By Andrew Cohen
Berkeley Law is launching a new center that aims to make the school a national and global leader in the study, research, and practice of consumer law. Established by a $3.5 million gift from renowned litigator Elizabeth Cabraser ’78, the Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice is the first of its kind among top-tier law schools.
“Consumer law is at work all around us, every day. But it’s almost invisible in law schools,” says Cabraser, a founding partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in San Francisco and one of the nation’s foremost consumer advocate/class action attorneys. “This center will actively help protect people in the modern marketplace.”
Specifically, the center will deliver research and analysis to fuel meaningful policy change. It will produce white papers, file amicus briefs in consumer cases in appellate courts nationwide, provide input to legislatures and regulatory agencies on behalf of low-income consumers, and increase student opportunities to do hands-on consumer policy work.
“I am thrilled that we are launching the Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice,” says Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. “I believe that we can create a preeminent university-based center on consumer law and that it will make a huge difference in people’s lives. I am deeply grateful to Elizabeth Cabraser for making this possible.”
Ted Mermin ’96, co-founder of the Public Good Law Center, will serve as the center’s interim executive director starting in April. He and Cabraser, who received a 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Law Journal, have played integral roles in building the school’s consumer law program over the past 10 years.
Mermin calls the new center “the capstone of a decade of tremendous growth. Both of us have taught consumer courses at Berkeley Law and have seen first-hand a surging interest among students. The curricular offerings have grown, the clinical offerings have grown—and now this endeavor will take the program to another level.”
The center will co-host the nation’s only conference of consumer law clinics and convene the first conference of scholars in the field. It will also bring together public and private sector practitioners, advocates, academics, and students for speaker series, workshops, and collaborative projects.
“The creative energy and practical efforts of this center will help improve the economic lives of all Americans,” says Richard Cordray, who spent nearly six years as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “I can tell you that it is needed and welcomed by all who champion the cause of consumers.”
In addition to expanded consumer-related courses, students will have the opportunity to gain litigation experience through partnerships with public agencies.
“Now, more than ever, we need all hands on deck to protect hardworking families and to defend people when they’re most vulnerable,” says Eleanor Blume ’10, special assistant attorney general at the California Department of Justice. “Here in California and at Berkeley Law, we have the opportunity to be and to nurture the leaders in consumer protection and economic justice.”
A rapid expansion
In 2007, while working in the consumer law section of the California Attorney General’s Office, Berkeley Law asked Mermin to conduct a training session for a visiting delegation from Thailand’s Supreme Court. The following year, the school hired him to teach its first JD course on consumer law.
Within a few years, his seminar classes had mushroomed from eight students to the maximum 30—with a growing waiting list. Berkeley Law now offers five consumer law courses with more planned. Meanwhile, former students work at leading nonprofits in the field, legal service providers, private firms, and in consumer protection agencies at all levels of government.
Consumers Union senior attorney Suzanne Martindale ’10 was a Berkeley Law student during the 2008 financial collapse. At the time, she was among just a handful of students studying the modern origins of predatory lending in Mermin’s consumer protection seminar and helping low-income clients respond to lawsuits at a debt collection clinic.
“These days, consumer law has a real presence on campus, and students seek it out in their pursuit of opportunities to restore fairness for everyday people facing powerful businesses and institutions,” Martindale says. “Now that our consumer law community has roots, it needs a garden with room to grow. That’s what this center will be.”
Part of the center’s mission will be to help define the sometimes hazy parameters of consumer law—which can include everything from debt collection abuses and inflated drug prices to false advertising and sub-prime auto lending—and to identify key issues that demand attention.
“While modern consumer law has been around for more than a century, there’s never been an academic hub at a school like Berkeley Law with the mission of figuring out what it encompasses and what it can accomplish,” Mermin says. “That’s a real void we’re eager to fill.”
The center will support the expansion of curricular offerings for J.D. and LL.M. students, bolster the activities of consumer-focused student groups, and establish partnerships with other Berkeley Law centers and other campus schools and departments.
Berkeley Law is also committed to offering scholarships to prospective students interested in consumer justice, and to students who demonstrate interest during law school.
“It’s welcome timing for a center like this because we’re seeing worsening trends toward economic inequality here in the Bay Area and across the nation,” Martindale says. “We need a renewed vision for consumer law that clearly identifies the drivers of economic insecurity and power imbalances in the marketplace—and employs legal and policy strategies to create the conditions for positive change.”
History of student involvement
Mermin helped establish the Consumer Justice Clinic within the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). There, Berkeley Law students help defend against debt-collection lawsuits, educate consumers on deceptive and predatory lending programs, and litigate against operations that victimize non-English-speaking immigrants.
In 2013, clinic students helped pass California’s Fair Debt Buying Practices Act, co-sponsored by EBCLC. The bill targeted unscrupulous debt collection agencies that had misused courts to exploit low-income consumers. Students also helped pass follow-up bills on debt collection and wage garnishment.
“I chose to attend Berkeley Law in part because of the strong consumer law community among students and alumni, and I’m thrilled that our community will now have a much bigger institutional home,” says CAPS Co-chair Nate Brown ’18.
While national and international in scope, the center will also devote energy to consumer issues close to home. Although California is progressive in many legal areas, Mermin says the state is “not yet where it should be when it comes to consumer law.”
Berkeley Law already has sought to move the state forward by co-convening a quarterly meeting of consumer law organizations and by hosting an annual retreat with practitioners and academics. The new center will augment that programming and put students at the forefront of a burgeoning field.
“It’s time for a consumer law renaissance,” says Cabraser, who recently added Benchmark Litigation’s 2017 Plaintiff Attorney of the Year award to her numerous honors. “Every one of us lives a daily life as a consumer, and marketplace fairness is a universal right; for those struggling economically, it is a basic necessity,”
Those interested in learning more about the center’s work should contact Mermin at email@example.com.