Left to right: Legal Aid Clinic Coordinator Edith Salomon; Caruso Law Professor Isai Cortez; Legal Aid Clinic Director Brittany Stringfellow Otey and Pepperdine Caruso School of Law students Aren Ezekian, Ashley Antony and Julia Barr pose for a picture in Feb. 2022 at a tabling event. The Pepperdine Legal Clinics allow students to practice law under the guidance of a practicing lawyer. Photo courtesy of Brittany Stringfellow Otey
Educating. Serving. Inspiring.
Law students at the Legal Aid Clinic at Pepperdine’s Caruso School of Law help unhoused and impoverished people in Downtown L.A.’s Skid Row by providing them access to legal support.
The Legal Aid Clinic, established in 1999 when Caruso School of Law was 30 years old, is one of 11 clinics in the law school’s clinical education program, according to Pepperdine’s Clinical Education Program’s website. The clinic has partnerships with Union Rescue Mission, which provides meals, shelter and other essential services to unhoused people in the Skid Row area of Downtown L.A. and Covenant House California, which plays a similar role with unhoused and displaced youth.
“We have twin missions: One is to educate students and prepare them for practice,” Jeffery Baker, associate dean of Clinical Education and Global Programs at Caruso, said. “And the second is to serve our community and expand access to justice for people who need it.”
Through these partnerships, the clinic provides pro bono legal services to those experiencing homelessness and poverty, Clinical Law Professor Brittany Stringfellow Otey, who supervises the second and third-year Caruso law students who run the clinic, said.
Working under Otey’s law license, students perform a multitude of legal tasks at the clinic, including writing case files, interviewing clients and preparing and filing court paperwork, Otey said. They expunge criminal charges off client records to open employment opportunities, work to reunite families through child custody cases and relieve the financial burdens of tickets.
Educating the Next Generation of Lawyers
Nationally, law clinics began over 50 years ago to provide a practical way for law students to honor the commitment of the legal profession and provide pro bono services while practicing real-life cases, Baker said.
Lawyers, Baker said, have an ethical duty to always seek to improve the legal system and advance access to justice to those who cannot get it.
Caruso’s clinical education program is made up of 11 clinics — the Legal Aid Clinic, Community Justice Clinic, Ninth Circuit Appellate Advocacy Clinic, Restoration and Justice Clinic, Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, Faith and Family Mediation Clinic, Disaster Relief Clinic, Religious Liberty Clinic, Mediation Clinic, Fair Employment and Housing Mediation Clinic and the Startup Law Clinic.
Baker supervises the Community Justice Clinic, which provides legal services to organizations and nonprofits that are working to advance justice and expand access to resources for underserved communities.
“Clinics are our in-house pro bono teaching law practice,” Baker said. “It’s like a law firm inside the law school.”
Similar to a working law firm, all the clinical faculty serve as “law partners” in the firm, and the students are the “associates,” Baker said.
The Legal Aid Clinic has locations at Union Rescue Mission and Covenant House California. URM is situated in the heart of Skid Row in Downtown L.A. Covenant House California is located in Hollywood and serves unhoused youth ages 18 to 24, according to their website.
The majority of law student workers work at the URM location, with one part-time law student on-site at Covenant House. Law students work four hours a week at the clinics and attend weekly meetings at Caruso to discuss cases, learn good lawyering skills and receive advice from their supervising attorney, Otey said.
Students work under supervising attorney Otey’s law license because they have not yet passed the state bar exam, nor earned their juris doctor, Otey said. The California State Bar has a certification program where law students can obtain certification to practice law so long as they are working under supervision.
The Legal Aid Clinic is a “high-volume clinic,” Baker said. It serves roughly 100 clients per year and takes anyone and everyone who walks in through its doors.
At the clinic, Baker said students interview clients, take intake, write memos and briefs and prepare court paperwork.
Law students do not accompany their clients in court, Otey said. The clinic offered court representation in the past but now focuses on preparing clients to represent themselves in small cases. Now they offer pro per lawyering, which is when a client represents themselves in court and serves as their own attorney, according to The Superior Court of California County of San Joaquin.
Law students still play a vital role in clients’ legal cases, Otey said, as they prepare all of the necessary paperwork they will need in court — free of charge.
Serving While Learning
The Legal Aid Clinic at Union Rescue Mission helps unhoused and impoverished communities surrounding the mission. Otey said some clients are just out of jail on parole, and some have lost their job or home.
These are often cyclical problems; someone loses a job, becomes unhoused, gets arrested for something, then comes out of jail with a criminal record, inhibiting employment opportunities, Baker said.
“We have had people who couldn’t find work and living behind a dumpster and then a student helps them clear their record and introduces them to the services the Union Rescue Mission has, and then suddenly, that person’s life is transformed because he is now in a more sheltered environment, is not as afraid and is able to work,” Otey said.
The clinic helps people from all walks of life who come from different ethnic, religious, economic and cultural backgrounds, which requires students to learn cross-cultural lawyering skills, Baker said.
Andy Bales, president and CEO of Union Rescue Mission, said the Legal Aid Clinic’s pro bono legal services are vital to the unhoused and impoverished individuals at his mission who are in need of legal help.
The Legal Aid Clinic eases the financial and mental stress legal burdens cause, Bales said.
Case managers and government agencies refer clients from Downtown L.A. homeless shelters to the Legal Aid Clinic, Bales said.
Otey said 60% of the work the clinic does is helping individuals recently released from prison or local jails reacclimate into society. To help in their rehabilitation process, students prepare paperwork to expunge criminal charges and seal arrest records.
The rest of the cases have to do with tenant rights — usually due to unpaid rent and family law — like child visitation, child custody and reuniting families, Lailanie Jones, senior vice president of the Southern California Covenant House, said.
These actions improve clients’ chances of securing a job, getting back on their feet, reuniting with their family and working toward financial independence, Otey said.
Covenant House reunites families, relieves debts of unpaid rent, solves tenant rights issues and provides youth with the strong and stable relationships they need to recover to provide sanctuary to unhoused youth, Jones said.
These problems lead unhoused youth to Covenant House, as they offer the services they need to get back on their feet, Jones said.
“It takes not just the shelter, but the legal services and the mentorship and the internship and the relationships here to really get them to where they want to be and where they need to go,” Jones said.
Educating the Next Generation of Lawyers
Otey said the skills law students learn at the Legal Aid Clinic are transferable to any field students may want to practice.
Ashley Antony, a second-year Caruso law student, said volunteering at the Legal Aid Clinic is helping her learn different habits of good lawyering. She said she is learning both the hard, technical skills of applying the law and the interpersonal skills needed to connect and work with clients having a range of personalities, backgrounds and legal needs.
She also said she appreciates Caruso professors’ mentorship and her supervising attorney Otey, who is providing guidance and encouragement.
Most of all, Antony said working at the clinic provides meaning to her education.
“It does kind of make you feel like what you’re learning in class could help people,’’ Antony said. “Because I think when you’re in the thick of it and reading, you’re like, ‘Oh, why does it matter?’ and then you do this work and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is why it matters.’ People matter and there is very much a human aspect to the law.”
Breck Gallini, a third-year Caruso law student and member of the Community Justice Clinic, said he learns in the abstract in class, but at the clinic, he can apply those concepts to real-life cases.
“It puts you in a whole different mindset than just from the regular lecture where you’re just trying to learn the law and parse what’s not going to be on the exam and what is — and trying to appeal to a fake judge,” Gallini said.
Both Gallini and Antony said they consider their work at the Legal Aid Clinic and other clinics as the most meaningful and impactful experiences of their time in law school.
Antony said she enrolled in Caruso with plans for a career in health law, but the experience with the clinic has her rethinking those plans. The personal stories she has heard and learning how the law can be inaccessible to many in society who desperately need it has her now considering public interest law and criminal law.
Alumnus Matt Dildine said the Legal Aid Clinic experience transformed his life and career path.
Dildine worked at the clinic while pursuing his law degree at Caruso Law 15 years ago. Dildine is a three-time Pepperdine alumnus, with his Bachelor of Arts in Religion and Political Science (’04), Master of Arts in Public Policy (’05) and Juris Doctor (’08). After school, Dildine said he got his dream job and made partner at a big law firm while occasionally volunteering with unhoused people.
“The more I helped people that were homeless, the more that I invested myself into community development, the harder it was to keep going back to my normal day job,” Dildine said.
Dildine said his law clinic work inspired him so much that he returned to his pro bono roots by becoming CEO of the Fresno Rescue Mission. The mission offers services similar to the Union Rescue Mission.
Dildine said the pro bono experience gave him a chance to do something that rarely happens in corporate law: change someone’s life.
Dildine’s is developing a Fresno City Center that he said will be a one-stop-shop to help the unhoused people of Fresno, providing recovery services to help them out of crises.
“We’re all going to be at the end of our careers one day,” Dildine said. “And if all you’re focused on is the success that has never stopped sucking your time, you could look back and have a really empty career.”
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