I have a confession to make. Upon returning to NYU this fall, first year under my belt, I gleefully anticipated making full use of the free time I would surely have at my behest in September, when final exam season was hardly visible on the horizon.
How wrong I was. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Participating in a clinic was one of the of the Big Things I wanted to do in law school. NYU Law has 31 clinics, some of which are semester-long, others that are year-long. While clinics are unique, they all involve a good amount of practical experience handling real clients’ cases under attorney supervision, and an opportunity to gain knowledge and practice in a given field of law.
After much deliberating and submitting applications to a few clinics, I wound up receiving and accepting an offer from NYU Law’s year-long Civil Rights Clinic.
I quickly realized that, in the words of Robert Frost, I had taken the road less traveled by – in comparing course schedules with my second-year friends, it seemed my course schedule was an outlier. I knew just one of my seven soon-to-be-clinic-mates. Between its seminars and practical component, the Civil Rights Clinic would comprise seven out of my thirteen credits for the semester. Things were going to be a lot different.
However, to paraphrase Mr. Frost again, I quickly saw that my having taken the road less traveled by had made all the difference.
The eight of us divided into three groups – two who would handle cases already in some stage of the litigation process, and one taking on new cases. I opted to venture into the unknown, as did Alex Stone-Tharp, my clinic partner.
One of our first tasks would be to represent a client at a Transit Adjudication Bureau (or, “TAB”) hearing. In less than one month.
Our client had been arrested in violation of his constitutional rights. Preparing for the hearing involved interviewing him, familiarizing ourselves with his case, performing legal research, and getting to know the TAB rules. During the week before the hearing, Alex and I shirked all other obligations. We spent a good day or two rehearsing the arguments we would make, and mooting them in front of our class. We were as prepared as two law students who have never represented a client could be.
In case you’ve never gotten into trouble with the MTA and been summoned for a hearing, TAB is more similar in appearance to the DMV than a courthouse. It’s not the picture that comes to mind when one thinks “litigation”. Our client took a number, and we waited for it to appear on a digital screen. In the interim, Claudia Angelos, our professor and advisor, our client, Alex and I made small talk, had misunderstandings with TAB personnel, and overheard more than one individual loudly bemoan his verdict.
Then, the moment we had been waiting for arrived: our client’s number was called. We were led into a room that, were anyone else present, someone would have had to stand outside for lack of space.
Our hearing officer turned on a tape recorder (yes, the cassette kind) and went through the standard opening spiel with ease. Then, before my partner or I could say a word, he indicated that the charge on our client’s summons was not valid. I resisted the urge to plead with him to let me make my well-rehearsed argument anyway. He pressed the “stop” button on the recorder, and we were done.
Our sense of triumph was somewhat distilled by having to wait an hour for our client’s official verdict. But we had prevailed – our client’s baseless charge was dropped, which may not have happened but for our efforts. And we’ve just gotten started.
Not only has clinic allowed me to gain incredibly valuable experience by helping real people, but it has allowed me to reconnect with why I came to law school. Most of us, I would venture, did not enroll in law school out of fondness for casebooks and the Socratic method. We wanted to be part of a dynamic field in which we would strategize to attain our clients’ goals, or argue, or effect change in the law, or fight for justice – or E, all of the above.
My experience in the Civil Rights Clinic has truly changed the contours of my law school experience for the better. And now, I couldn’t imagine my life without it.
(So, to my friends who have asked me where I’ve been this semester – this is your answer.)
*Certain details of the case and hearing have been changed or omitted in the interest of client confidentiality.
Want to read about other TAB-related cases?
- NYCLU v. New York City Transit Authority (challenging TAB’s closed-door hearing process) (April 8, 2009)
- NYCLU Urges Transit Authority to Provide Interpreters (Sept. 24, 2010)