Focus On: Family Law Litigation Clinic with Professor Sarah Katz

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 third post, we discuss the Family Law Litigation Clinic with Professor Sarah Katz.

TLS: What is the Family Law Litigation Clinic “about?”

Professor Katz: The Family Law Litigation Clinic is a clinical course focused on family law substantive and procedural law, and practice. Students provide much-needed direct representation to low-income clients in Philadelphia Family Court. Through the Family Law Litigation Clinic, students explore current issues in family law and access to justice.

TLS: What experiential opportunities does the class include?

Professor Katz: Students in the Family Law Litigation Clinic at the Temple Legal Aid Office provide direct legal representation to low-income litigants in child custody, child and spousal support, adoption and other family law cases in Philadelphia’s Family Court. These are some of the most challenging, and rewarding, cases to handle because they have such a deep impact on the lives of children and their families. Students have responsibility for each and every aspect of their clients’ matters, from interviewing and counseling clients to development of a case plan, and all of the tasks required to meet the client’s litigation goals, which typically include drafting of pleadings, negotiation with opposing counsel or parties, development of trial strategy, trial preparation and court appearances.

TLS: Who should take this course?

Professor Katz: The Family Law Litigation Clinic is a great opportunity for any student who wants to hone their trial advocacy, individual client, and related lawyering skills in a supportive educational environment.  All students are certified to handle cases in court, and students usually handle a minimum of 2-3 hearings throughout the semester, if not more. Anyone who intends to pursue a career in litigation should consider the Family Law Litigation Clinic – and, of course, students who are interested in practicing family law should make sure they take advantage of this opportunity to experience how what they learn in the classroom works out in real life.

By learning to empathize with our clients, we step outside of ourselves and our own biases, and become more effective advocates. ~ Professor Sarah Katz

TLS: Why do you teach this course?

Professor Katz: I see advocacy for parents and other caregivers as true child advocacy, which has been my passion since before law school. After working at the Children’s Defense Fund for several years, attending law school, and serving in a federal clerkship, I went to my dream job at Community Legal Services, where I represented parents in child welfare proceedings in Philadelphia Family Court. While a practicing lawyer, I also had many opportunities to train, mentor and teach law students. Nearly six years ago, I jumped at the opportunity to combine my two passions – family advocacy and mentoring law students – by joining the Temple Law faculty and teaching this clinic. Our students and our clients continue to inspire me every day.

TLS: Can you describe a time when a student made a difference for a client in one of the Family Law Litigation Clinic’s cases?

Professor Katz: In the fall of 2017, a clinic student represented the mother of two children, ages 5 and 10, in a custody case filed in contemplation of a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status petition. Federal immigration law provides a mechanism whereby children who enter this country unaccompanied may be able to gain legal status if they are found to have been abused, neglected or abandoned by one or both parents in their country of origin. These children had been badly physically abused by their father, and also witnessed extreme physical violence perpetrated by their father against their mother. The clinic student prepared the mother and both children to testify as to their experiences and the petition was granted based on their testimony in court, thereby paving the way for the children to remain safe and legally in the United States.

TLS: What is one lesson you hope every students takes away after participating in the Family Law Litigation Clinic?

Professor Katz: I hope every student who takes the Family Law Litigation Clinic develops a deeper sense of empathy for their clients.  While this might not sound like a lawyering skill, I believe it is.  While we may or may not share our clients’ life experiences, or even find them likeable, every client we have in the Clinic needs our advocacy.  By learning to empathize with our clients, we step outside of ourselves and our own biases, and become more effective advocates.

TLS: What is one of the most important lawyering skills a graduate needs and how is that skill developed in the Family Law Litigation Clinic?

Professor Katz: I frequently tell my students that clients are living breathing fact patterns.  Unlike the factual scenarios presented in most doctrinal classes, our clients’ lives unfold over the course of the representation, and clinic students constantly need to be tuned in to spot new legal issues, or change their analysis of ongoing legal issues based on new facts. Through their work in the clinic, students not only learn substantive family law, but learn how to apply this law to the ever-changing and sometimes difficult lives of real clients who depend on our advocacy to determine the future of their families.

TLS:  What does an average day look like in the Family Law Litigation clinic?

Professor Katz: I frequently tell my students: “Family Law, never boring!”  The practice of family law is varied – on any given day, students may be meeting in person or by phone with clients, drafting pleadings or legal memoranda, negotiating with opposing parties or counsel, preparing for court, or handling a court hearing.

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

Professor Katz: There’s nothing more exciting for me than starting a new semester with a new crop of Temple Law students. Our students come from such diverse backgrounds and have such diverse life experiences.  I am blown away every day by our students’ skills, tenacity and drive to make a difference in the lives of our clients and their families.