Helping prisoners to protect and advance their rights—and avoid future legal problems—is the goal of the Prisoners and Families Clinic. Students represent prisoners in a variety of legal contexts usually involving parole or parental rights, taking on cases referred by counselors within prisons, former clients, or advocacy organizations. An additional prisoner-education component of the program is managed collaboratively with small groups of prisoners incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional facility, a women's prison, and Green Haven Correctional Facility, a men's prison. These groups facilitate the work of the clinic students in teaching legal workshops on parental rights and responsibilities to incarcerated mothers and fathers. Concentrating on issues such as child custody and foster care, students help prisoners take the steps necessary to improve their chances of success in legal proceedings. By focusing on the education of large numbers of prisoners, students learn the relevant law while providing an important service to an underserved client population.
In the classroom, students meet in an intensive seminar, where they study substantive law and legal ethics and examine the ways in which race, gender, and class affect the attorney-client relationship. They also receive training in the basic legal skills of interviewing, counseling, and advocacy. Then role-playing begins, as students interview and counsel "clients" played by actors. The sessions are videotaped and critiqued in meetings of individual students with the professor.
Each student, working as part of a team, is given direct responsibility for representing an individual. The most common types of cases are those in which students challenge the denial of parole, seek to expand the rights of incarcerated parents to visit their children, and try to prevent the termination of parental rights. In addition to interviewing and counseling clients within a number of New York City area prisons, students complete briefs and represent clients in court. Every effort is made for students to experience a significant litigation event during the semester.
"Even if you never end up working with prisoners or doing family law in the long run, being in a clinic shows you the power that lawyers have. Whatever kind of law you plan to practice, you see how people rely on you and how responsible you have to be...and that your work, good or bad, will change someone's life."
Sharon Lopez '01 Davis Polk & Wardwell
Professor Philip Genty joined the Columbia faculty in 1989. He formerly worked as an attorney at Prisoners' Legal Services of New York; the New York City Department of Housing, Preservation and Development; and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Legal Services Corporation. He serves on the Family Court Advisory and Rules Committee to the Chief Administrative Judge of the State of New York; the Advisory Group of the National Institute of Corrections, Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners; and the Coalition for Women in Prison of the New York Correctional Association. He helped develop the Incarcerated Mothers Legal Project, coordinated by Volunteers of Legal Services, Inc., and the Women's Prison Association. He has written on issues concerning prisoners' rights and family law and has served as a trainer and consultant to many advocacy organizations. He is the co-coordinator of the first-year Legal Writing and Research program and the faculty director of the Moot Court program. Contact Information.
After almost 19 years in prison for a crime she committed at the age of 18, D.B. had been denied parole for the second time when her brother contacted the clinic for assistance. Two students met with Ms. B. at an upstate New York prison and learned that her prison record was exceptional. She had earned a bachelor's degree, tutored other prisoners, and provided counseling to HIV-positive women. She had also obtained letters of support from prison employees, volunteers, and even the judge who had presided over her trial. Yet the parole board had denied parole on the basis of the seriousness of the crime. The students drafted a powerful petition to the Supreme Court in Albany County, arguing that the parole board had abused its discretion by ignoring Ms. B.'s accomplishments. The students and their professor traveled to Albany where they conducted the oral argument, skillfully handling the judge's tough questions about the limits of his power to overturn a parole-board decision. The students succeeded in winning a new hearing for Ms. B. This time, she was granted parole, and she soon gained her freedom.
Ragini Shah joined Columbia Law School in 2004 to launch the immigration project of the Child Advocacy Clinic. After co-teaching the Clinic with Professor Jane Spinak for two years, she now teaches the Immigrant Children's Representation Project of the Child Advocacy Clinic in which students represent children seeking immigration benefits and relief from removal.
Before joining Columbia, Shah was a Staff Attorney at the Door's Legal Services Center, a Staff Attorney at South Brooklyn Legal Services Housing Law Unit, and Volunteer Attorney for the Coney Island Avenue Project representing immigrants facing removal following Special Registration.
Research interests include: immigration and children; the intersections of immigration and family law; and professional responsibility in the immigration context.
Clinical Education in Transitional Societies Columbia Law School's clinical faculty, in conjunction with the Public Interest Law Institute (PILI), are engaged in an international effort to enhance legal education and to promote a public-interest approach to lawyering. Working primarily in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and China, clinical professors Philip Genty, Carol Liebman, Barbara Schatz, and Jane Spinak have led teacher-training workshops, evaluated and assisted individual programs, and developed teaching resources for new clinical programs in more than two dozen countries. For the professors, helping to establish new legal-education systems in countries with still-developing legal systems has instilled a dynamic, global perspective on pedagogy that influences their teaching on how best to approach work with clients and how to help students work with clients whose backgrounds are very different from their own.
In addition, the PILI, which is directed by Edwin Rekosh '88 and headquartered at the Columbia University Budapest Law Center in Hungary, administers a Public Interest Law Fellows program that enhances the clinical experiences available to Columbia Law students. The Fellows, who are nominated by organizations in their home countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, participate in a clinical-style seminar in which they work in teams with other Columbia students to develop human-rights-oriented law-reform projects to be implemented when they return home.
Jane Spinak, former director of clinical education, and Edwin Rekosh '88, former director of the Public Interest Law Institute, conduct a training seminar for new clinical law professors in Bucharest, Romania.