Law Students Get a Head Start in the Real World

By Anna Gorman, May 23, 2007

Erubey Lopez began law school at UCLA two years ago knowing he wanted to become an immigration attorney.

But Lopez, an immigrant himself, got an earlier start than expected this spring.

In an effort to provide real-world experience to students and attract young talent to the specialty, UCLA School of Law created an immigration clinic this year.

The clinic, a joint project between the school and the Public Counsel Law Center, allows students to work with attorneys on actual cases while learning the ins and outs of immigration law.

“As Latinos, a lot of us were going to school to help people in that area, but we weren’t being trained,” said Lopez, 24, who lobbied school administrators for the program.

The clinic changed that, he said. Instead of simply listening to lectures, students are preparing petitions, interviewing clients and appearing in Immigration Court.

“We’re learning immigration law, but not through a book,” Lopez said.

Nine students, who worked with supervising attorneys on more than 20 asylum, trafficking and other immigration cases, just finished a semester course at the clinic.

“Los Angeles is ground zero for immigration in this country,” said Michael Schill, dean of the law school. “It made sense that we teach our students both how to practice immigration law but also to serve the community.”

USC has a similar clinic, which started in 2001, provides pro bono representation and has served clients from more than 25 countries.

One of Lopez’s clients at the UCLA clinic was a Guatemalan woman who fled the war in the 1980s and is trying to get a green card through her husband, who is a U.S. citizen. But the mother of four hit an obstacle because of two old petty theft convictions on her record. She could face deportation if she doesn’t win her case.

Even though school is out, Lopez is continuing to volunteer on her case. The responsibility he and his fellow students felt was daunting, he said.

“If we don’t do it right, someone’s life, someone’s family could be destroyed,” said Lopez, who begins his third year of law school in the fall.

Judy London, who teaches the UCLA course, said the students learn crucial skills, including how to interview clients and gain their trust.

London, directing attorney of the immigrants’ rights project at Public Counsel, the pro-bono arm of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., said she hopes the clinic will encourage more students to pursue immigration law — or to work as volunteer attorneys while at corporate firms.

Aref Afsari, 27, recently graduated and hopes that he will be able to continue doing pro bono immigration cases after he takes the bar and begins his job at the Orange County office of Paul Hastings, an international law firm.

As part of the clinic course, Afsari helped file an asylum petition for a man from Zimbabwe who said he had been tortured by government forces and had watched the murder of his father. Because the asylum petition was filed more than a year after the man’s arrival, the case was referred to Immigration Court.

Afsari said the case made him realize the overwhelming need for legislative reform.

“To think he would be sent back because of what is really a technicality — the one-year deadline — is just kind of tragic,” he said.

Afsari said he met with his client about 15 times and developed a close relationship with him. He added that he stopped clocking in and out after the first week, because there was no question he was going to meet the required hours.

Ana Paula Noguez, 29, a licensed attorney in Mexico who came to UCLA for a master’s in law, said representing clients here and learning about the legal options available to them was fascinating and challenging. Her clients included a Salvadoran woman sexually abused by her spouse and a Guatemalan trafficking victim.

“It was hard because it’s difficult to make them talk about something so stressful,” she said. “You feel a big responsibility trying to do your best to help them to get relief from their suffering.”