Domestic Relations Legal Clinic Helps Community, Offers Hands-on Experience

Posted: February 25, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

Last spring, George Mason’s School of Law began offering the Domestic Relations Legal Clinic, the brainchild of Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Stanley P. Klein, who is also an adjunct faculty member. Only a few months later, the clinic, which gives students experience in assisting litigants in uncontested divorce cases, won awards from the Virginia State Bar and the Fairfax Bar Association.

“The main goal of the clinic, from the students’ perspective, is that it gives them hands-on training in the real world,” says Valerie Hughes, an adjunct professor and the clinic’s administrator. “They learn domestic law from the work they do with their mentors, and they go to court with the lawyers and watch domestic trials such as equitable distribution or custody. They get to appear before judges in a courtroom for the first time.”

Klein’s initial idea to begin such a clinic was sparked by his personal experiences as a circuit court judge. “At the weekly status conferences in court, he would see person after person, all unrepresented by counsel [pro se], who could not get their divorces to go through because of missing statutory language, bad service, incorrect language, et cetera,” says Hughes. “So Judge Klein started thinking that if a third-year law student with a practice certificate could process an uncontested divorce, why not get a bunch of them together and start a clinic to service the community?”

Klein asked Hughes to help him in addressing the problem, making use of the advanced students in the School of Law. They obtained $1 million in malpractice insurance from the state while working on developing intake and client release forms, setting up a telephone call line, and establishing a process by which law clerks would forward rejected uncontested divorce cases to the clinic.

During its first semester of operation, the clinic had 10 student participants, overseen by Hughes, and four classes on how to proceed with an uncontested divorce taught by Klein. As part of their 3 credits of course work, the students were assigned to specific mentors, who were all licensed practicing attorneys, and for whom they worked as interns processing the divorce cases forwarded to them by the clinic. To tie together their experiential learning, the students appeared in court at the conclusion of their casework for the ore tenus hearing, where they followed the required procedures for their clients before a circuit court judge.

Last June, the Fairfax Bar Association presented its 2003-04 President’s Award to the clinic for “promoting access to justice in the Northern Virginia community.” Hughes was awarded the Virginia State Bar Domestic Relations Student Award for her role in setting up the clinic.

Students who have participated in the program are quick to praise its value as a vehicle for learning. “I had a tremendous experience with the clinic,” says Jonathan D. Lutz. Under the supervision of his mentor, Lutz managed clients’ cases and appeared in court on their behalf. He also worked on an appeal and researched issues for upcoming motions for the firm.

“It was an excellent way to see how the process works and just how much work is really involved, even in an uncontested divorce. I had terrific mentors who gave me a lot of meaningful work at their firm. I feel fortunate to have participated in the clinic because it opened my eyes to an area of the law that I thoroughly enjoy, but would have never guessed I would be interested in practicing.”

“I gained so much from my clinic experience,” says Jessica Roth, who worked two days a week with an attorney in Fairfax County doing research, sitting in on client interviews, and going to court with her mentor. “I learned how to interact with clients. I was able to appear in front of a judge and actually help people get a divorce. And most importantly to me, the clinic made me realize that family law is what I want to practice when I graduate.”

With the clinic in its third semester, “the clients are coming in like crazy,” says Hughes. “The law clerks love being able to refer their cases to the clinic and not have to deal with pro se people. The lawyer mentors have all been tremendous–many are anxious to volunteer and gain an intern. Additionally, each semester, half of the students have acquired jobs after graduation.”

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