Clinic Students Forge Ahead During the Pandemic

Despite COVID-19 restrictions, students in Columbia Law School clinics have been gaining real-world experience as advocates, educators, litigators, mediators, and researchers.

Laptop with screen showing Columbia Law School sitting on top of an architectural blue illustration of a column

For more than 50 years, Columbia Law School clinics have given students opportunities to develop hands-on lawyering skills by providing pro bono services to individuals and organizations that might not otherwise be able to afford or access high-quality counsel. The COVID-19 pandemic severely limited students’ in-person interactions with clients as well as with each other since March 2020. But the students have nevertheless been engrossed in substantive projects that include representing asylum seekers and detained immigrants, training diplomats in the art of mediation, and advocating on behalf of residents who live in squalid conditions in New York City public housing.

Professor Philip M. Genty says students and professors continued to pursue their work with ingenuity, fortitude, and zeal.

Professor Philip Genty
Everett B. Birch Innovative Teaching Clinical Professor in Professional Responsibility and Vice Dean for Experiential Education

“Over the past 15 months, it was obviously a tremendous challenge to coordinate the combination of remote and limited in-person classes, client meetings, and appearances in courts and other advocacy settings,” says Genty, Everett B. Birch Innovative Teaching Clinical Professor in Professional Responsibility and vice dean for Experiential Education. “Throughout this difficult period, clinical faculty, students, and staff worked together under the leadership of then-Vice Dean Brett Dignam to ensure that our clients’ needs continued to be met. It was an inspiring example of dedication, teamwork, and resourcefulness.”

Hear what some clinic students have learned and accomplished:

 

Columbia Law student Sana Singh ’21 in sleeveless blouse

Sana Singh ’21

Immigrants’ Rights Clinic 

“The case that’s had the biggest impact on my life started during the fall 2020 semester, when the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic began representing a woman at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. She was one of many women who got unnecessary, invasive gynecological surgeries that were nonconsensual. It was becoming hard to investigate because the women are the witnesses and they were being deported. 

“We went very quickly from representing one woman on her immigration claims to working with different immigrants’ rights organizations and clinics all over the country on behalf of more than 35 women. In November, the government agreed to temporarily halt the deportations. We became embroiled in federal litigation [a class action lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement filed on December 21, 2020]. That’s an experience I never thought I’d have while a student. It’s been incredible.

“It’s also been difficult. Before COVID-19, we were able to gather in the clinic space when we were working late and order in food together. As we prepared for the filing of the lawsuit, we were all going through finals, but the case remained a priority. There was one day when a group of us were on Zoom for something like 12 hours straight! As of January 22, none of the women in the federal litigation are being detained anymore, which is incredibly exciting and gratifying because we thought it was not possible initially.

“I am grateful to the clinic because the three other students who were key players on the team—Callen Lowell, Susanna Booth, and Michael “Mikey” Bannon—have become very close friends. I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance to learn from fellow students as I did in this case, and they are truly an inspiring group.”

 

Student in gray jacket in front of brick building

Andrey Burin ’21

Community Advocacy Lab 

“I enrolled in the Community Advocacy Lab because I wanted to do something where I could actually see tangible results and help people. The beauty of the clinic is that Professor Colleen Shanahan confers beforehand with the client—ours was the Housing Resource Center at the Red Hook Community Justice Center—to isolate a problem, but it’s up to the students to figure out what sort of solutions and deliverables would be best for our client.

“We explored the divergence in housing conditions and repairs for tenants in buildings owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) compared to private housing. We collected a lot of data about how long it takes to make repairs. We learned that many repairs were quick fixes, and then two weeks later, the residents are reporting that a pipe has burst again or the mold has come back. We tried to find out how deep this problem was. . . . Sometimes, the problems have to do with how the buildings were constructed originally.

“We analyzed the unequal treatment of public housing tenants as a matter of law and institutional practice and produced a 19-page memorandum, ‘Achieving Equality in Housing Repairs for NYCHA Residents’ [co-written with Zoe Bush ’20 LL.M. and Michelle Gomez-Reichman ’21]. Because of the pandemic, Zoe was in Australia, and we had to schedule meetings to coincide with times when we were all awake, which is a smaller window than you would think!

“The clinic has been empowering in terms of the ways I can address a problem in my community. Even if it’s not my area of expertise, I can reach out to organizations and maybe help them do research or write an op-ed. I know I can have an impact without having to work on a lawsuit.”

Columbia Law student Daimiris Garcia ’22 in black shirt

Daimiris Garcia ’22

Mediation Clinic

“Alternative dispute resolution is a mechanism that can really save people time. Mediation is especially helpful for people in lower-income communities and communities of color who may be afraid of going to court and appearing before a judge. Mediation is a way to empower these communities so they can have decisions that work well for them instead of being forced into a dragged-out and expensive court process.

“In the fall semester of the Mediation Clinic, I worked on disputes between neighbors and between a car-repair shop owner and a customer. In most of the cases, we got the parties to be more open to seeing each other’s point of view, even if the case still had to be heard before a judge. I’ve really enjoyed mediating cases in small claims court, even though it’s a little more difficult on Zoom to read body language and pick up on non-verbal cues. But Professor Alexandra Carter has helped us adapt to mediating virtually and the different techniques we can use on camera to help smooth the process.

“In the advanced clinic this spring, I did trainings at the United Nations. We also recently did a presentation for the New York State Bar Association about women and negotiations. We’ve also focused on larger issues surrounding mediation and did a presentation about anti-racism and racism in the mediation context for the American Bar Association.

“I think the clinic prepares us for any career because we learn about active listening, summarizing the point of view of others, and influencing and persuading others to think a certain way or to think differently. And I’ve learned that good teamwork is also being able to amplify the voices of others, being able to acknowledge feelings and interests and not just the positions people take, which will definitely help me in the long run.”

Stephen M. Hogan-Mitchell in tie and gray jacket

Stephen M. Hogan-Mitchell ’21

Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic

“My primary project was working with an organization called Immigration Equality, which represents LGBTQ clients seeking asylum in the United States. We helped two men—one from Guyana and one from Ecuador—with their applications.

“What’s interesting when someone is applying for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation is that they have to prove their sexual identity. That is obviously a little awkward and uncomfortable for clients, especially when they come from countries where they would be under severe persecution if they were out and often face threats of violence or actual violence because of their identities. You have to help them come to terms with their identities as part of submitting their applications.

“You have to submit what’s called the country conditions report and prove that the country that they came from would be unable or unwilling to protect them. Sometimes they are coming from countries that technically have protections for LGBTQ folks, but then you get down to the local authorities and there is zero enforcement. In fact, the police oftentimes are the persecutors in these situations.

“The great thing about the clinic is that there’s a lot to be learned regardless of your plans after law school. Most first-year associates in a Big Law firm are not going to get a chance to directly interview clients, so client-interviewing skills were something very valuable I learned. My clinic experience gives me a lot of experience for the pro bono work the firm I am joining does on domestic violence and asylum cases. I may even have more experience on these issues than some of the firm’s more senior attorneys.”

Grace Choi ’21 in white blouse and dark jacket

Grace Choi ’21

Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic

“My first project for the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic was with the Western New York Law Center, which assists low-income people with civil legal matters, including bankruptcy. We created a website for its bankruptcy clinic by compiling all the information that already existed on the web or that the Law Center had available so clients could have easy access to everything they needed. And the other part was streamlining the intake process for attorneys so that they could more easily see who would be eligible for their services and who wouldn’t.

“During the pandemic, we worked on expanding the Law Center’s services, hosting webinars so clients could ask questions. People couldn’t come in to seek help, and mailing in paperwork became even more work, so everything became more digitized. Even the attorneys at the Law Center needed some tech assistance at the beginning.

“I also helped with a project with the New York Legal Aid Society to provide tablets to people who have to go to court online. When the shutdown happened, people thought going virtual wouldn’t be a disadvantage for underprivileged people because they have smartphones; they wouldn’t have to physically go to court, and they wouldn’t have to find daycare for their kids. But it’s not that simple. Technology is a hurdle for people seeking access to justice—a lot more people lack it than one might think. It’s important to get the word out that this is a problem that needs to be solved.”

Claire Park ’21 in glasses and jacket with Amsterdam Avenue in background

Claire Park ’21

Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic

“I chose the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic because I thought it would allow me to have client interaction and get some transactional business experience under my belt before starting my career in corporate law. And I also thought working with start-up clients in general would be exciting because of how passionate start-up founders are with their businesses, and that one-on-one interaction with the client would allow me to have more agency.

“One of my clients ran a website geared toward college students and others who want short-term rentals of small appliances, electronics, and similar things. They were trying to get established as a business entity, and part of my work was navigating them through incorporating in Delaware and making sure they had bylaws and procedural documents in place for internal governance purposes. They needed a founders’ agreement and help with registering their trademark and drafting terms of service and a privacy policy.

“The greatest satisfaction was feeling like I was part of a team rather than a passive legal counsel. I think that’s the joy of start-up work in general. The clients trust you to be part of their team, and you’re creating value together. 

“The greatest benefit of the clinic, besides the substantive knowledge I gained, was derived from client interactions and learning about being a counselor to someone. And the experience of navigating the relationship with Professor Lynnise Pantin, who is our supervising attorney, will be really helpful when I begin my career. When I had my summer internship as a first-generation professional who came straight to law school after college, I didn’t even know whether to address the firm’s lawyers as Mr. or Ms. attorney so-and-so or call them by their first names. So knowing some of the conventions of the professional world—and how to gracefully say you don’t know the answer to a question—will be beneficial as I start my career.”

Bryant Alan Davis ’21 in glases and patterned shirt and tie

Bryant Alan Davis ’21

Immigrants' Rights Clinic

“The Immigrants’ Rights Clinic is a lot of hard work, and it’s a lot of stress because, in a certain sense, your clients’ lives are in your hands. And because it’s such high stakes, you don’t allow yourself to fail. Whatever challenges are put in front of you, you find yourself rising to meet them.

“In the fall, I did a lot of work for the women we were representing at the Irwin County Detention Center, which was written about by the Associated Press and Washington Post. I did some of the evidentiary work reviewing and writing affidavits submitted as part of our lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security. My largest contribution—along with another student, Jack Furness ’21—was to find clinics and volunteer lawyers all over the country to provide legal representation for the women that we had contact with at the detention center. We coordinated the sharing of evidence, model filings, and research back and forth between more than a dozen clinics, private attorneys, and NGOs, which led to the release of a considerable number of these women from immigration detention.

“Last summer, when my summer law firm job got truncated down to nothing, I volunteered with the clinic. We worked on a case for a Garífuna land-rights activist from Honduras who had fled death threats there. We worked on a case I’m still involved in with two Syrian doctors who were forced to flee Syria to escape punishment by the Assad regime for treating civilians in rebel areas. 

“I’ve never worked under people that I’ve admired as much as Professor Elora Mukherjee and [Lecturer in Law] Amelia Wilson. They set a high standard for excellence. You want to please them and make them proud of you. 

“My clinic work has been the thing I’ve been particularly good at during law school. I’ve gained skills in a tangible way that gave me much greater confidence in my ability to contribute to the legal profession. I would have never thought I was qualified to clerk until I did the clinic and found myself doing all this legal research and producing memos that Elora would praise, and I thought, maybe I can do this. And after graduation, I will be clerking at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.”

Michelle Gomez-Reichman ’21 in printed jacket

Michelle Gomez-Reichman ’21

Community Advocacy Lab

“Everyone says, ‘You can do so many different things with a J.D.,’ but you don’t really know what that means. The Community Advocacy Lab is a really creative way to work with clients and give them the help they need in a non-litigation way, which is what I was looking for.

“I was particularly interested in housing issues and glad to be working with the Housing Resource Center at the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn. Before the pandemic, we visited a NYCHA building, and I thought the conditions were horrible, even inhumane. But we couldn’t make more visits [following the shutdown]. . . . The Housing Resource Center does an excellent job of documenting all of the problems; looking through the pictures they have is quite harrowing. 

“We spoke with our client about the tenants’ problems getting NYCHA to make repairs. We did a lot of research on the legal remedies they have, which are different than for people who live in private housing. We decided we could write a memorandum that our client could share with the appropriate parties.

“Although we had to cut off our in-person work pretty early in the spring 2020 semester, the whole process of researching and synthesizing information, talking to different actors, and then reporting on it was very educational. I feel more connected to New York and interested in local organizing work and how local problems can be solved by communities with local solutions.”

Mie Morikubo on steps of library at Columbia University

Mie Morikubo ’21

Mediation Clinic 

“The Mediation Clinic usually does in-person mediation trainings for diplomats at the United Nations or travels internationally for presentations, and, obviously, those things were not happening because of the pandemic. So we did them by video, and I think we got much larger and diverse turnouts. Before, it was just people from New York, but on Zoom, we had people from Australia, Fiji, India, and California, which was a cool experience.

“Before the pandemic, we were able to go in-person to small claims and state courts in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Harlem, and I did one EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] case in the clinics’ offices on campus. But I’ve been very pleasantly surprised that we are still able to do effective mediations remotely.

“I’m not someone who is super comfortable with conflict. The clinic has allowed me to develop skills that will be transferable to working with many different types of personalities in practice and building a rapport while negotiating. And it’s a credit to Professor Alexandra Carter that she’s emphasized our getting to know each other and that we’ve built a community. The clinic has really been a highlight of my law school experience.”

Tal Abraham Ben-Moshe ’21 with beard and glasses and jacket and tie

Tal Abraham Ben-Moshe ’21

Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic

“Before joining the Columbia Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, I had never conducted a legal interview, never spoken to a client one-on-one. It’s daunting at first. It certainly takes adjusting, a lot of practice, and I don’t think I am very good at it just yet. But through the clinic, you’re talking to someone whose life might depend on you, and students and clinic administration know that.

“That’s why clinic professors and the legal professionals they partner students with emphasize developing those valuable, concrete skills—helping students develop them so they can meaningfully help others.

“For me, the clinic has made the law more tangible: I could actually see myself making a change in someone’s life. For one of my cases, I’ve been helping a gay man who’s been seeking asylum in the U.S.  since 2017. One aspect of that work is helping him write his ‘declaration’—a narrative of his life, which includes his reason for fleeing his country: fear of persecution for being gay.

“These cases can be tough because the asylee needs to prove that he is gay. But when someone, out of fear, has been closeted their entire life, how much evidence can they possibly bring forth?

“Although this case has been technically and emotionally difficult, I’ve grown attached to my client and the work. And because nonprofit organizations are often shorthanded, my clinic client doesn’t have a dedicated lawyer yet. So I reached out to the firm I’ll be joining, and they agreed I could take the client pro bono. We’re still waiting to hear from the nonprofit, but I hope they allow me to continue working on the case.”

Bastian Shah ’21 in glasses and shirt with white collar

Bastian Shah ’21

Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic

“Everything that has happened during the pandemic put into sharp relief all the disparities that there were before the pandemic in terms of individuals having access to the basic tools to stay connected to the world. Lacking those tools can have a severe impact on access to justice.

“The work the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic did with the Legal Aid Society had to do with housing court which was shut down. Hearings were being done over Microsoft Teams, and many of the Legal Aid Society’s clients didn’t have home wifi or a data plan. And even if you have those things, a cell phone isn’t good enough for a virtual hearing when you might need to look at documentary evidence or speak privately to your counsel while the hearing is going on. We were helping to figure out how to get tablets that Legal Aid could lend to clients to navigate virtual hearings.

“Many people aren’t that comfortable with technology or may not even know how to start or accept Zoom calls or take pictures with a tablet. We wanted to improve the training process for clients and create tutorials that we could show them in advance of their hearings. And if we can get the pilot program up and running, the Legal Aid Society also can use tablets for people with mobility issues or who live far from housing court. 

“My experience in the clinic meshed well with policy questions about whether particular aspects of the legal system produce disparate outcomes on the basis of things that people have very little control over—and have no bearing on the merits of a case. I appreciated being able to take the next step beyond my doctrinal classes and to say I’ve done some lawyering work and that I’ve served a client.”

Monae White wearing glasses and a red-and-white shirt

Monae White ’22

Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic

“I joined the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic because I wanted to learn about transactional law and provide direct support to the Harlem community. I also wanted to learn from a professor who was a Black woman, and I’ve gained a great deal of insight from Professor Lynnise Pantin

“I’ve been working on intellectual property issues for a fashion company and a media company, each owned by Black women who wanted to trademark their brand names and logos. We needed to ensure that their brand and brand logo were trademarkable and that the likelihood of success was fairly high because it’s an extensive process. I know how important intellectual property can be in terms of feeling a true sense of ownership over your product and making it more recognizable to investors and customers. I wanted to make sure I was approaching the process in a way that put those concerns at the forefront. Your position as an attorney includes taking the time to really hear your clients out, listen to their concerns, and make space for those conversations. 

“In the clinic, we’ve talked a lot about the resources available to people in different class strata and the way race comes into play in how people acquire capital and how investors view entrepreneurs. Focusing on clients who might be overlooked by others—and the tensions around race, class, and gender—has been refreshing throughout this experience.”