DC Law Students in Court comes to UDC
As the supervising attorney for DC Law Students in Court's (LSIC) Criminal Division, Moses Cook gave third-year law students a chance to visit court rooms to handle cases. “One story that gets retold is we were down in the criminal arraignment court in the cell block and someone expressed concern about a law student handling their case.” he said. “One of the other people in the cell block said, 'No, no,no, you want a law student. They're going to work really hard on your case.'” LSIC's reputation as an education program and legal services organization is set to increase as it adds the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clark School of Law (UDC-DCSL).
Beginning in 1967, DC Superior Court Judge Peter Wolf and a task force with deans from the city's five law schools (American, Howard, Catholic, Georgetown, and George Washington Universities) campaigned for court rule changes to allow third-year law students to represent low-income clients in what is now Landlord and Tenant Court; it was this consortium of judges and law schools that founded LSIC in 1968. When the law passed a year later, LSIC admitted its first class. In 1972, LSIC began handling criminal cases. Today, the organization provides free legal services to about three to four thousand low-income residents a year.
This semester, LSIC admitted 45 students from American, Georgetown, George Washington, and the newly instated UDC. Not only will they take classes, go to court and investigate together, they will also do community presentations, including holding “Know Your Rights” seminars throughout the city. “We have a dual mission: a mission to serve the under-served populations of DC...who are in civil and criminal courts and to also train and inspire the next generation of lawyers,” said Cook, who now serves as LSIC's executive director. “We want people who come through our program to leave knowing that wherever they go when they graduate, they can still make a difference.”
Cook believes that LSIC's expansion to UDC-DCSL is proof that the organization and its impact throughout the city is growing. “UDC is, as you know, a clinical-based law school,” he said. “They really emphasize experiential learning.” In fact, UDC-DCSL's mission statement, which states it will “...provide a well-rounded theoretical and practical legal education that will enable students to be effective and ethical advocates, and represent the legal needs of low-income District residents through the school's legal clinics,” aligns with LSIC's mission. In addition to being LSIC's sixth law school, the building where UDC-DCSL sits is also the temporary location for the organization.
How it Works
For at least 25 hours a week, the students work on court cases. “We're fortunate in that we get to use the energy and enthusiasm of law students to help us do what we think is very important work, which is to fight for people who otherwise wouldn't get lawyers or to make sure, in the instance of criminal clients, that we devote a tremendous amount of time and energy on one or two clients,” he said. “So, we treat every case as the most serious case in the world, no matter what it is. We investigate it, we write all the motions. We really fight hard and we're successful in that.” This way, students learn what it means to be a client-centered lawyer.
LSIC holds office hours at the DC Superior Court's Landlord and Tenant Center giving legal advice or representing clients for a short-term appearance. “We're there every day of the week, so that folks who are potentially getting evicted from their home, they'll come to court and we'll help them get through that process,” Cook explained. The organization also takes on criminal cases, usually assigned by the Superior Court. “That's what we'll be working with the UDC students specifically, fighting to keep clients out of the criminal justice system,” he said. Either way, LSIC has a reputation of hard work and dedication. “The clients understand the difference it makes to have someone who's by your side who's going to fight for you and is going to work very hard for your case,” Cook said.
What Makes the Difference
Since its inception, LSIC has been dedicated to social justice for low-income residents. “Ultimately, we feel that justice shouldn't depend on how much money you make; it shouldn't be something that you buy in our courts,” said Cook. For instance, he points out that in Landlord and Tenant Court, only about three percent of tenants have attorneys, compared to the about 90 percent of landlords. “We want to bring a level of fairness and we want to equal the playing field,” he said. “We're able to because we are blessed to have students come in who are energetic and enthusiastic.” Having that energy and enthusiasm, he believes, makes the difference for their clients.
DC Law Students in Court is located at 4340 Connecticut Ave NW, Suite 100 Washington DC 20008 (business office) and Court Building B, 510 4th Street N.W., Room 113 Washington, DC 20001 (court office). Summer court office hours are Mondays and Tuesdays from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. For more information, call 202-638-4798.