innovations

Student teams for social justice

Susan Maze-Rothstein

Pfrofessor of Laws Northeastern University School of Law

Designing legislation, manuals and handbooks for organisational clients 

Part of the core lawyering training curriculum, LSSC provides students with both a critical learning experience and an experiential opportunity, working in teams, to do real life social justice work during their first year of study.

LSSC serves national and international organisational clients - NGOs, CBOs or state agencies that propose a project idea that will advance some aspect of their social justice agenda. Organisational clients apply annually and are competitively selected.

The entire incoming class is divided into fourteen “law office” teams of approximately twelve to fifteen (12-15) students. Each law office is assigned to a second or third year upper level student Lawyering Fellow, supervised by one of three faculty members. Other social justice project supports include an “advising attorney” (either faculty or alums with specific relevant expertise for a project) and a librarian for each project.

The closely supervised student law offices become a pro bono legal think tank. Work products produced include: white papers, memoranda, briefs, model legislation, practice manuals, legal website content, public education materials, multi-jurisdictional studies, etc. Outcome-abstracts can be viewed here. Each year LSSC delivers over 20,000 hours of free social justice service to 14 to 16 organisational clients. Since 1997 the program has served over 300 client organisations.

 1. Can you briefly describe the innovation, in terms of the problem(s) it tries to solve and why is it necessary?

The LSSC social justice program serves overworked, underpaid and under resourced organisational clients to expedite advancement of social justice agenda items not otherwise achievable. In return, students receive real life education in what it means to use law as a tool for social change.
Here is an example of problems that the LSSC social justice program solves.

  1. Challenging our criminalisation of addiction, LSSC is serving the Aids Action Committee of Massachusetts where we are looking at supervised injection site locations for the United States that had been successful in Canada and Denmark;
  2. We are also serving Casa Myrna Vasquez, Inc. for whom we are preparing a practitioners’ manual on cyber and technology stalking for victims of intimate partner abuse and violence;
  3. Another organisational client is the Disability Policy Consortium on public accommodation issues arising out of taxicab accessibility, which has not been addressed by the Americans with Disabilities Act;
  4. We are working for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national drug policy organisation addressing opioid drug overdose issues. The assigned student law office will make and justify model legislation for the United States as well as author a handbook for advocates who are working in prisons;
  5. And, we are working for the Wuhan University School of Law in China to help them to develop a disability law clinic for issues of employment law discrimination. Because we have severed over 300 client organisations in the last 15 years, we know that the model works. Many organisations have been repeat clients. And, the students’ work has been relied on heavily by the client organizations we serve.

2. What makes your innovation unique?

If we are going to address innovating justice, we need to attend to legal education where we train practitioners who enter all aspects of our justice structures. There are approximately 180 accredited law schools in the US. While some schools take a boutique seminar or limited enrollment clinic approach to service of organisational entities during the second and third year of law school, we are the only United States law school that teaches its entire first year class to work as teams to do social justice work for organisational clients in order to advance social justice agenda items. With over 300 projects completed in seventeen years of the program’s operation, we now have a proven track record with our outcomes. I have located no law training programs like this internationally either.

3. What triggered the development of the innovation?

LSSC grew out of a very organic process that started in the early 1990s with a student protest. Northeastern University School of Law has always prided itself on being a progressive institution. However, during the early 1990s, students felt that our school was too much like any other United States law school. So, led by the students of colour, a walk-out from class was staged. Among the demands the student protester made was that the school should create a course that addresses how law affects the margins of society. From that time until the present the program has evolved to its current format.

4. Which persons and organisations were involved in the development and what role did they play?

The innovation was developed internally and involves external partners (i.e. national or international NGOs, CBOs or state agencies in its implementation. It is experiential. The drivers of its development have been, first and foremost, the students, a cadre of faculty and Professor Susan Maze-Rothstein, as program director. It is premised on learning by doing experiential education theory and on critical legal studies philosophy.

5. What kind of resistance have you encountered and how have you overcome it?

Northeastern University School of Law is progressive and open to change. The goals and ideals of LSSC are widely shared among the faculty and championed by the Law School leadership. Adding new programmes, however, always generates sources of resistance. In our case, the Faculty has welcomed LSSC, but has been generally unwilling to reduce other expectations and demands upon students in the first year. So far this has not hindered our success, which has been carefully scrutinized in ways you would expect for an innovative programme. Our students have enabled us to overcome resistance by enthusiastically embracing this exciting part of their first year study and simply working harder. But we are moving now to bring permanent faculty resources to bear in support of the programme and to fold it into other classes so as to reduce duplicative work for students. We have also benefitted from dedicated and tireless leadership from our current director, Susan Maze-Rothstein.

6. How did you make the goals realistic and attainable, and when will quick wins be available?

The programme has gone through several rounds of faculty presentations and numerous iterations in its course structure. Each iteration included criticism and input from both faculty members and the students. The students have always been actively involved in helping to develop the programme. The most recent, significant set of changes was implemented in 2006/2007. Prior to that year, we had a legal research and writing course and a separate social justice programme.

In 2006/2007, we combined the two so that the fundamental research and writing instruction is also delivered through this programme. The current organisational client service model for the social justice programme was designed by Professor Maze-Rothstein when she arrived in 1997. Over the years, the LSSC social justice programme has been streamlined and refined. It has been presented at many legal innovation conferences nationally and has been praised for its unique approach. Wins were almost immediate because students produced good work for their social justice clients. These successes are repeated every year.

7. Will the innovation affect other organisations in the chain and if that is the case, how will it affect them?

The goal is to make the LSSC social justice programme both sustainable and replicable for other law schools in the legal academy. Our one law school produces over 20,000 hours of service each year through our first year class. If even a third (60) of the nation’s law schools did something similar, it would easily amount to 1.2 million hours of social justice service. This would place law schools in a unique niche as the programme supports local, national and international entities dedicated to systemic change in law for social justice purposes. Much of the work done through boutique law school clinics and through law firm and bar association pro bono (“for the good”) uncompensated work uses a individualised direct client service model. While enormously important for the delivery of legal services and for access to justice to the underrepresented, these models more often than not do not work on developing the law for social change. Yet many entities have social justice agendas that they lack the resources to advance. More widespread use of the LSSC social justice educational model would help to alleviate that area of law development need.

8. How was the development funded and what were reasons for the financing organisation?

Because it is part of the basic law school curriculum, LSSC is funded the same way as other courses, through tuition dollars and private gifts. Early on we decided that funding solely through grant money would leave the program on a temporary footing and might foreclose true institutional ownership of the effort.

9. Can you name 3 to 5 characteristics of the innovation that are most essential to make it work?

  1. LSSC allows students to be involved in the development of law and work for clients as they enter the law school.
  2. Unique team-lawyering approach. Studies have shown that teams are better at solving complex problems. Other United States terminal degree programmes have adapted to this research. Our medical schools and business schools are very focused on team pedagogy. Law schools are way behind the curve. The LSSC social justice programme is the only law school program in the United States that requires its entire first year of approximately 200 students to work in teams.
  3. Serving organisational clients, specifically on social justice agenda items and creating work products that can meet practical social justice objectives. We are the only law school program nationally to require all students to do this work during their first year of study.
  4. We focus on a critical legal studies approach to contextualising and analysing law. The issue is not only based on the question “what is the doctrine” and its application in these projects. The way that we get the students to actually develop the projects is to help them to understand how law is influenced by the society it comes from, what the relationship is between the society and the development of law and what the social forces that impact the evolution of law.

10. How do you measure whether it is a successful innovation?

We measure success by how quickly students learn to what it takes to be practice-ready. We believe that LSSC helps to prime them for their co-op externship experiences. In their second and third year of study, students go to four different eleven-week cooperative employment placements. Co-op employers can give them any kind of legal assignment.

Secondly, we measure success by what our client representatives in organisations do with the work of the students. For example, we had a student law office work on accessibility issues for disabled persons in Boston for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). The MBTA was not particularly handicapped accessible and, the LSSC organisational client, the Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), filed a law suit against the transportation authority. In doing so, GBLS relied on the work of one of our student law offices. GBLS achieved a $3 million settlement.

11. How many people or organisations benefit from this innovation now?

We accept 14 to 16 projects into the program each year. In the last 17 years we have accepted and served over 300 claims or organisations. At the end of each program year, we survey the recipient of the students’ work products. There is a high level of satisfaction among our client organisations. Also, in a recent internal study of the effectiveness of the program conducted by a consulting group, the program ranked highly in client organisation satisfaction. As a final show of our client organisation’s enthusiasm for the work products produced we have many repeat client organisations.

12. How many people or organisations could potentially benefit your innovation now and in the future? Can or will the innovation be used internationally and how do you overcome cultural differences?

We welcome the opportunity to share this model with other members of the legal academy. To date, we have traveled to several innovation conferences at which we offer workshops designed to educate others about the value of this work and how to implement it. We might be able to form a partnership with other schools that wish to start a similar programme or support the extension and development of an existing program. Another option would be for us to act as advisors/consultants to schools that want to do the above. In addition, the Alliance for Experiential Learning in Law, which was convened by Northeastern Law in 2012, offers an openly collaborative space through which we are able to share our insight.

13. Can you quantify the financial benefits?

As noted above, traditionally, we serve client organisations that are over-worked, under paid and under-resourced. So what matters is that our services are essentially free. In exchange, each client organisation gets over 2000 hours of very closely supervised student work. A client organisation only needs to put in about 15 hours of work during the academic year via responsiveness communications; coming to the law school to introduce the project to the students; and attending the springtime oral presentations of findings, etc. We pride ourselves in having a business model that allows the school to offer a free service for organisations that otherwise may be hard pressed or unable to do this work. In addition, LSSC SJ supports the School of Law’s enrollment, and therefore its financial stability, by drawing law students who are interested in exploring social justice careers.

14. Is the innovation financially viable and sustainable and if yes, how?

This programme is funded by an ABA-accredited law school, which is part of a large, thriving research university. It is part of the course of instruction and thus can be expected to continue.

15. Did you receive any recognition?

We have been written up in several law school-based publications. We are writing an article about the program presently and will continue to publicise our work.

16. What lessons did you learn along the way that could be useful to others?

When infusing the study of social justice into the legal academy via experiential education, it is important to determine the most organic ways of getting students engaged in the learning process. We have found that using the vehicle of social justice projects helps students learn more quickly when they are faced with a specific and real problem they have to solve.

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