Last fall, budding real estate lawyer Lauren Smith ’09 enrolled in the transactional practice unit at Harvard Law School’s WilmerHale Legal Services Center with the aim of adding practical experience to her legal education. It proved to be an invaluable decision.
Under the direction of Jim Jacobs ‘75, a clinical instructor with the Community Enterprise Project (CEP) at the Center, Smith took on the task of representing a couple buying a home in Dorchester through an affordable housing program, through which community neighborhood developers receive significant public assistance in order to build houses offered to qualified, low-income buyers at below-market prices. The couple participated in the lottery administered by Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development and “won” a chance to purchase an attractive, newly built three-bedroom duplex. With Smith preparing the purchase and sales agreement, they bought their new home.
Smith—and her clients—thought they were done. But then the city sent the couple a staggering real estate tax bill, assessing the house at a fair market value of $330,000, well above the $195,000 the couple paid for it.
“They’re stretched financially, so this was a big blow,” Smith says. “[The husband] wasn’t sure how he’d make these payments.” Smith immediately began the complicated process of applying for a tax abatement, but, she says, “it was not an easy process. You have to build an argument so that the city believes they made a mistake in assessing the property.”
To make things more challenging, Smith had just a few weeks to meet the filing deadline of early February. She began gathering evidence that the city had made a mistake, but hit an immediate roadblock. The developer told her that even though the city had subsidized the project, it did not impose restrictions on the sales price of the units. “That made our argument tougher,” she says.
Smith worked on the abatement project over winter term; in the spring, Randall Clark ’10, took over, combing through paperwork until he located an early loan document which noted a price ceiling on the units because of the city’s subsidies. Clark prepared an 80-page brief supporting the abatement request. In April, the city granted the request, reducing the assessed value on the home by more than 40 percent—resulting in an annual reduction of more than $1,400 in the couple’s real estate taxes. The students benefited, too, adds Smith.
“I think it was a great way to fuse the abstract lessons you learn in the classroom with real-world lessons from dealing with people, negotiating, and learning practical skills like drafting,” says Smith, who will soon be working in the real estate department of a large New York City firm. “I drafted leases and sales contracts—I made up a contract from scratch—and did a whole bunch of things I never would have done in the other classes I’ve had.”
The Community Enterprise Project, one of more than 30 clinics at HLS, is a training ground for students interested in corporate transactional work and other non-litigation-related areas. “The Project equips students for real-world practice,” says Brian Price (pictured right), clinical professor of law and director of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center. “It gives them the chance to learn how to analyze issues like a transactional lawyer and how to work with clients to help them formulate plans to meet their business and other transactional goals.”
Through CEP, students perform the many roles of a transactional lawyer: counseling; negotiating; digging for facts; researching and analyzing the law. “In the end, they translate the deal points and client goals into the legal documents that express the client’s interests,” Price says.
Since CEP is not a litigation-based clinic, it is popular with students who plan to go into corporate, real estate, and related fields. Like all clinical courses, it combines an academic component with actual fieldwork. CEP students are enrolled in the Transactional Practice Clinical Workshop, taught by Price, while working under the guidance of clinical instructors on a wide variety of transactional projects. Clients are primarily from low-opportunity communities, and HLS students typically select one of three areas of focus: Business and Non-Profit Law, Real Estate Law or the Recording Artist Project clinic.
This spring, two students under the guidance of Jacobs worked with a man and his mother who want to open a Haitian fusion restaurant in Boston. Randall Clark ’10 performed the due diligence on an existing business the clients considered purchasing but, based on what Clark learned, decided to reject. When the clients found a rental location in Hyde Park, Samantha Lipton ’09 successfully negotiated a five-year commercial lease with an extension option; Delux Catering Services, Inc. is now in the process of applying for city permits and hopes to open soon as El Rancho Café.
Emmanuel Gabriel, who will run the family restaurant with his mother as cook, says the legal services provided by the students at CEP were “phenomenal,” and he looks forward to treating them to Caribbean cuisine. “As soon as we open, I told Mr. Jacobs to bring the whole group down, because they helped make it a reality,” says Gabriel.
In another project, students last fall assisted a Mattapan-based construction company, the Wellington Construction Company, establish itself as an Limited Liability Company (LLC) after analyzing other forms of business organization. Nicole Thompson ’10 then assisted the owner with producing an employee manual.
“Part of why I chose the transactional clinic was that I’m interested in forging a path between the legal world and business,” says Thompson. She found the work challenging and fun. “The owner wanted to do things that were a little bit unconventional, like give people the day off on their birthdays,” she says. Her job was to ensure that the manual complied with local, state, and federal law.
“The only way to know if you want to be a transactional lawyer is try it out,” she adds. “With the clinic, I was able to get the practice while in school. I was better able to orient myself, and better able to orient my studies.”