Law clinics improve community life, serve as teaching tool, Pt. 1

Eight law clinics are currently operating within the College of Law at FIU. There, law students are not only gaining hands-on experience in many areas of practice but also improving the lives of their fellow community members. In this first part of a two-part story, we tell you about some of the cases handled by the Consumer Bankruptcy Clinic, the Environmental Law Clinic, the Family and Children’s Advocacy Clinic and the Immigrant Children’s Justice Clinic.

When Peggy Maisel joined the faculty of the College of Law in 2003, she did so with a clear goal in mind: to establish a flagship clinical program that provides students with hands-on experience outside the classroom.

In August 2004, Maisel and former College of Law Professor Troy Elder launched the inaugural law clinic, the Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. Currently, there are eight clinics and a ninth is being planned to work on behalf of veterans.

About 45 percent of FIU Law students work in a clinic before graduation. Through the end of the 2011-’12 year, the students had provided more than 27,000 hours of free legal services to approximately 400 individuals, groups and organizations. That is equivalent to a court-approved value of more than $2 million in free legal services, exclusive of faculty time.

“We are very much a law firm focusing on educating the next generation of lawyers through close supervision of law students as they practice for the first time and provide policy advocacy and community education throughout Miami-Dade,” said Maisel of the clinics, which primarily serve underprivileged individuals and nonprofits that must meet a certain threshold to receive services.

Consumer Bankruptcy Clinic

The Consumer Bankruptcy Clinic focuses on helping people get a fresh start.

Clinic director Leyza Blanco, an attorney with GrayRobinson, P.A., says students enrolled in her clinic – which has been operating for about three years with funding from the Bankruptcy Bar Association – primarily work under the supervision of bankruptcy attorneys on Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases. Typical cases involve individuals seeking to have their driver privileges reinstated or people who are in financial hardship due to medical debt or extreme circumstances. They handle 14-16 cases each semester.

“We had a client who had deteriorating eyesight. He’d borrowed money to attend a technical school, but by the time he finished studying, his sight was really bad and he couldn’t work and make a living,” Blanco said. “He retained us to seek a discharge of some of his student loans in court, which is incredibly difficult. But his was a special case, and we were able to discharge it successfully.”

Barry Turner JD ’10 is an attorney in the bankruptcy practice group at Greenspoon Marder, a West Palm Beach-based law firm. He worked on this particular case as an FIU Law student and remembers it being a one-of-a-kind experience.

“I learned the skills to negotiate with other lawyers, how to draft a complaint, how to draft motions, and aspects of the Bankruptcy Code,” he said. “It was great to be part of an enterprise that gives individuals a fresh start that would, under different circumstances, cost them thousands of dollars.”