The University of Wisconsin’s Neighborhood Law Clinic has played a pivotal role in making Dane County, Wisconsin a safer place for tenants, an economically viable place to live for workers and, through its efforts in the community and legislatively, worked to protect the rights of the underrepresented across our state. It serves as model for protecting the economic health of those most in need through advocacy, education, and collaboration.The NLC has been in existence for over 15 years. The program focuses on several practice areas including housing, employment and government benefits. Clinical law students at the University of Wisconsin Law School become engaged in their community through the legal services they offer at a community-based law office and through community education and outreach. The NLC impacts the lives of the neediest in our community and through their experiences, law students learn not only about rebellious lawyering, but also how their advocacy can tilt the balance of justice in favor of the underserved.The NLC seeks remedies and solutions where sometimes, none seem to exist. Often this requires advocacy in the housing area as housing is a critical component of a family’s economic health and security; and one that can be lost so easily. An example of how the NLC significantly redresses high priority needs of underserved residents in our community occurred a couple of years ago when we received a phone call from the Madison mayor and a prominent Latino member of our city council, who asked whether NLC could handle an emergency eviction situation. A developer, who wanted to renovate a recently purchased apartment complex, had filed multiple evictions for an apartment complex largely occupied by Latino families who were on month-to-month leases. The evictions would not only force these families into homelessness, but would disrupt their children’s education.The Clinic quickly jumped in. They identified defenses to the evictions and met with the residents to learn their objectives, which, it turned out, were simply to maintain their housing until school ended in June. The clinic students worked with teachers, schools, the local Community Action Coalition, and tenant resources to draft a compelling letter to the development company. The advocacy resulted in the company agreeing to let all of the families occupy their homes until July, instead of forcing them out in April in the midst of a school term. NLC brought the community together to solved a problem that did not involve traditional lawyering. Although this effort went largely unnoticed by the press, many families were able to remain intact and stable due to the clinic’s efforts.The NLC also identifies and attacks barriers to economic justice. Clinic students developed a process that enabled tenants who applied for emergency assistance to remain in their rental housing despite a pending eviction. When the NLC became aware of families being evicted while waiting for assistance simply because no instructions existed to allow them to take advantage of the law they created a set of forms and instructions that allowed families to apply for a stay and avoid homelessness. The “Petition and Order for Stay of Eviction Based on Applicant's Application for Emergency Assistance” was adopted for statewide use by the Forms Committee of the Wisconsin Judicial Conference and are now available to families throughout the state who are experiencing the threat of an eviction.The NLC also works hand-in-hand with our local Workers’ Rights Center to educate workers about their rights and to enforce their rights to fair compensation in the courts. Many of the unpaid wage cases reach the NLC through outreach, education, and collaboration with the WRC. The NLC is a small program that has made a huge impact on both students and the community.
© 2011 Clinical Legal Education Association