By Rebecca Wolozin, J.D. ’15
Last semester, I took a legal theory seminar in which we read some of the seminal works by American legal theorists that form the basis for what has evolved into our law today. As I sat in class trying to analyze the article with my classmates, the images and examples that came to mind were not only my own personal experiences, but also my clinical clients’ stories. My clinical education has been and continues to be a central part of my legal learning. Through clinical learning, I have gained a complex understanding of substantive areas of law, both “law in the books” and “law in practice,” and I have real experiences to draw upon to help me see the difference between “ought” and “is.”
In the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic, I had the opportunity to advocate for women who are domestic violence survivors. These women make decisions every day, big and small, to avoid abuse. Many of these women decide not to ask for the little the law provides to avoid angering the men they are trying to leave. Other women want (and deserve) more than the law provides. In my biggest case, I worked with a client who is herself the subject of a wrongfully granted restraining order. Her husband has repeatedly used legal avenues to continue his control and abuse despite her having left and filed for divorce.
The wide gap between “is” and “ought” became painfully apparent when I went into court to argue against the extension of the restraining order. Although the standard required the judge to evaluate whether to continue the order by analyzing whether it was necessary to prevent continued abuse against the “victim”, the judge seemed to decide to extend the order “to avoid contention” for the duration of the divorce proceedings. At one point, he asked me whether granting the order to the husband against the wife wouldn’t actually protect both parties. I was, perhaps naively, stunned. But thanks to the urging of my clinical supervisor and my interest in changing the background rules and in educating those who apply them, we decided to appeal his decision. In addition to being legally incorrect, an important reason that we decided to appeal, and that our client supported and encouraged that decision, was to work towards better law that actually protects survivors from abuse.
The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic was the second of four different clinics I will work in during my time at HLS. This is strategic. I plan to work with children, and specifically with immigrant children. Working with this population requires knowledge and skills in a number of different “legal fields,” because for these children, family law problems, immigration problems, education problems, and others are all shades of the same color. As part of my strategy, I was a clinical student with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic, the Florence Project in Arizona (an independent clinical placement with unaccompanied child immigrants) and the Child Advocacy Clinic (working in education law) this Spring. The ability to apply what I learn outside of clinics to my own legal practice is central to my own process of becoming the lawyer I hope to be.
I am of the opinion that the most exciting learning happens when my classes speak to each other, when I can play out conversations between professors who may have never spoken in my head, when my semester turns into a web of connections and links and winding paths to be followed to the next insight or deeper understanding of something I thought I understood. My experience as a clinical student has provided not only a different format for learning that promotes making these connections, but an excitement and a grounding purpose as I continue my legal studies. As I finish my final semester at HLS, and after having spent four years at Harvard pursuing a concurrent degree (a Masters in Education), my clinical experiences have been the glue that brings together the vast amount of knowledge I have worked so hard to accumulate. In the end, what is all that learning worth if it isn’t to understand how to live it?