(left to right) Professor Conrad Johnson (standing), Jane Booth ’76, Lynn Povich, Kalani Leifer, and Scott Lewis discuss clinical education.
Clinics from the Perspective of Those We Serve
A Personal Perspective: Clinic Clients—Past and Current—Share Moving Stories of the Vital Contributions Clinical Faculty and Students Have Made to Their Lives
For Scott T. Lewis, Columbia Law School’s clinics meant the difference between life and death. Wrongfully incarcerated for 19 years for a double murder that occurred in the early 1990s, Lewis worked with the Mass Incarceration Clinic, directed by Professor Brett Dignam, to prove his innocence in court and clear his name.
“I was swimming in 3,000 feet of water alone for about 10 years of my incarceration, as I made the decision to represent myself,” he said at a recent celebration of 45 years of clinical education at the Law School. “If I had the opportunity to change the school’s name, it would be ‘Champions of Justice.’”
Lewis, who was originally sentenced to 120 years in prison but was released from jail on the determination of a federal judge in 2014, now serves as a law clerk for the Connecticut Innocence Project, a branch of the state’s Division of Public Defender Services that works to exonerate those who are wrongly convicted of crimes. He was one of four former clinic clients who shared their experiences during the daylong celebration on November 13 that brought generations of clinical faculty and alumni to Jerome Greene Hall.
During the afternoon discussion, “Clinics from the Perspective of Those We Serve,” Columbia University General Counsel Jane Booth ’76, author Lynn Povich, and nonprofit start-up founder Kalani Leifer joined Lewis in describing how professors, students, and staff members helped them to break barriers and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. The conversation was moderated by Professor Conrad Johnson, co-director of the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic, and director of Clinical Education from 1992 to 1996.
Scott Lewis credits the Mass Incarceration Clinic for proving his innocence in a double murder case.
“I always talk, when I talk about my legal career, about how I was driven by luck,” said Booth, an alumna and a former client of Professor Harriet Rabb ’66, who taught the Law School’s clinical seminar on fair employment law. Booth was working as a low-level manager at New York Telephone when Rabb asked to join a gender discrimination lawsuit against the company in 1971. “But the luckiest day was the day I became a clinic client.”
Initially reluctant to join the suit, Booth had a change of heart after she was told during a management assessment that it was a shame she was not a man. “If you were male, you could be anything in this company,” the adviser said.
“What was such a hard decision was now an easy decision,” Booth recollected. “I called Harriet and said, ‘Count me in.’” A month after the case was successfully settled, Booth began her legal studies at the Law School. She went on to serve as chief of the civil division in the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, among many other high-ranking jobs, before becoming general counsel of the University in 2009.
Povich, the first female senior editor at Newsweek, was also part of a gender discrimination case spearheaded by one of the Law School’s clinics. After filing suit against the news magazine in the early 1970s, and subsequently settling for a memorandum of understanding that called for Newsweek to hire and promote more women, Povich and her co-plaintiffs realized little had changed. They turned to Columbia Law School, specifically Rabb and Professor George Cooper, a civil rights law specialist who co-directed the Law School’s clinical programming on fair employment law and served on the faculty from 1966 to 1985.
With assistance from students, Povich and her co-plaintiffs were educated on how to build a stronger case. Rabb—who currently serves as vice president and general counsel of Rockefeller University—led the complicated negotiations, challenging hiring practices that were inherently subjective. Eventually, Newsweek management conceded to all of the plaintiffs’ requests.
“My life, my colleagues’ lives, and so many women’s lives were changed because of this Columbia clinic,” said Povich, who wrote about the experience in her 2012 book, The Good Girls Revolt.
(left to right) Kalani Leifer and Scott Lewis discuss how clinical faculty, students, and staff helped them overcome challenges.
Leifer, executive director and founder of CO*OP, a nonprofit organization that works to overcome underemployment for graduates of the City University of New York system, had an equally fulfilling experience with the Law School’s clinics. As a start-up founder, he approached the Community Enterprise Clinic in 2014 for help creating bylaws and applying for the organization’s 501(c)(3) certification. The guidance he received encompassed all facets of creating his new initiative.
“The students not only helped us navigate all the standard questions we had as a start-up nonprofit,” Leifer said when recounting the myriad ways clinic participants assisted him in creating his business.
“They maybe got into this experience thinking they would be my legal counsel, which they definitely were. But in many ways they were also my co-founders,” he added.
The panelists all agreed that the Law School’s clinical programming has had a profound impact, both in shaping society over nearly five decades and on improving lives and livelihoods so dependent on legal outcomes. No one appreciates the contributions more acutely than Lewis, who applauded the clinics’ client-centered approach and discussed how Dignam and her students were the first to treat him like a human being, not just a case. He told students in the audience to always remember that they have been given the privilege and the opportunity to make a difference.
“What the clinic means to me is life,” Lewis said. “It has given me a second chance at life that many thought would never come my way.”