Reaching out to the community, near and far

Julia Eilert

Getting hands on-experience before going out in the workforce is something many students can struggle with. Washburn’s Law Clinic, however, can offer its students this opportunity along with many more.

“Our clinic really has a dual purpose,” said Co-director John Francis. “Part of it is law curriculum and creating a capstone experience for our law students, which helps them draw together everything they’ve been learning and actually applying it to real-life experiences. The other part of our mission is to provide legal services to those who could not otherwise have access to justice.”

    Students can receive a student practice permit from the Kansas Supreme Court to participate in cases under close supervision of experienced faculty.

“We work very heavily with students,” said Francis. “Especially on case planning and client counseling because those are two of the biggest parts of what legal representation is. It’s an important part of the process for students to make that part of their skill set from the beginning- to realize that planning through the different outcomes is going to prepare them for surprises.”

Law students can be involved in the entire process, starting with client interviews and going all the way to trial if it comes to one. Teaching students how to advocate for clients responsibly and accurately is a big part of the learning process.

    “We want to help them make informed decisions,” Francis said. “Just like if you were to go to a doctor you’d want to make an informed decision before committing to a course of treatment, and lawyers should really be doing the same thing. Instead of telling their clients what to do, they should help their clients make an informed decision on the best course of action that meets their objectives.”

Reaching out to the community, the clinic is doing all it can to help others in a variety of new, innovative ways. This applies within the Topeka public, and within Kansas as a whole.

“It’s another resource for people who may not have access to lawyers,” Francis said. “In criminal cases, if people have a lower income the court will appoint them a lawyer, but not every type of case necessarily requires appointment of a lawyer. Most legal service providers are working at full capacity, so we are an additional resource available to people, and think that an important contribution to the community.”

To draw attention to rural law practice, Michelle Ewert, associate professor of law, is part of a new program that will be taking place over this year’s spring break. A small group of clinic students will be going over to Garden City to aid in the three-piece initiative.

First the students will be giving a series of “know your rights” talks to high school students concerning contracts and legal obligations students will find themselves in as they reach adulthood. They’ll cover topic like employment law, hoisting law, and consumer law.

“We want to get young people excited about careers in law,” said Ewert. “We want to raise a generation of lawyers who are going to represent people well and help protect their rights.”

In more spread out communities, legal aid can be hard to access as the line between rural and urban communities is drawn more distinctly.

“I saw firsthand how challenging it is when there’s just not enough lawyers to serve, or if people have to travel long distance to get a lawyer,” said Ewert, “I would like to help address this issue here in Kansas.”

The second piece of this program will be a criminal record expungement screening fair. This will give people in the community the chance to have one-on-one meetings with clinic students to determine what can be removed from their record.

“Those people can learn about the expungement process because we know that criminal records are barriers to accessing housing and employment,” said Ewert.

The third piece will be networking opportunities for the clinic students. Meetings with professionals in the area will give students insight into rural practices.

“We’re hoping this will be a real benefit both for the Washburn Law Clinic students and also for the community out there,” said Ewert, “We want to expose our students to what life would be like so they can think about whether that would be a good fit for them. We’re pretty jazzed.”

The Washburn Law Clinic has become a valuable asset to the Topeka and surrounding communities. With new programs on the rise, there are plenty of chances for students to get involved in the neighborhood before graduating.

“The energy that the students have is really impressive and keeps the job fresh all the time. Students come in and they are ready to get working on behalf of their clients, they are ready for the opportunity to apply what they’ve been learning, and they take their professional obligations very seriously,” said Francis, “They are very thorough and they are really looking to do their best on behalf of their clients.”