Focus On: Community Lawyering with Professor Spencer Rand

Editor’s note: At Temple Law School, student advocates can hone skills, explore their professional identities, and work with community members in pursuit of solutions to real-world legal problems. We checked in with the professors who lead Temple’s in-house clinics to learn more about what they teach, and why. In this fourth post, we discuss the Community Lawyering Clinic with Professor Spencer Rand.

TLS: What is Community Lawyering “about?”

Professor Rand: Community Lawyering is just that—diving into our community to represent low-income people who struggle to survive in a country that values individualism without concerning itself with those left behind. We are a profession that values access to justice. That is important. However, the poor and legally underserved do not just need representation. We need social justice, defined as recognizing and addressing power imbalances. The Community Lawyering clinic does this one person at a time, providing access to justice on power issues while looking more broadly at how those issues can be addressed for all. Because the clinic had its roots in the AIDS crisis in the early 1990’s and was led by a cancer survivor in the late 1990’s, it remains focused on the needs of those with serious illnesses and disabilities. We represent clients in our office on the law school’s first floor, but also by visiting sites in North Philadelphia and Center City where the community gathers for social or medical services. We provide what a lawyer can in those settings.

TLS: What experiential opportunities does the class include?

Professor Rand: There is some leeway in what you do. Internal clinics are diagnostic. That means you take steps deliberately, working with me at each step to figure out if you are comfortable with what you are doing, doing it well, and how you might perform the step even better the next time. You practice skills ranging from interviewing clients and helping them define goals to writing briefs and transactional documents, orally advocating, and performing other tasks needed in both litigation and transactional settings. Our most common litigation has been representation in administrative law hearings before judges to get disability benefits for people. These are good first hearings as it is you, your client, and the judge, with no opposing counsel for the government to challenge your work. Our most common transactional work has included drafting wills and advance directives for ill and disabled people to help them manage their affairs in the event of declining health. Most students do at least one disability hearing or help someone through the disability benefit process, but students can choose their focus and work more on transactional work, litigation work, or other areas of law affecting the poor. In the last year, we have been in landlord/tenant court, mortgage diversion court, and public aid hearings; advised on employment issues; and been advocates in many other settings.

TLS: Who should take this course?

Professor Rand: Students should be self-motivated to take this course. I will give you opportunities but you must take the lead from there! You don’t have to have social justice focused career goals. You must want to understand social justice, want to learn practice skills, want to learn better ways to lawyer, and  be ready to take on your own clients so fully that we are both comfortable that they are your responsibility more than mine. You can talk to me before registering or when you are in the class about things on which you want to focus and we will try to figure out how you can do it.

TLS: Why do you teach this course?

Professor Rand: The issues of the poor are very important to me. For part of my childhood, I grew up living on Social Security. I was lucky and had resources that gave me the opportunity to become who I am and now work for the poor. I began working with people with disabilities and people with illnesses by happenstance, but my wife lives with chronic cancer (though is basically healthy!) and the issues of people with illness and disability are important to me. I also love to teach and to watch students develop their interests in lawyering for the rich or poor and in helping them think through how to lawyer better and how to strive to help the legally underserved in any practice area, whether they be big firm attorneys, sole practitioners, government attorneys, or legal service attorneys. I am in touch today with several students doing all of these things!

You can be the instrument of difference and change. ~ Professor Spencer Rand

TLS: Can you describe a time when a student made a difference for a client in one of your clinic’s cases?

Professor Rand: While writing this, I got an email letting me know that a woman will get public housing. A student had interviewed her at a disability site and discovered that after waiting for many years to make it to the top of the waiting list for a housing voucher, which would let her rent a safe home in the community and leave her abusive family, the Housing Authority told her she would not get the housing. They did not want to rent to her because the last place she lived was in bad shape and although she left the apartment with proper notice, the landlord sued her for back rent, not giving her proper notice of this court action. The Housing Authority had decided to turn her away for owing this rent.

One of my Community Lawyering students counseled the woman on the pros and cons of going through the hearing process, which included the possibility that she could be turned away. At the hearing, this student won time to negotiate a deal for rent. After pushing through and finding the old landlord so disorganized that they could not even respond to us and then some continued work by the office the next semester, the woman was given a voucher. We did not change the system, but we did make sure one person was not lost in it.

The student fought an unfair system with the client but he didn’t stop there. He continued by drafting brochures that we will figure out how to get to people on the waiting list to prepare them for similar events. Other students are now working in the office on housing issues who will try to make it so that among other things, the brochure and other information will be distributed to those who can prepare for this outcome. Further, we have made connections at the Housing Authority through this case which we may be able to use to discuss this issue and maybe change this policy.

TLS: What is one lesson you hope every student takes away after participating in your clinic?

Professor Rand: You matter. You are not a lawyer to watch process happen. This is true in any type of case. A Social Security Disability case or a suit against a big company you represent could happen without you taking many steps. The legal process will continue and you could take minimal steps to make sure the case went through and a decision was made. However, you can change outcomes by doing more. You can get that extra medical record that proves your client’s disability. You can make that extra motion that turns out to be the one the judge accepts to remove your company from a lawsuit. You can talk with a client about a living will and how she will die and help her connect with her family and have meaningful discussions instead of just filling out a form on a computer that hopefully describes at least what the client wants to the extent the client has thought it through. You can be the instrument of difference and change. This is important in all areas and for me it is most important in social justice areas for the poor, where we need your help.

TLS: What is one of the most important lawyering skills a graduate needs and how is that skill developed in your clinic?

Professor Rand: The most important skill is legal empathy. You must understand your clients’ situations through their eyes. You must understand what an opposing party is thinking and learn how to grasp how you will work with them or against them to meet your clients’ needs. You will practice this in our clinic. You will meet with clients and really work to understand them. If there are opposing parties, you will work to understand them as well. You will learn how to do this in part by including your clients in your legal decisions, learning to explain different options to them and really listening to why they want to take certain actions. You will then implement those actions with them.

TLS: What does an average day look like in your clinic?

Professor Rand: Other than two hours you will spend each week with the class, you will spend two hours a week in the Legal Aid Office with me talking about your work in detail. You will spend another 6-8 hours each week working with clients, either by going to community settings to do so or by working on individual client cases in our office or court.

TLS: Anything else you want students to know about this course?

Professor Rand: You should consider taking this course or another internal clinic along with Poverty Law, a serial writing seminar I teach in which we talk about how law impacts the poor as well as laws that have worked or failed to address the needs of the poor. Poverty Law is a great course in helping you learn about social justice by critically considering what people think about the intersections between law and poverty and why power is taken from the poor. However, the doctrinal class it is limited by its lack of poor people to provide their voice and inform the discussion. This is why clinical experience is such an important aspect of your legal education. All the internal clinics at Temple allow you to work with poor people directly and see whether the policy ideas discussed in Poverty Law are at all reasonable, in part by letting you talk with poor people about them and in part by testing them out. Perhaps you will take Poverty Law, learn about a policy idea, and convince me of a project you want to do in Community Lawyering. Think about it!