By Andrew Cohen
Accolades rarely drive those who spend their careers helping the disadvantaged. But when you fight as diligently—and effectively—for marginalized communities as Jeffrey Selbin has, recognition is unavoidable.
A leader of Berkeley Law clinical programs since 1990, Selbin recently won UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Award for Community Engaged Teaching, which honors faculty leadership in community-based courses and research. The director of Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC), he was nominated by three clinic students, supervising attorney Stephanie Campos-Bui ’14, and teaching fellow Ahmed Lavalais ’17.
“The best thing about working with and learning from Jeff is that he manages to demand excellence while still being a genuinely caring human being—a rare combination,” Lavalais says. “He teaches advocacy from a bottom-up, community-driven perspective. The work is centered on the needs of the community, not the needs of the clinic or the law school.”
Earlier this year, the Society of American Law Teachers honored Selbin with its 2018 Great Teacher Award. The organization hailed him for showing “that instilling the desire and capability to provide public service must be a fundamental charge of legal academia” and called him “a champion of justice, diversity, and teaching excellence.”
Under Selbin’s leadership, PAC has made a major dent in eliminating regressive and racially discriminatory juvenile justice fines and fees. Student research revealed that California counties assessed myriad charges that families often could not afford to pay, resulting in destabilizing debt that became a permanent legal judgment.
Meanwhile, collection costs trying to extract money from poor families meant counties generated little or no financial gain while the burdens of the fee regime fell disproportionately on families of color.
These findings prompted several counties to end such fines and fees and led to Senate Bill 190, which repealed them statewide. To date, hundreds of thousands of families have been relieved of more than $200 million in previously assessed fees, and Selbin’s team is working to ensure the bill’s proper implementation throughout the state.
“I nominated Jeff because of the passion he has for his work and his ability to help students learn while also getting concrete work accomplished,” Sara Abarbanel ’18 says of the Chancellor’s Award. “Not only has Jeff and PAC worked on eliminating juvenile fees in California, they are spreading the work nationwide. He is always thinking bigger to what more can be done.”
Selbin recently discussed his clinical approach, his passion for fighting injustice, and his drive to help Berkeley Law students become exceptional advocates.
What’s your favorite part of being a clinical faculty member at Berkeley Law?
Every day I get to work with amazing colleagues and students in a clinical program and a law school dedicated to making the world a more just place. If I had to pick one especially rewarding aspect of the job, I’d say it’s watching the students assume increased responsibility for our work as they gain substantive knowledge, practical experience, and professional confidence. By the end of each semester, I always marvel at how far they’ve come in just 14 weeks.
With expanding student-led initiatives and Dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s commitment to clinics, is Berkeley Law’s clinical program thriving more than ever?
It might be an understatement to say we’re only thriving. The clinical program has never been larger, more impactful, or more important. With near-daily assaults on democratic values and vulnerable communities, all of the clinics have redoubled their efforts with students to advance and protect civil, political, and human rights. And of course, we couldn’t be more grateful for Dean Chemerinsky’s commitment to clinics. As a practicing lawyer, he intuitively gets the vital role of hands-on training as part of a well-rounded legal education.
What are the main benefits for law students in a clinic, and why do employers value that experience?
Clinics are where the head, hands, and heart come together. Students learn to integrate their newfound ability to think like a lawyer with the practical skills and professional values to act like one. And they do this all on behalf of real clients with high stakes, which tends to focus the senses in a way not possible even with the very best classroom and simulation exercises. While students’ eventual work settings may differ from the clinic in many ways, our goal is to provide them with this potent and transferable combination of experiences.
How does the impact of PAC’s work on juvenile fines and fees compare to your other projects over the years?
Many of my most rewarding experiences have been working with students and clients on what some people might consider routine legal matters, like helping someone keep a roof over her head, or getting access to health care. That said, I’m astonished at the scale of what the students have accomplished on behalf of so many people through the juvenile fees work. We’ll never meet but a handful of the hundreds of thousands of families who will benefit from the students’ efforts, but it’s gratifying to know that we’ve helped make life a little easier for so many young people already facing big challenges.
How satisfying was it to receive these two recent prestigious awards?
I’m not really a fan of individual awards, but I’m obviously very grateful that current and former students took the time and effort to nominate me—and to have kept it a secret! Everything I’ve ever done of significance has been in close collaboration with others and builds on the work of people who came before me. Both of these awards are really recognition of our amazing clinical program, including EBCLC, which is the epitome of community engaged teaching and service.
Your clinic effectively teams law students with public policy students. Is there a growing push to foster similar collaborations within Berkeley Law?
We’re still learning how to integrate law and public policy students in the classroom and in the clinic, but the early results are very promising and it’s been a ton of fun. I think there are certainly similar opportunities across a campus as rich and diverse as ours. We live in a complex and dynamic world with problems that don’t lend themselves to easy categorization or quick fixes, so I’d hope and expect to see more initiatives like ours in the coming years.
Fighting for the disenfranchised is often an uphill climb. What has helped you stay engaged and enthusiastic about clinical advocacy for nearly 30 years?
Has it really been 30 years? Seriously, like most people, I find injustice to be a great motivator. It often begins with moral outrage—are we really charging low-income families with youth in the juvenile system $30 a day for juvenile hall, $15 a day for electronic monitoring, and hundreds or thousands of dollars for their public defender? Figuring out how to respond to the injustice is a team effort that starts with affected individuals and communities. Watching our students get up close and personal with injustice, converting their outrage to advocacy, and persuading decision-makers to do the right thing is a beautiful sight to behold.