News Archive

Student Groups Provide Wide Range of Legal Services

By Andrew Cohen

Five student groups have joined Berkeley Law’s stable of Student-Initiated Legal Projects (SLPS), which help disadvantaged clients in areas ranging from immigration and refugee law to workers’ and tenants’ rights. The new projects expand the SLPS portfolio to cover communities grappling with problems of human trafficking, environmental pollution, gender-based violence, and much more.

Run by upperclassmen and staffed by first-year law students, SLPS partners with prominent public interest legal organizations, law firms, and government agencies to assist clients in need. More than 400 students now participate in 19 SLPS initiatives.

The projects’ collective impact illustrates a strong student commitment to public service said Professor David Oppeheimer, who directs the Professional Skills Program. “Some schools have a pro bono requirement,” he said. “At Berkeley Law, we have a pro bono culture.”

At the start of the fall semester, more than 150 first-year students went to a SLPS introductory lunch and met with group leaders. About 125 students also attended an orientation session led by Veena Dubal ’06, Patty Salazar ’06, and Tirien Steinbach ’99, executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). The event included presentations by lecturer Bruce Budner on essential lawyering skills.

Trish Keady ’08, a litigation associate for more than three years at Sedgwick LLP, recently returned to Berkeley Law to serve as its SLPS Coordinator and Public Interest Skills Fellow. Keady was a SLPS leader herself in law school, serving as a student counselor for the Workers’ Rights Clinic.

New projects tackle serious issues

Berkeley Tax Law Clinic provides free current-year income tax preparation assistance for low-to-moderate income East Bay taxpayers. Coordinated by the IRS’s Stakeholder Partnerships, Education, and Communication division, the clinic helped area citizens save more than $52,000 in refunds this year.

Students—who must undergo training and pass an online test before they can help prepare returns—enable local residents to claim valuable tax credits such as the Earning Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled. Led by Tony Au ’13 and Aaron Ver ’13, the clinic also offers free electronic filing, which allows clients to receive their refunds more quickly.

“Explaining each line of a tax return to a client provides a micro- and macro-level policy context to the taxing decisions made by our leaders in Washington and Sacramento,” Ver said. “I love seeing the smiles and sighs of relief when we inform individuals, sometimes working two or three jobs to support themselves and their families, how much refund money they can expect.”

International Human Rights Workshop was launched this fall by the Boalt Hall Committee for Human Rights. Led by Ioana Tchoukleva ’14 and Grace Shigetani ’14, it collaborates with the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence & Accountability Project under the supervision of project director Kim Thuy Seelinger.

“We’re so excited that our idea has become a reality and that incoming J.D. and LL.M. students can engage right away in such interesting projects,” Shigetani said. “This year, we’ll help the Human Rights Center respond to requests for research support and technical assistance from local partners working to reform gender-based violence laws in Liberia, Kenya, and Uganda.”

Likely research includes contributing to a comparative study on laws related to domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and sexual offenses generally. Students may also assist with ad hoc requests for technical support from local partners in Liberia and Uganda.

Boalt Anti-Trafficking Project challenges human rights abuses by providing legal services to labor- and sex-trafficking survivors. The project emerged from the Women of Color Collective’s spring 2011 symposium at Berkeley Law, which offered strategies to recognize and confront trafficking and exploitation in its many forms.

“There’s an alarming rate of both labor and sex trafficking within California,” said group leader Marissa Ram ’13. Because only a handful of U.S. law schools have clinical programs dedicated to this issue, Ram said there’s a glaring need “to help train the next generation of anti-trafficking advocates.”

Two new projects have formed within Berkeley Law’s Students for Environmental and Economic Justice initiative:

* Community Food Enterprises seeks to help Bay Area entrepreneurs bring healthy, local food to low-income communities and facilitate sustainable, localized economies. The group, which partners with Oakland’s Sustainable Economies Law Center and EBCLC’s Green-Collar Communities Clinic, offers legal counsel and other resources to help launch, sustain, or grow food initiatives.

“Our goal is to eliminate red tape and help community members navigate the complex process of starting their own businesses and non-profits,” said group co-leader Julia Stephanides ’14. She and her co-leaders Devon Ahearn ’14 and Tara Capsuto ’14 act as liaisons for supervising attorneys who advise students on how to conduct intakes and give presentations on legal topics that affect food businesses.

After graduating from college, Stephanides spent part of her summer working on an organic farm in the Greek countryside. “It solidified my excitement about small, family-owned farms that raise animals humanely and sustainably and grow fruits and vegetables using techniques that are less harmful to the earth and healthier for humans,” she said.

* International Financial Institution Accountability Workshop works with a San Francisco organization, Accountability Counsel, to seek justice for communities that suffer human rights and environmental damage caused by global development projects.

“Everyone has heard how internationally financed projects can harm people and the environment,” said group co-leader Katie Adamides ’14, citing a common lack of planning to prevent or mitigate harms from drilling project oil spills. “But most people don’t know what a community can do about it.”

Her group is partnering with Brazilian activists to oppose a ring-road project in Sao Paulo that the Inter-American Development Bank plans to fund, Adamides said. Despite efforts to present their grievance, the bank’s complaint mechanism has left the case open for over a year.

“If the project continues,” said Adamides, “it will potentially compromise water sources, displace people, and significantly add to Sao Paulo’s existing ecological problems.”