For students at Berkeley Law, clinics play a vital part in their curriculum and journey toward pursuing law while making impacts on various communities.
In 1988, Berkeley Law students founded the Berkeley Community Law Center — now known as the East Bay Community Law Center — for low-income communities as a response to visible “gaps” in the services and needs of the surrounding communities of the law school.
Rosa Bay, co-deputy and interim clinical director of the East Bay Community Law Center, or EBCLC, noted that since then, the program at Berkeley Law has flourished to become an array of diverse clinics.
“Many students come to Berkeley Law with the clear intention of positively impacting communities — whether it be here in the East Bay or globally. Clinics provide an opportunity to do that while growing advocacy skills that students take with them as they become attorneys,” said Laura Riley, director of Berkeley Law’s Clinical Program, in an email.
According to the program’s communications officer Sarah Weld, Berkeley Law’s 14 clinics — six in-house and eight community-based — provide law students with the opportunity to apply legal skills learned in the classroom to the real world, as they have the chance to work with real clients, write briefs and reports, testify before real courts and more.
The clinics plan to add three more in-house clinics and four clinical faculty members by 2026, as reported in a 2021-22 annual report opening letter.
The oldest clinical program at Berkeley Law, EBCLC runs eight different clinics that span from housing to immigration to consumer justice, where direct legal services and holistic support are provided to clients with a “multitude of needs,” Bay noted.
Bay, who has been with the organization for almost 13 years, first came to know of the EBCLC as a law student, describing the experience as a reminder of the very reason why she pursued law school.
“There’s something about the first year of law school that, for myself at least, can feel very destabilizing and a bit alienating, so it was good to be able to connect with other people that had similar values, that wanted to serve the community,” Bay said, seeing herself reflected in the EBCLC staff as a woman of color. “You’re doing everything with a high degree of support, but you’re also in the drivers’ seat.”
While the EBCLC has long been the community-based clinic at Berkeley Law, the International Human Rights Law Clinic, or IHRLC, was the first of three in-house investments of clinical education made by the law school, according to Laurel E. Fletcher, co-director of the IHRLC.
Fletcher explained that the clinics initially started out as soft-funded programs and are now partially funded by the law school as part of its instructional budget, allowing for offered classes and clinical courses that fully integrate the program into the curriculum.
“The idea of clinical education is that students, before they get their license to practice law, should have experience practicing law,” Fletcher said. “This means we are putting students on the cutting edge of international human rights practice and they are working shoulder to shoulder with frontline, human rights organizations around the world, working on pressing issues.”
The Policy Advocacy Clinic, or PAC, and the New Business Community Law Clinic, or NBCLC, among others, were later established.
The PAC became a standalone clinic within the law school in 2015. Roughly 30-40 law and public policy students are trained and supervised every year within the clinic, noted Jeff Selbin, co-director of the PAC.
In addition to this educational support, the clinic raises about $1.6 million annually to support staff and research directors.
“In the clinic, students learn substantive law and policy skills,” Selbin said in an email, adding that students complete written work on behalf of clients and partners, including drafting legislation, internal work product and fiscal memos, and develop their oral advocacy skills through public comments.
Current projects within the PAC address racialized wealth extraction in the criminal legal system, through which students are exposed to systemic injustice and their role in influencing law and public policy, Selbin noted.
Similarly, William Kell, director of the NBCLC, shared the extensive work of the clinic, which aims to deliver gratuitous legal aid to businesses who can’t afford it. Kell added that the NBCLC serves about 450 businesses a year, with 80% of these businesses run by people of color and 62% run by women. Half of its services are offered in Spanish.
Kell praised the dean of Berkeley Law, Erwin Chemerinsky, for valuing experiential learning, noting that he has been at three other institutions where this was not the case.
“The wide variety of clinics we have — death penalty, environmental, legislative — just all these different contexts in which students can get some real hands-on learning is unparalleled,” Kell said. “When I went to law school in ’87, the only real experimental stuff we did was write sample briefs for a court; our students can say they’ve drafted contracts, they’ve advised people in disputes, they’ve stood up in court, and more.”
Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects
While clinics are a good way for students to apply their learning in the field, Berkeley Law’s Pro Bono Program offers students the opportunity to found their own projects through Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects, or SLPs, according to Deborah Schlosberg, director of the Pro Bono Program.
Under the supervision of licensed attorneys in the community, students, in project groups ranging from six to 30 each, are able to engage in public service work and hone their legal skills as early as their first semester of law school.
There are 40 current SLPs, ranging from the Workers’ Rights Clinic to the Family Defense Project to the International Refugee Assistance Project. Like the clinical programs, these projects receive funding from both the law school and donors, noted Schlosberg.
Greta Sloan, a second-year student at Berkeley Law, co-founded and co-directs the Family Defense Project, which assists their partner organization, East Bay Family Defenders, with client intake, research and analysis of hospital policies.
“A lot of Berkeley’s work with SLPs and clinics have the potential to completely transform how someone goes about their career,” Sloan said. “I’ve seen it build a ton of empathy and awareness among Berkeley Law students, for issues that face people of a variety of different identities.”
Sloan emphasized the importance of doing work for clients that benefits the community rather than reinforces harmful power structures, particularly within low income communities facing the justice system.
Sloan and her co-workers initially wanted the law school to accept the Family Defense Project as a “full-blown clinic.”
Sloan added that they have petitioned faculty and garnered support through a student coalition.
“It’s been cool, starting off with the SLPs in hopes that it will become institutionalized at Berkeley,” Sloan said.
Through her work in the PAC this past year, Sloan focused on advancing legislation taking on the criminalization of poverty with an interdisciplinary team of students and community members.
She is eager to begin aiding clients with housing issues in the EBCLC Housing Clinic this fall.
Chae Park, a soon-to-be graduate of Berkeley Law, remarked on his experience working in the EBCLC Consumer Justice Clinic.
“My time at EBCLC has taught me, again and again, that the mission to advocate for our communities and shape more just and equitable systems is a collective one,” Park said in a reflection.