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A day in the life of Harvard Law School’s legal clinics

Credit: Tony Rinaldo

Harvard Law School students help transform communities and the law every day by supporting people and organizations in need of legal assistance.

A pioneer in the development of experiential clinical education, Harvard Law School offers students hands-on training in a wide range of legal fields, from human rights, immigration, health, and housing law to cyber, tax, and veterans’ law. They do this by serving clients who might otherwise be unable to afford a lawyer.

Through 44 legal clinics and student practice organizations, Harvard Law students—more than 80 percent of whom participate in at least one law school clinic—provide hundreds of thousands of hours of free legal services to clients across the country and the world each year.

For one day in late November, we followed just a handful of these clinics to see their work—and their efforts to advance justice—in action. Here is a look at that day, starting at 5:00 a.m. in Geneva, Switzerland and ending at 11 p.m. on the Harvard Law campus:

5 a.m.

Advocating for disarmament

 Genève Aéroport, Geneva

It’s 5 a.m. at the airport in Geneva, and Bonnie Docherty ’01, associate director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection in the International Human Rights Clinic, is awaiting a flight back to Boston. Docherty and two students, Alev Erhan ’21 and Shaiba Rather ’21, have spent the past week at the United Nations at a meeting about the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

Bonnie Docherty ’01 recording a message at the Geneva airport before heading back to Cambridge.

Docherty—who previously served as a legal adviser to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons as part of its Nobel Peace Prize-winning work to create the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—had come to Geneva to advocate for preempting future technologies known as “killer robots” and for strengthening the current treaty on incendiary weapons, by fixing loopholes and providing better protections for civilians.

“These future technologies which are rapidly moving toward development have been called the third revolution of warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear weapons. They would select and engage, choose and fire on a target without meaningful human control,” said Docherty. “We’re working with civil society to preempt these weapons. This week we released a report on the proposed elements of a new treaty, and it was very well received by governments.”

While Docherty and her students faced some obstacles (Russia blocked consensus to continue discussions on amending the incendiary weapons treaty), she says overall the meeting was a success, with the vast majority of states calling for further discussions and condemning the recent use of incendiary weapons in Syria.

8:30 a.m.

Holding schools accountable

Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, Lynn

Months of trying to advocate for educational support for her young son with special needs left Margarita Aguilar feeling “run over.”

“It was hard as a parent to keep pursuing his school because they didn’t see nothing legal behind me,” she said. Instead of getting the one-on-one support and assistance outside of the classroom that was mandated by his individualized education program, her son was sent home from school on a regular basis for acting out in the classroom.

Credit: Tony Rinaldo Katherine Tarpley (left), staff attorney at the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, with Mikayla Harvey ’21

Mikayla Harvey ’21, a student in HLS’s Child Advocacy Clinic, took on Aguilar’s son’s case as part of her clinical placement with the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts. The center helps connect families of at-risk children with attorneys. Working closely with her client and the school administration, Harvey helped implement a new individually-tailored plan that strengthened educational support. In this morning’s meeting, Harvey announced that she just got word that the school has agreed to provide door-to-door transportation for Aguilar’s son.

Harvey, who chose to attend law school after volunteering with an organization that advocates for children in the foster care system, says she has learned first- hand how often children’s rights are ignored.

“A lot of times, schools aren’t willing to provide services, regardless of what the law says,” she said. For Harvey, advocating for children’s educational rights is a chance to be creative. She hopes the solutions she proposes will help her clients as well as other children and families facing similar educational challenges.

10:30 a.m.

Focusing on capital punishment

 Langdell North, Harvard Law School, Cambridge

Credit: Martha Stewart In Capital Punishment in America, a course designed by Carol Steiker, students consider the legal, political and social implications of the practice of capital punishment in the United States.

As dozens of students watch, Erin Fowler ’20 plays an attorney in a criminal case in which capital punishment is a possible penalty, questioning a potential juror who has expressed scruples about imposing the death penalty.

Questions asked by Fowler and her classmates ranged from “What if the victim were your own young son—would you still have trouble  imposing the death penalty?” to “Do you believe in the importance of the law, and could you follow the judge’s instructions to apply it?”

Close up of Professor Carol Steiker teaching

Credit: Martha Stewart Professor Carol Steiker ’86

Today’s exercise is part of Capital Punishment in America, a course designed by Professor Carol Steiker ’86 and aimed to help students consider the legal, political, and social implications of the practice of capital punishment in the United States—the only Western democracy that still imposes the death penalty. Steiker has focused extensively on the topic for much of her career and is co-author of “Courting Death,” which has been called “the most important book about the death penalty in the United States … because of its potential to change how the country thinks about capital punishment.” Earlier in the class she led students in a discussion of recent Supreme Court decisions that have shaped the practice of jury selection in capital cases over the past half-century and outlined a range of strategies employed by attorneys for the defense and the prosecution at this phase of a trial—in particular—attempts to “life-qualify” or “death-qualify” the jury.

This spring, some of the students will take these lessons with them as they work for clients on death row with organizations ranging from the Capital Habeas Unit in the Western District of Missouri to the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana to the Southern Center for Human Rights as part of the Harvard Law School Capital Punishment Clinic created and led by Steiker.

“The clinical placements, which are on site in capital defense offices around the country during the January term and continued remotely from Cambridge during the spring term, expose students to cutting-edge issues in capital litigation and to the challenges of working on life-and-death matters for actual clients,” said Steiker. “Many find this experience to be life-changing, both intellectually and emotionally.”

11 a.m.

A view from the bench

U.S. District Court, Boston

As a judicial intern at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Caitlin Hoeberlein ’20 has a front-row seat to what goes on in the courtroom and the judge’s chambers.

Hoeberlein, who spent last fall interning at the Securities and Exchange Commission, decided she wanted a clinical placement that would put her “behind the bench a little bit more than in the back of the courtroom.” HLS’s clinical program helped her to design an independent clinical placement with Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV ’81 at the District Court. She spends her days attending hearings and trials, writing bench memos or summaries of what the judge will hear the next day, and helping to draft substantive opinions.

Credit: Tony Rinaldo Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV ’81 (right) with Caitlin Hoeberlein ’20 at the U.S. District Court in Boston

For Hoeberlein, getting the judge’s feedback has been incredibly helpful and important to her own writing.

I get to learn firsthand what works, what doesn’t work. I will also hear the judge’s opinion about what was effective to him and what wasn’t,” she said. “On a very practical level, I’m learning how to act in a courtroom.” 

12 p.m.

Fighting for animal rights

 1607 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Law School, Cambridge

Credit: Martha StewartAnimal Law & Policy Clinic students and instructors discuss upcoming cases. From left,  Kelley McGill ’20, Brett Richey ’21, Clinic Director Katherine Meyer and Clinical Instructor Nicole Negowetti (in purple jacket).

Animal protection, one of the fastest developing areas of public interest law, is the focus of the Animal Law & Policy Clinic. Today, the inaugural group of students at one of Harvard Law School’s newest clinics meets with Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor and Clinic Director Katherine Meyer, one of the most experienced animal protection litigators in the country; Clinical Instructor Nicole Negowetti; and Chris Green ’04, executive director of the Animal Law & Policy Program, to discuss this semester’s advocacy efforts.

In October, two of the clinic’s students traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify at a hearing held by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on “Horizontal Approaches to Food Standards of Identity Modernization.” The clinic closely monitors technological and regulatory developments within the food sector that have the potential to affect animals, including plant-based and cell-based alternatives to animal food products.

Credit: Martha Stewart 1607 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, is the home of the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic as well as several other Harvard Law School clinics and research programs.

12:30 p.m.

Holding former heads of state accountable

  11th  Circuit Court of Appeals, Miami

Eloy and Etelvina Mamani in Miami (center) surrounded by students, faculty, and staff from the International Human Rights Clinic and their partners from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Akin Gump.

For more than a decade, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic has been pursuing justice for indigenous people killed during “Black October” 2003, when the Bolivian government violently repressed a popular protest against government policies. In 2008, IHRC partnered with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Akin Gump to file Mamani et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, a lawsuit brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act against Bolivia’s former president and minister of defense for their roles overseeing the Bolivian security forces’ lethal use of force against unarmed civilians.

Eloy Mamani speaks to reporters after the oral arguments.

When the case went to trial in Federal District Court in Florida in 2018, it had already made history: It was the first time a living former head of state faced his accusers in a human rights case in U.S. court. On April 3, 2018, in a landmark decision, a unanimous jury found the former Bolivian leaders liable for the extrajudicial killings of eight indigenous people—and awarded the plaintiffs $10 million in damages.

“Frankly, it’s groundbreaking,” said Thomas Becker ’08, a clinical instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic who, with Susan Farbstein ’04 and Tyler Giannini, co-directors of the clinic, has been involved with the case since its inception. “It’s the first time in history that a living former president is forced to answer for his human rights violations in a U.S. Court. It’s a game-changer for human rights and accountability.”

But just weeks later, on May 30, 2018, the judge cited insufficient evidence to support the jury’s determination and overturned the verdict.

Today, Becker is among a large team of IHRC students, alumni, faculty, staff and their law firm partners, who are back in Florida to appeal the trial court’s decision. They are joined by two of the plaintiffs, Eloy and Etelvina Mamani, whose 8-year-old daughter, Marlene, was killed during Black October. In arguments before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the legal team is arguing that the judge’s decision should not stand and that the jury verdict should be reinstated.

2 p.m.

Defending the underserved

 1607 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Law School, Cambridge

“The outcome of this hearing can determine whether or not someone has a criminal record or whether they are able to get these allegations dismissed entirely,” said Martina Tiku ’20, president of Harvard Defenders.

Defenders, the only legal services organization in Massachusetts that focuses exclusively on representing low-income defendants for free in criminal show-cause hearings, has assisted thousands of indigent people while offering students invaluable experience and exposure to the realities of the criminal justice system. Students meet weekly to discuss the arguments they plan to present at hearings and consider all the factors that might influence the magistrate’s decision.

At today’s team meeting, students share strategies for upcoming cases that touch on issues ranging from trespassing to driving with a suspended license, to possession of an illegal substance, to a client who made an illegal turn and was subsequently detained for being an undocumented immigrant. In Massachusetts, where there is no right to court-appointed counsel in these proceedings, representation by Defenders is one of the few options for those who can’t afford a private lawyer. Clients served by Defenders are charged with a range of offenses from nonviolent misdemeanors to violent felonies. They are often at risk of losing jobs, housing, their freedom, driver’s licenses and the ability to remain in the United States.

Tiku’s clients’ resilience and “grace and composure” in navigating a criminal legal system that is “stacked against them” humble her, she says, but they also motivate her to do her best in every interaction with them.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people that we work with,” she said. “We gain the privilege of being able to work with these clients and get a window into their lives.”

4 p.m.

On call to combat housing insecurity

 Wasserstein Hall, Harvard Law School, Cambridge