The Law School Magazine  ·  Summer 2013 : Features

Tales from the Clinics: Great lessons learned in courtrooms, with clients

By - Summer 2013
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By participating in the Civil Clinic, Matt Grimsley ’13 gained more experience than many young attorneys who have been practicing for years.

“During the clinic I had the opportunity to litigate on behalf of a client in a three-day civil jury trial,” Grimsley recalled of his experience as a 2L. “It was a great opportunity that many practicing attorneys have not experienced.”

At The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, students have the opportunity to choose from seven different clinics that offer hands-on experience. They may enroll in the Mediation and Legislation clinics (open to 2L and 3L students) and can choose from four litigation clinics (limited to 3L students): Civil, Criminal Prosecution, Criminal Defense, and Justice for Children. The newest clinic, opened in 2012, is the Entrepreneurial Business Law Clinic, in which students provide transactional legal assistance to startup businesses.

Many students, including Grimsley, participate in clinics because they offer practical experience that builds upon what’s learned in more traditional law school lectures and seminars. This combination of deep comprehension of how law practice and theory work together proves to be very powerful.

“The clinic was a great experience,” Grimsley said. “It trains students to be lawyers and not just legal scholars. Out of all my law school classes, clinic is what really gave me the confidence I needed to practice law.”

George Kiamos ’13 worked with Grimsley on the trial in the Civil Clinic. “We represented a truck driver who sued his former employer for owed pay,” Kiamos said. “I cross-examined the defendant and conducted the voir dire of the jury. Few students, if any, will conduct a voir dire before they have been in practice for a few years. The clinic is a great opportunity that I think all students should try and take advantage of.”

Alyssa Bowerman ’13 learned about client representation during her semester in the Civil Clinic. Her case involved a man who was being sued by his contractor for insurance money. Bowerman joined the case late but said she immediately wanted to take the case to trial, believing the team could turn the case around and get money for their client.

“It just wasn’t in the client’s best interest,” she said. “If the jury saw it as a collections case with a straightforward contract, you know – ‘You signed this contract saying you were turning over all insurance proceeds; you need to pay them’ – then our client would have to pay. Alternatively he could be compensated for this process, but what if he isn’t?”

She said this gave her perspective on the importance of focusing on the client.

“It was a great learning experience in that I had to remember that this is a client’s life. If he loses, I don’t have to pay for those consequences. He does,” Bowerman said. “And he really wanted to go to trial for our benefit because he knew that we would do a great job, and he wanted us to get the experience. But you could just tell in the mediation that he just so badly wanted it to be done.”

The team ended up making a deal in the client’s favor during mediation.

She added that the clinic brought her time in law school full circle.

“I feel like my law school experience just wouldn’t have been as complete without clinic,” she said. “I mean there’s a huge difference between saying, ‘I took a class on negotiation and mediation’ and ‘I wrote a mediation statement and went to mediation with a client conducted by a magistrate, and we had a great outcome for our client.’ There’s just a different story there.”

Experiences that challenge

To get the most out of Ohio State Law’s experiential learning opportunities, Marisol Aguilar ’13 took three clinics – Civil, Criminal Defense, and Mediation. She spent her final semester at Moritz in the Criminal Defense Clinic, where she tackled two different cases that presented their own sets of challenges.

“The first case I got was a very complicated case,” Aguilar said. “It was a sorority that had been involved with some allegations of hazing, and I represented one of the sorority members. So it was extremely complicated because there were so many defendants.“We subpoenaed about 30 people. In the words of (Professor) Bob (Krivoshey): ‘It was a circus.’ We had to do a lot of discovery, read a lot of witness statements, look at a lot of videos of their statements, and just try to come up with something.”

Aguilar’s second case involved just one defendant, but interpretations of the chain of events leading to her client’s charges in the case were scattered. Her client was accused of stealing. He claimed he had thought the property was his, as he had walked away from it and then returned. Aguilar and her partner only had surveillance video — with no audio — from which to build a case.

“I don’t know how many times we looked through the footage, and we came up with different stories about what had happened,” Aguilar said. “And then, finally, we brought (the client) in, and he explained it to us. It was just eye-opening about how you can interpret things differently even though you were looking at the exact same thing.”

Challenges came at Aguilar from all angles, and some were brought on by Krivoshey’s approach in the courtroom. “Bob has a very sink-or-swim philosophy to teaching,” Aguilar said. She then recalled one exchange with her professor in the middle of courtroom proceedings.

Krivoshey turned to her: “OK, you have to say something.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ve never been before a judge. What should I say?”

“Just say something.”

“But what?”

Aguilar laughed about the experience. “By that time, it was too late. The judge already expected me to say something. I had to just make up something on the fly.”

Upon hearing Aguilar’s version of the events, Krivoshey laughed and offered that any alleged “sink-or-swim” approach only applies to students he knows are fully capable of swimming.

Ariel Brough ’13 participated in the Criminal Prosecution Clinic and said the struggle for her was grasping the real-world implications of her work for the Delaware City Prosecutor.

“The toughest part was being a student making decisions that directly impact people’s lives,” Brough said. “When we’re considering what deal we’re willing to make, what’s fair, and what will have the best outcome, that directly affects someone’s life. In the domestic violence cases I worked on, we had to consider the victim’s future safety, while considering how much evidence we have to prove something actually happened. Even in these misdemeanor cases we’re making real, weighty decisions.”

She said clinics have the distinct benefit of offering practical experience, a sentiment echoed by many law students who take them.

“I’d definitely recommend that students take a clinic, especially by their second or third year, because it gives you a chance to put your knowledge to use,” Brough said. “You’re given control to make decisions, consider evidence, and decide what will win at trial. It’s great experience.”

While enrolled in the Mediation Clinic, rising 3L Jessica Wirick worked as a mediator with the Franklin County Municipal Court. She worked on cases ranging from thefts, to roommate and landlord-tenant disputes, to employers’ claims that employees failed to do their jobs.

Her biggest challenges arose from the actual practice of working with her clients.

“Typically when they would come in, the parties aren’t happy,” Wirick said. “They’re coming to court, so there’s something that’s upsetting both sides, whether they are the person who brought the claim or the person coming for the claim. A lot of times there are many underlying issues, and one person isn’t the only one at fault. We’re trying to get below what’s actually on the surface.”

Working as a mediator didn’t just expose her to angry clients arguing with each other, though.

“The most rewarding part was when (the two parties) would come to a resolution, and I’d be able to write up some kind of agreement for them to follow,” Wirick said. “I had two parties walk out hugging, kissing, and they went to go get coffee.”

Beyond the courtroom 

Moritz’s Legislation Clinic gives students opportunities in research, analysis, and navigating the legislative process. In this clinic, students work with leaders of the Ohio General Assembly and other key legislative players in government offices.

David Hodapp ’13 said participating in the clinic reaffirmed his interest in using his law education to pursue a career in policy and politics.

“The clinic provided me the unique opportunity to interact with Ohio’s decision-makers. It not only gave me a behind-the-scenes perspective on the legislative process, but also challenged me to substantively contribute as a member of the office,” Hodapp said. “It impressed upon me just how complex and important, yet rewarding, this work can be.”

Monika Perry ’13 took the Legislation Clinic with Hodapp. She said the clinic was valuable because she was exposed to different career paths for lawyers, and she gained experience working in government offices, the Ohio Board of Regents specifically, producing work that mattered.

“I researched a lot of interesting topics that are actually pertinent to people our age,” Perry said. “I went to panels on medical marijuana, how drug testing affects unemployment, tuition freezes and locks, and other things. I felt like my research was used and valued and that my opinion was meaningful as someone who was closer in age to the people who are affected by the decisions the Board of Regents made.”

Hodapp added that working with the other students in the clinic enriched his experience because they opened his eyes up to a diversity of perspectives on the legislative process.

“It was fascinating to hear my classmates’ reactions to the developments at the Statehouse,” Hodapp said. “We were often in agreement. Other times there were many, many differing opinions.”

A third clinic that offers experience outside of litigation is the Entrepreneurial Business Law Clinic, in which students aid startup and emerging businesses in need of legal assistance.

In the clinic, students offer legal service in areas such as business formation and governance, regulation of Internet commerce, employment contracts, due diligence, valuation and finance, licensing, and intellectual property issues.

One of the clinic’s clients in the fall of 2012 was I Heart Garments, a charity crowd-funding site that allows people to submit a “heartfelt story” connected to a cause. If the story is accepted, I Heart starts a campaign with a monetary goal, to be met through the sale of garments designed to connect to the cause. I Heart Garments creates the clothes, ships them, and donates $8 per item sold to the cause supported by the story.

Chenee Castruita ’13 appreciated the company’s mission and Columbus roots. “Working with I Heart Garments was exciting because it’s a locally-grown business with a business model that depends on community interaction,” Castruita said.

She said she felt like a valuable addition to the team as legal counsel because she was able to pick up on how startup businesses need help foreseeing the kind of legal protection they might need.

“It’s our job to troubleshoot issues ahead of time,” Castruita said. “For example, I Heart never thought of the need to have it expressly stated that the designs they came up with belonged to them, until another organization began using the artwork for its own purposes. That’s something that legal counsel would have thought of fairly early on.”

Along with working with an entrepreneur and gleaning insight on the way many startups have unique business models involving new technology or new ways to communicate through that technology, Castruita picked up a trove of practical skills.

“I interviewed clients, drafted multiple agreements for I Heart, and registered their trademark,” she said. “Those are practical skills I can take with me into the real world, and the experience in client interaction will prove indispensable when I approach new clients in the future.”

Affecting clients’ lives

For Nadia Zaiem ’13, who took the Justice for Children Clinic as a 3L, practice outside the classroom was a vital part of her law education. Being able to practice law while having the safety of a professor to supervise her and keep her on track made her feel comfortable.

“It was nice not having to have my first real legal experience be out in the real world, where I’m on my own,” she said. “So I think it’s just a way for me to take what I learned in the classroom and actually be able to apply it, but at the same time get experience without being worried that I’m making a big mistake.”

Zaiem’s biggest surprise from participating in the clinic was the juxtaposition between the chaos of the court and how long it can take for a case to process.

“I had one case that I thought was going to be a simple, open-and-shut case, and then it ended up lasting the whole semester. As far as I know, it’s still not over yet,” she said.

In the Justice for Children Clinic, Zaiem had a slightly different clientele than those who participated in other litigation clinics — her clients were all minors.

“One of the things I was worried about was that while I had some legal experience, I had never really had to interact with a child as a client,” Zaiem said. “So one of the things early on that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do was communicate effectively with them. It’s a very complicated process for the average person, let alone a child.”

Charles Ellis ’13 also participated in the Justice for Children Clinic, specifically working with abuse and neglect cases, as well as a juvenile delinquency case.

“When working with the child welfare system, you can have a case where that particular child’s interest is not directly aligned with what the law says should happen,” Ellis said. “But sometimes we can find an exception and make a case as to why the course embraced by the child is superior. For example if the law says that it is time for the child to go back and live with their family, but the child is doing well and desires to remain with their foster family, we would want to explore all options that would meet the child’s needs and interest. The interest of the child is the No. 1 priority.”

He said in regards to working on a juvenile delinquency case, he appreciated learning how the system is geared toward rehabilitation for the child involved.

“It’s satisfying that you, along with the court, are working toward actual rehabilitation in a criminal case in juvenile court,” he said. “Sometimes kids make bad decisions that lead to them facing charges, but it’s not too late to turn their lives around if they want to.”

In his final semester at Moritz, Ellis enrolled in the Criminal Defense Clinic, which offered a different kind of experience with a different type of client.

“In the Criminal Defense Clinic, the stakes are high because there is a possibility of your client having to serve jail time. The clients often view you as their last hope,” Ellis said. “You have to be confident, committed to the cases, and reassuring toward the clients so they’ll know you are putting forth your best effort.”

He said a key lesson he learned was how to work collegially with opposing prosecutors. Additionally, his clinic experience allowed him to refine a wide variety of skills.

“It was an opportunity to match theory with actual practice, match theory with real cases and real clients,” Ellis said. “You have the opportunity to make creative arguments — nothing is outside the realm of possibility because you’re working with a licensed, experienced professional.”

Ellis called his clinic experience “rewarding” because he felt he had a positive impact on his clients’ lives.

“It was really satisfying,” he said. “Some clients would hug me or cry and express sincere thanks. Some offered to take me out to dinner. They were just so thankful to have someone there to help them in their time of need. So that was just a bonus on top of the practical experience.”

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