Essential Advocacy

Low-income D.C. residents have a champion in GW Law’s Public Justice Advocacy Clinic.

September 22, 2009

By Jamie L. Freedman

One of nine programs comprising the internationally recognized Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics at GW, the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic focuses on civil law litigation and advocacy with an emphasis on employment law. “The clinic advances and protects the legal rights of low-income residents of the metropolitan area who might otherwise be unable to secure legal representation,” says Professor of Law Jeffrey Gutman, who directs the program.

Many of the clinic’s cases center on unemployment compensation and wage and hour disputes. Second- and third-year GW Law students staff the program, handling both large class actions and individual client cases. “Through working as part of a small team on individual cases or a large litigation team in our class actions, students learn essential advocacy skills as well as the professional and management skills required for the ethical practice of law,” says Gutman, who co-founded the clinic in 2001.

Under faculty supervision and often in partnership with private law firms, clinic students have litigated landmark cases challenging the D.C. public schools’ failure to have emergency evacuation plans for mobility impaired students, over-detentions and strip search policies at the D.C. jail, disability discrimination in a shelter, and a city agency’s policy of terminating foster care benefits without notice. Currently the clinic is co-counsel in two class actions challenging the procedures by which the city terminates worker’s compensation benefits for injured city workers and the District’s failure to offer special education services to preschool-aged children.

At the same time, the clinic’s work focuses increasingly on employment law, fostered by the program’s special partnership with the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. “When individuals are denied unemployment compensation, they have 10 days to file an appeal with the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings,” explains Gutman, whose students represent unemployment benefit claimants at their hearings. “Many of these cases are complex and require students to present nuanced legal arguments to the judge. Thanks to the students’ zealous advocacy, we have won quite a few of these cases.”

GW students are also scoring impressive victories in negotiating settlements for their clients in wage and hour cases. “One recent case I found particularly satisfying involved a Spanish-speaking man who worked as a dishwasher at a local restaurant,” says Gutman. “He consistently worked more than 80 hours a week but didn’t receive overtime pay, so he retained us to represent him in a lawsuit against the restaurant. It settled on very favorable terms.”

Gutman says the program strives to teach students “ethical and zealous advocacy skills” in the context of client representation. “Students spend a lot of time in law school studying the law and writing briefs, but they typically don’t get much experience working with clients and witnesses, wrestling with difficult facts, and presenting those facts to a judge,” he says.

The current economic crisis accentuates the need for programs like GW’s Public Advocacy Clinic, says Gutman. “With the economy in the state it is, this is an ideal time for students to see the vast unmet legal needs in the community and what lawyers can do in troubled times to serve those who really need legal representation,” he states. “I hope they take these lessons to heart with them when they enter practice and that they come away considering pro bono work not only a professional obligation but a professional joy.”