USD School of Law Women’s Legal Clinic Embraces Virtual Hearings in Year One

Women’s Legal Clinic Embraces Virtual Hearings in Year One

Students Shelby Lorenzi (2L) and Allison Washburn (2L) in the clinic

SAN DIEGO (April 29, 2021) – The University of San Diego (USD) School of Law Women’s Legal Clinic launched in January of 2020, focusing on family law cases involving child custody, divorce and dissolution, and restraining orders connected to domestic violence. This clinic provides students with many opportunities to go to court since family law custody cases are routinely reviewed until the child turns 18. With limited options, the clinic’s clients are often self-referred because family law does not guarantee the right to an attorney. Professor of Practice Meredith Levin leads the clinic and has extensive family law experience, including being a Certified Specialist, Family Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.

When the clinic opened, USD legal interns hit the ground running — but found out they had to immediately transition to a virtual environment when the coronavirus pandemic began impacting daily life last March. Since courts were no longer hearing cases in person, the expected real-world lawyering experience changed for the participating students. But they transitioned quickly, along with the rest of the legal community, to accept the new virtual legal process. Professor Levin has been impressed with how her legal interns have embraced this change. “The students have adapted tremendously,” she praised, “they really take it seriously and are learning great advocacy skills as well.”

Out of this turbulent first year have come incredible stories of student advocacy. USD legal intern Shelby Lorenzi (2L) conducted a very difficult two-day custody trial, done during the early days of virtual-only hearings. With Professor Levin’s support, Lorenzi handled the case components of writing a brief, negotiating with opposing counsel, delivering an opening statement, submitting evidence, conducting both direct and cross-examination of multiple witnesses, and presenting a closing argument. The successful outcome was ensuring the client had continued contact with her children under challenging circumstances. The client’s children had been moved away during the initial stay-at-home order last year, so the coronavirus pandemic complicated the case’s custody element. Lorenzi said arguing the case in the virtual environment was challenging but knowing that the opposing attorneys were also adjusting to this change was a great equalizer. “You really are getting a first-hand experience,” said Lorenzi, “and Professor Levin has been so great at letting us take the first chair.” Overall, she has found the casework valuable in preparing her to become the lawyer she wants to be, even if her court experience was different than she anticipated.

Another student success story concerns a guardianship case where a child was experiencing trauma at the hands of a trusted family member. USD legal intern Allison Washburn (2L) represented the “best interests of the child” (a legal standard) in the case, and through her diligent work, temporary guardianship with the child’s aunt was made permanentAdditionally, due to a finding of domestic violence against the child, the outcome includes a continued no-contact order for the abusive relative, unless approved by the child's therapist. Washburn overcame a case complication in which evidence protecting the child was concealed in his therapy records, which are confidential and protected by law. With prior work experience in an assisted living facility, she was familiar with how health care facilities handle these requests, jumping through numerous hoops to review the records at the courthouse and have them admitted into evidence. Said Washburn about this lengthy part of the process, “I want to make sure the court has access to whatever we need to keep this person safe.”

Virtual hearings have provided new challenges, including logistical complications and limited technology. Since clients and witnesses are not required to be on video during hearings, the lack of body language can also make it challenging for judges to get a complete picture of the case. However, there are advantages to specific case types going virtual, some of which could benefit victims and remain a new standard when the courts return to in-person hearings. Said Professor Levin, “Restraining orders are probably better [virtually] because then they don’t have to be in the room with their abuser.”

Although unexpected, the USD legal interns have developed an incredible teamwork environment over Zoom, collaborating on case needs for the past year despite not meeting in person. With networking events limited due to the pandemic, the students enjoy that Zoom hearings provide new touchpoints with attorneys and judges, interactions that would not happen if court was in person. Even if a fraction of cases remain virtual when the pandemic ends, this new style of family law has given USD legal interns a unique skill set, one which will allow them to find innovative ways to put their clients’ needs first. What a great way to celebrate year one!

About the University of San Diego School of Law

Each year, USD educates approximately 800 Juris Doctor and graduate law students from throughout the United States and around the world. The law school is best known for its offerings in the areas of business and corporate law, constitutional law, intellectual property, international and comparative law, public interest law, and taxation.

USD School of Law is one of the 84 law schools elected to the Order of the Coif, a national honor society for law school graduates. The law school’s faculty is a strong group of outstanding scholars and teachers with national and international reputations and currently ranks 36th nationally among U.S. law faculties in scholarly impact and 22nd nationally in past-year faculty downloads on the Social Sciences Research

Network (SSRN). The school is accredited by the American Bar Association and is a member of the Association of American Law Schools. Founded in 1954, the law school is part of the University of San Diego, a private, independent, Roman Catholic university chartered in 1949.

Contact:

Beth Colton
bcolton@sandiego.edu
(619) 260-4097

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