Third-year George Mason University law students Samanta Martinez-Villarreal and Emily Ahdieh had been preparing for their moment in court for months. Their client, who was being detained in an immigration detention center, was relying on their legal advocacy to be reunited with his family. It all came down to a moment in front of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security immigration judge.
“We were both a bit nervous because we thought, this is this man’s life,” says Martinez-Villarreal, who, with Ahdieh, put together the client’s bond motion, got declarations and affidavits from his family, and gathered supporting evidence to defend why he should be released. “His life was determined by how well we did in five minutes [of arguing the case].”
Ahdieh and Martinez-Villarreal successfully got their client out on bond. They are two of six students in the Antonin Scalia Law School’s new Immigration Litigation Clinic, where students advocate for clients facing a range of complex immigration proceedings.
From helping refugees to defending freedom of speech to advocating for families facing the struggles of mental illness, Scalia Law’s nine legal clinics provide students with substantive insight into what it takes to be a practicing lawyer.
“The clinics are an indispensable part of the legal education at Scalia Law, helping students put what they learn in the classroom into practice with real clients and actual legal cases, all under the guidance of experienced practitioners,” says Peter Davidson, deputy dean for strategic initiatives at Scalia Law.
“[The clinic] has taught me more about being an attorney, how court proceedings actually work, how to read the rules and figure out how each [part of the litigation process] works,” Martinez-Villarreal says.
Each clinic—including the Immigration Clinic, which was made possible by a gift from Leonard Bennett, BS Finance ’89, JD ’94—gives students a leg up when it comes to applying for a job.
“There’s only a few opportunities that law students have to actually be in court, and those opportunities usually don’t have somebody’s liberty on the line,” Ahdieh says. “It makes Scalia a more holistic school to have opportunities like this—it’s a great opportunity that the school offers for students that they didn’t have before.”
The Innovation Law Clinic also made its Mason debut this year.
“Innovation law brings together all the legal issues an entrepreneur faces when translating a cool idea into a real-world business,” says Mason law professor Sean O’Connor, who leads the clinic.
The first cohort includes third-year students Samantha Levin, Kayleen Hansen, and Aris Hart, who have assisted a nonprofit working to get incorporated and gain tax-exempt status, a Mason student developing a technology that may be patentable, and a fashion designer navigating the legal intricacies for branding her business.
“One reason I decided to go to law school was to take my interests and skills and direct them toward helping people—here we can help people be as successful as they can in their endeavors,” says Levin. “It’s been absolutely amazing to take what we’ve learned in classes and learned doctrinally and apply that to real-life practice, real-life clients, and help people in a way that lawyers can.”
In the Free Speech Clinic, many cases are in areas currently underrepresented by free speech advocates, so students have the opportunity to make an impact.
“The students work on actual cases in order to get academic credit, which is great because they get hands-on experience, and it’s not like a classroom assignment,” says JoAnn Koob, director of Mason’s Liberty and Law Center, which hosts the clinic. “It actually affects people.”
Recently, clinic students conducted legal research to support a proposed bill in the Virginia General Assembly that would provide greater protection against censorship to student journalists and publications. They also supported a legal challenge to state restrictions on vanity license plates and helped settle a case where an individual was arrested for publicly criticizing a police officer.
Clinic students also have the chance to make professional connections.
In the Law and Mental Illness clinic, students handle involuntary commitment hearings and medication-over-objection hearings to help people who may be a harm to themselves or others get the assistance they need. Students have the opportunities to connect with the attorneys leading the clinics and overseeing the cases, as well as with the justices, says attorney Mary Parnell, who oversees the clinic with Fairfax County assistant county attorney Lynda Abramovitz.
The skills learned in these clinics are applicable to any future lawyer. “Learning how to address the judge, formulate your argument, evaluate a fact pattern fairly quickly, and put your case together in a very short period of time—you need those skills to practice in any area of the law,” says Parnell.
Without the clinics, the Mason law experience wouldn’t hold the same weight.
“It’s one thing to discuss policy and theory in a classroom, and it’s quite another to actually get up there and practice it,” says Martinez-Villarreal. “We will debate policy all day in classes, but we have to keep in mind that there are actual people on the other side of those policies, and [policies] impact people in a real way.