase access to justice in every respect, not just the area of representation in court.
I would like to see every law school, as part of the orientation when students come in, offer a short course in access to justice issues both narrowly and broadly. Students would be exposed to the issue at the very beginning and then carry that on through the three years. Certainly, there are people all over the country teaching property and contracts and torts and other courses covering issues that affect low-income people. I’m not talking about reinventing some wheel; it exists and people are doing it. But I would like to see more of it. I would like to see people consciously taking up the challenge of how to include issues relating to American poverty and access to justice everywhere in the curriculum.
When you teach corporations, when you teach securities law, when you teach commercial law—all of these things have a significant aspect that relates to low-income people and I think it’s useful to say that there should be a challenge to classroom teachers across the board to include a focus on access to justice in the broad sense.
What motivated you to create the DC Affordable Law Firm, a “low bono” firm?
PE: There’s a crisis on top of a crisis. We tend to focus—with good reason—on people who are in the lowest tiers of income such that they qualify for free services. We have a huge gap there; all of the research suggests that we’re reaching about 20 percent of the legal needs around the country for people who qualify for free services. But just above that is actually an even larger group of people who don’t qualify for free services, but who can’t possibly afford a lawyer.
What we’ve done with this firm is to invent a model that we hope will be picked up around the country. It’s a partnership between Georgetown Law Center and two large, leading national law firms—Arent Fox and DLA Piper. The three entities have come together to create the D.C. Affordable Law Firm. It will be located physically at Arent Fox, but it’s a real partnership as far as the lawyers who will be involved pro bono. We have six 2015 graduates of Georgetown Law who will be the initial lawyers in the project. They will be paid on a level that’s fairly substantial, a bit lower than entering legal aid lawyers, and they will receive an LL.M for participating in it. We will have a variety of ways of letting the community know that it exists and that we’re charging, but in an affordable way for the services. We trust that if we build it, people will come.
How do you see the work preparing these graduates for their long-term careers?
PE: The firm participants will have a variety of educational experiences and training, including how to manage a law firm, which will be helpful whether they become solo practitioners or go on to create a small firm. In their day-to-day duties, they will work in very close supervision across a number of areas related to the typical issues people with lower incomes confront. After the 15-month period that each of the graduates will be working in the firm, they will have had experience going to court and in all aspects of lawyering. They are going to be very much connected to the public interest community here in Washington, D.C. and will be seamlessly ready to go wherever they want. And given we know that the six wonderful new lawyers we have hired want to go into public interest, they will be better prepared to do that having had this experience.
What advice could you offer to people wanting to launch a similar project at their schools?
PE: I think that this model is very important. There are a lot of issues that we have confronted in establishing this firm, so it is somewhat complex. However, the example of these two law firms and our law school having come together speaks positively to potential partnerships that can exist between law schools and law firms all over the country. Of course, we’re available to answer anyone’s questions about the specifics that we’ve needed to confront.
You’ve recently been quoted in news stories about how law firms are not doing enough in terms of support for legal aid. You’ve also created a program to track law firm giving to local legal aid groups. Are there ways to encourage law firms to make pro bono services more of a priority?
PE: In my role as D.C. Access to Justice Commission Chair, I’ve worked on exactly that. Law firms all over the country are not doing nearly enough in terms of the crisis of access to justice on the civil side. We know much more about the criminal side; it’s been publicized more with headlines such as—“sleeping lawyers in death penalty cases.” But there is a quieter crisis on the civil side.
Some law firms are wonderful, both in terms of the amount of pro bono that they do for low-income people and in their financial support for legal aid organizations. But objectively speaking, it’s not nearly enough and there’s more capacity in most firms.
What we did in D.C. in addition to promoting pro bono representation is that we established an initiative called Raising the Bar and we researched the then-current giving of a number of firms and ascertained what their giving was like. We created levels of giving—Platinum, Gold, and Silver—and went to some of the most generous law firms and explained that they as pacesetters could begin by continuing their existing giving to the legal aid providers. Their leadership attracted others and we were launched.
The giving levels were based on the percentage of gross revenue that was devoted to supporting these types of programs. The percentage was not burdensome. In fact, the project was very attractive to smaller law firms as well as large ones. We started this four years ago and recruited 23 firms and that year the total giving was about $3 million. This past year, the total was up to $5 million from 48 firms. It’s been very successful and is quite replicable and easy to do. The only trick is deciding what the baseline giving should be for the firms.
Our newest project is the creation of a major partnership between the local legal aid community and the law firms, pro bono, to work on housing. We’ll increase greatly the availability of legal representation in landlord-tenant court for tenants facing eviction and we’ll pursue impact litigation and policy advocacy as well.
We’ve signed up 15 of the largest firms to partner with the legal aid providers, and we expect to get a lot more as we get up and running. We’re a long way from creating civil Gideon in housing, but we will make as big a dent as we can.
You have written extensively about improving access to justice for low-income individuals and vulnerable populations. How has your work informed your scholarship?
PE: Absolutely it has. I had the privilege of starting when I worked for Senator Robert Kennedy when he was in the U.S. Senate. That experience, and the series of things that I’ve done full-time before I came to the faculty at Georgetown Law in 1982, has been so important. I’ve had the benefit of continuous involvement and connection with things that people do in the real world. All of that has informed my writing. It has produced a result in my work that is better for the experiences that I’ve had.