Despite leaving campus in mid-March due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Harvard Law School students will continue to serve Boston residents in need of free legal services online.
Students in the Law School’s clinical programs gain practical experience by working as pro bono attorneys for clients in the Boston area. The Law School offers 46 clinics and student practice organizations covering a wide range of legal specialties, including health, taxes, immigration, and BGLTQ advocacy.
The clinics offer students the opportunity to interview clients, take depositions, and try cases in court — activities that typically occur in-person rather than thousands of miles away.
Still, the clinics are providing their services virtually using video conference platforms such as Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype.
Housing Law Clinic Director Maureen E. McDonagh said her clinic stores case documents in an online database so students can access files from anywhere and easily work from home.
“Students are still working on the cases they were working on when they left,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “They’re still connected to their clients.”
Still, McDonagh said she recognizes that conducting the clinic virtually limits the feedback and support clinic staff can provide students.
“There’s no substitute for the students getting up and doing something and us giving them feedback, you know, either in class or in person at the office when they’re working on their cases,” she said.
Kiah D. Duggins, president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, wrote in an email Wednesday that students are completing their existing casework, as well as taking on new responsibilities, in response to the coronavirus. The new tasks include advocating for rent suspension during the pandemic alongside the housing rights organization City Life Vida Urbana and “working with Greater Boston Legal Services to remotely represent people in certain COVID-19 related unemployment benefits hearings.”
Nicole Negowetti, Clinical Instructor at the Animal Law & Policy Clinic, wrote in an email that students have been able to transition smoothly to remote work.
“While we miss working together on campus, I’m impressed with how graciously and generously the students have adapted,” she wrote. “Through Zoom classes and meetings we have been working together to ensure that our projects move forward and that everyone feels as positive and supported as possible during this challenging time.”
McDonagh acknowledged that while her students are connecting with clients and drafting documents, they have not been able to participate in court hearings remotely since the Eastern Housing Court is currently only conducting emergency hearings. The court, as well as several other courts throughout the state, is closed until April to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“It’s not that that this is happening without the students,” she said. “If we do have to do an emergency case, it’s very likely it’ll be telephonic and we can have the student participate from wherever they are.”
Daniel Nagin, the Law School's Vice Dean for Clinical and Experiential Education, said he commends the work of students, clinic staff, and faculty members throughout the difficult circumstances brought on by the virus.
“The Law School’s clinics and student practice organizations have been incredibly nimble in their ability to continue to advocate for their existing clients and also to take on the emerging legal needs of community members related to the COVID-19 outbreak,” he wrote in an email. “Students, staff, and faculty at clinics and student practice organizations across HLS are continuing to do critical work in a variety of legal areas.”
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.