A law school of their own

Social justice programs are changing the legal landscape
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culture@sfbg.com

In today's "I'm gonna sue you" world, in which lawyers are called sharks (and often rightly so), getting a law degree from a school that offers the class "Education for a Just, Sacred and Sustainable World" might seem a little backward. However, since the '70s a number of schools have been encouraging students to study law as a tool for practicing social advocacy — not just for lining corporate pockets (or their own).

One of the Bay Area's banner examples is the New College of California, which — founded in 1975 out of the civil rights movement — has the oldest public interest law program in the country. But there are other stops for those with lawyerly aspirations. Golden Gate University not only offers certification in public interest law but also gives a number of incentives for students interested in helping local communities. UC Hastings College of the Law has the in-house Civil Justice Clinic, which gives students a chance to add an activist bent to their education. And most other nearby schools — from UC Berkeley's School of Law to the University of San Francisco — now offer some kind of public interest law specialty.

So what are these programs like? Is this law lite?

Certainly not, Civil Justice Clinic director Mark Aaronson says. For example, clinic courses — which deal with employment law, housing law, and disability benefits among other areas of social interest — are very serious. In fact, students handle real cases and are advised by professional lawyers. As part of the course work in Aaronson's Community Economic Development Clinic, students may survey community needs or translate court documents for neighborhood residents. The school is even more rigorous thanks to the fact that the yearlong program is limited to just eight students, giving them plenty of firsthand experience handling real-life legal situations. "Lawyers have to learn to lawyer in context, dealing with real problems as they occur — not just hypotheticals in a classroom," Aaronson says.

And UC Hastings's dedication to this program goes beyond classes and course work. A number of student-led organizations offer a chance for community involvement: one group volunteers at outreach centers in SoMa along with UCSF medical students to provide medical care and legal advice to the underserved.

So where do graduates of these social justice law programs go? Some join private law firms, of course, or find government jobs serving communities in need. But others, such as Paul Hogarth, use their education to do something else entirely.

Hogarth is now the managing editor for BeyondChron.com, a daily news site produced by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic that tries to raise awareness about the Ellis Act and tenant housing rights. But first he attended Golden Gate University with help from its Public Interest Law Scholars Program, a scholarship fund that gives up to $15,000 in tuition aid and a $5,000 internship stipend to five students a year. He says the skills he gained at Golden Gate are integral to his job now.

"Sometimes I'll write a story about a court case, and I'll do a legal analysis of it," Hogarth says. "I also cover City Hall, and I can read legislation that's going through and then say, 'Well, this is what the law will do.' "

Had Hogarth chosen to work for a nonprofit or as a public defender or prosecutor, he would've been eligible for a generous tuition repayment assistance grant from Golden Gate University.

It seems one of the greatest benefits of joining these programs, though, is being surrounded by like-minded people passionate about social change. For example, Antonia Jushasz, a teacher in the Activism and Social Change masters program at New College, spoke at a protest rally against the Iraqi Oil Law at Chevron Corp.

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