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Legal Aid Clinic exists to help the poor

Katherine Leahy, J.D. | Tuesday, November 21, 2006

It was with great interest that I read The Observer’s story (“Students discuss legalities,” Nov. 16) on a “preventative lawyering” seminar conducted by the Notre Dame legal aid clinic for Notre Dame undergraduates living off-campus. And while I’m certain the experience provided an excellent research opportunity for the law students involved, I find the enterprise incredibly disappointing.

I was a student intern at the Notre Dame Immigration Clinic during my third year of law school – a law school institution that ground to a halt this year due in some part to administrative exigencies and in large part to a palpable lack of support from the law school administration. The immigration clinic served over 200 members of the South Bend immigrant community, most of them refugees who fled unimaginable persecution to come here to the United States, usually with little more than the clothes they were wearing and whatever cash they could stuff into their pockets. The students and faculty who served them diligently and tirelessly literally saved their lives.

And now, as an attorney with the Department of Justice in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, I have already had ample opportunity to see what happens to immigrants and other disadvantaged people who can’t afford quality representation and are either forced to represent themselves or fleeced by unqualified and dishonest attorneys who take advantage of their disadvantage. I understand even more acutely the desperate need for low-cost and free legal services for the most vulnerable members of our society. And so I am shocked and a little embarrassed that the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic, an institution whose stated purpose is to provide “legal services to local residents who cannot afford private practice attorneys,” is using its resources (which are apparently so limited that it cannot continue to do immigration work) to help Notre Dame undergrads get out of tickets for underage consumption and disturbing the peace.

Don’t get me wrong – I know that not every single Notre Dame student is wealthy. As an Assistant Rector, I became keenly aware of the sometimes extraordinary economic disparities among Notre Dame students. But I know too that over 60 percent of Notre Dame students come from families with a household income exceeding 100,000 dollars a year – hardly the kind of “local residents” the Clinic professes to exist to serve. When I was an AR, I heard some students complain ad nauseum about the paternalism of dorm rules and about how they longed for the seemingly unfettered liberty of off-campus life, where they could finally be “treated like grown-ups.”

Unfortunately, when it comes time to take adult responsibility for their own actions, these same students now ask the University to provide them with free legal services. Perhaps I’m naive to think that parents who agree to pay off-campus rent are willing to retain attorneys for their student tenants when they throw parties that break the law; but I was, of course, The Man myself.

Despite my apparently antiquated notions of the responsibilities of adulthood, I know that the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic does not exist for the defense of Notre Dame undergrads fighting for their right to party. It exists to provide Notre Dame law students with practical legal training while serving the needs of the poor. The Clinic plays an integral role in the University’s relationship with the South Bend community, and it should continue to devote its attention and resources to serving its mission, not facilitating off-campus ragers thrown by students who by and large have access to paid representation. And if the Clinic has such a glut of resources that it can afford these “extracurricular” activities, it is shameful that the law school administration hasn’t taken more concrete steps to reopen the Immigration Clinic. But maybe my expectations are just too high.