BC Law’s Center for Experiential Learning launched several new programs this year that have been putting students’ skills to the test—sending some to prison, others into innovation districts—all of it in the interest of teaching them what it’s really like to practice law.
“By focusing on learning by doing, we can help students generate important professional skills and develop a valuable understanding of the law,” said Professor Brian Quinn, associate dean for experiential learning.
For the past half-century, BC Law has been a leader in clinical education. Nearly 50 years ago, it launched the Legal Assistance Bureau (now known as the Legal Services LAB). In 2014, the Law School established the Center for Experiential Learning, which is home to all in-house clinics, as well as trial advocacy, semester-in-practice, and externship programs.
In response to student demand, several new clinics began operations this past academic year, among them the Amicus Brief Clinic, a kind of “pop-up” clinic that enables student teams to work on briefs for cases faculty have identified as important [see earlier story].
The other clinical newcomers are the Prison Disciplinary Clinic, which engages up to four students per semester, and the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Clinic.
The Prison Disciplinary Clinic opens a rare window into the prison system. It is unusual among law school clinics in that students earn credit for participating each semester in as many as three or four hearings inside a state prison, including Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) Souza-Baranowski, MCI Cedar Junction, MCI Norfolk, and MCI Framingham.
A primary challenge the students face is dealing with the criminal justice bureaucracy. “The hardest part was jumping through all the hoops and red tape,” said Kelsey Rae Brattin ’18. “The prisons are often not happy that you are there.”
The students represent inmates facing disciplinary action for various charges, among them smuggling drugs into prison and instigating fights. Punishments include transfer to a higher security prison, loss of visitation rights or, as happened to one inmate, his right to make phone calls for 60 days for leaving medicine outside of a lockbox. Some infractions can earn the maximum punishment, being placed in solitary confinement.
Students meet and interview inmates, then defend them at hearings that last about an hour. Hearing officers, state prison employees, direct and rule on the hearings. The young advocates make their motions, give opening statements, cross-examine witnesses, and make closing statements. Two weeks later they get an opinion.
The hearings are similar to administrative procedures and do not follow the rules of evidence, which surprised many of the students. “A lot of lawyers and lay people would be shocked to see the type of evidence that is cited to support some of the charges,” said Brattin.
The hearings matter a great deal to those on the inside, often regardless of outcome. However necessary it is to put criminals away to keep others safe, it must be remembered that prisoners are human beings, said Professor Frank Herrmann, SJ. “The dignity of the person ought to be maintained. The slightest thing in this setting makes an enormous difference, like not having a phone call or a visit.”
The experience is an eye-opener for students on many levels and provides a perspective they’d never get without going inside and figuring things out, added Kari Tannenbaum, an adjunct who will return to the clinic as a visiting professor next semester. “Most of the clients are serving life sentences. Their dignity is taken away in different ways. It is really important for students, who are used to coming to this beautiful campus, living in Boston, having their cell phone, to see this. For inmates, the impact of losing visits each week is huge, or the job that pays $3 a week.”
Win or lose, the students make an important contribution to the people they are representing. Being able to interact on a human-to-human level makes inmates feel that they are being heard and have worth, said Brattin. “Part of the work was trial advocacy but another part was recognizing that your clients don’t have communication or connections with people outside of prisons.”
Tannenbaum recalled one client, a transgender inmate, who was effusively appreciative of her advocate’s efforts as much for the legal assistance as for the fact that the student treated her as a female and referred to her by her female gender.
The students, too, come away from the clinic experience with something of value. “It was probably my favorite and most interesting thing I’ve done in law school,” Brattin said.
The Entrepreneurship and Innovation Clinic (EIC) has made an impact in a different locale, Boston’s start-up community.
“Boston is probably one of the most innovative cities in the country,” said Quinn. “We are trying to tap into that and put Boston College on the map as a part of that innovation.”
Eight students per semester assist with a variety of issues facing start-ups and existing businesses, everything from forming a corporate entity to advising on governance to protecting intellectual property, said Professor Lynnise Pantin, founding director of the EIC (pictured above right, with student and clients).
The EIC finds clients through its connections to what Pantin calls the existing “ecosystems” in the Boston community that are supporting entrepreneurial and innovative businesses. One such partnership is with Smarter in the City, an incubator in Dorchester that nurtures young talent with bold ideas and welcomes equally ambitious aspiring attorneys to help them turn their dreams into viable realities. Other referral sources are Accelerate Boston, a program of Epicenter Community, and Legal Food Hub, a program from the Conservation Law Foundation.
Alexa Esposito ’17 represented an artificial intelligence start-up and a nonprofit corporation that provides healthy food to impoverished areas of Boston.
The artificial intelligence corporation, founded by a recent Boston College graduate, is in the process of developing an app that gives restaurant recommendations based on a user’s preferences. The nonprofit was entering a joint venture, for which Esposito had to execute a letter of intent that ensured the terms were binding once the deal was finalized.
The AI project was the more complex of the two. The client needed to have all of her documents in order, including the proper authorizations, before she could bring on investors and get her product launched. Esposito learned a lot in the process of making that happen. “The hardest part about it was managing client expectations,” she said.
Jacob Thaler ’17, whose client was a group of professors wishing to acquire a trademark for their corporation organizing an education conference for patent professionals, agreed. “It was mostly counseling, consulting, and explaining. I was on the phone with [my client] on a weekly basis so that we could check in.” In addition, Thaler created a checklist to remind the professors of upcoming corporate filings.
Thaler also worked with a fashion designer and stay-at-home mother who was forming a nonprofit incubator for start-up designers. “She was exactly what you wanted when you thought of an entrepreneur,” he said. “She had ideas. She was motivated. She was constantly trying to figure out her next step.”
The process of balancing all of the client’s priorities and business ideas was hard but rewarding. Thaler prepared all the documents for nonprofit incorporation. He also learned a great deal about corporate governance, boards of directors, and conflicts of interest. “It was slow-moving for me, but when I reflected upon it, it was pretty helpful,” he said. “I have a way better understanding now of what it means to put together a company.”