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In Building B of the D.C. Superior Court, Eleanor Allison, who lives with her daughter and 5-year-old granddaughter in an apartment in Northeast Washington, sits in one of the chairs that line the hallway. She is waiting for someone to help walk her through the complicated procedure involved when someone is summoned to the court for a landlord-tenant hearing. On this particular Wednesday morning, Allison needs advice. She couldn’t pay her rent for November and says that her apartment is overrun with vermin, has mold in the vents, and has walls that are always damp and peeling. “There are so many rats, not just mice, but rats,” Allison says. Her granddaughter, she says, has developed a lingering cough. But the person who helps her isn’t an attorney, at least, not yet. Allison, like about 50 tenants every week who need representation at Landlord Tenant Court, turned to D.C. Law Students in Court, a 39-year-old clinical trial program. The program works with five law schools in the District: Georgetown University Law Center, American University’s Washington College of Law, Howard University School of Law, Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, and George Washington University Law School. It also receives financial support from many D.C. firms, including Hogan & Hartson, Covington & Burling, and Steptoe & Johnson. The program’s annual budget is just under $1 million. Nancy Cantalupo, the assistant dean for clinical programs at the Georgetown law school, who is also on the program’s board of directors, advises students on which clinical programs to take. “One of the things that I tell them all the time is that the title of the clinic is very apt,” she says. “If they want to be in court and in court a lot, then Law Students in Court is the clinic they want to take.” D.C. Law Students in Court trains around 35 to 50 aspiring attorneys each year in both civil and criminal trial work, and, with supervision, the students lead their own cases. Mari Dorn-Lopez, a third-year at American, is handling Allison’s case and discerning whether the program can take Allison on as a client. She sits beside her in the crowded hallway and begins to ask her questions. She asks when Allison moved in, what the conditions are like, why she was unable to pay her rent. “A lot of times they’re very emotional, because, you know, it’s their homes,” Dorn-Lopez says. The program doesn’t send law students into the courtroom cold. There is an orientation period and weekly training sessions where students learn basic litigation skills, such as how to take depositions, argue motions, do case planning and discovery, and interview clients and witnesses. And before any court appearance, the students have moot court sessions with their supervisors. Sundeep Hora, a partner at Alderman, Devorsetz & Hora, participated in the program from 1999 to 2000 when he was a law student at American. He was able to work on mediations, negotiations, and open court depositions and says that he used those skills, first as an associate at Arnold & Porter and also now as he runs his own firm. “As a litigator, I think it’s invaluable experience to get up and think on your feet,” Hora says. “And this is one of those clinics that allows you to do that.” Normally, a person who hasn’t passed the bar isn’t allowed to practice before the courts, but the D.C. court rules were modified in the 1960s for clinical programs like this one. Students must have a supervisor on all cases, who watches every step, from preparing a case to filing documentation. “The courts have an interest in seeing that people are represented, and one of the things the students do is talk to people who don’t have any representation and don’t know what their rights are,” says Ann Marie Hay, the executive director of Law Students in Court. On Wednesday morning, Nov. 7, six students arrive at the Law Students in Court office, which is located at the end of a hallway in the Superior Court. They hang up their coats and stare at their laptop screens, filling out paperwork and waiting for potential clients to start filing in. The majority of disputes in the Landlord Tenant Court that the students deal with are nonpayment-of-rent cases, but they also handle drug-related evictions and breach-of-lease claims. “One of the principal goals is to be able to keep a roof over people’s heads,” says Nathan Neal, an attorney and supervisor in the civil portion of the program. “It’s getting over today and being able to put them on a plan for tomorrow.” Christina Sheetz, a third-year law student at American, is working on a client’s “opposition to purchase” case, where a landlord sold the building to a third party without first offering the space to the tenants. The dispute is headed to mediation, and Sheetz, who has been working on the case since August, has already conducted several depositions. “Coming into it not having any kind of court experience before, it was challenging to learn the law of the procedures and of the court,” Sheetz says. Neal and Dorene Haney, who is also a supervisor, help the students go over each client’s case. They look at income levels to see if they can represent a person, as well as the details of the case, making sure it doesn’t fall outside the program’s purview. Though the income level is tied to the federal poverty scale, the program doesn’t release the income level requirement publicly. Many times tenants come into Landlord Tenant Court without an understanding of how the system works. The District has very pro-tenant laws. If a landlord doesn’t provide upkeep on the property, a tenant can refuse to pay rent until the problems are fixed, but navigating the process can be daunting. Dorn-Lopez got a continuance from the court for Allison. From here, she will have another meeting with Allison and will investigate her apartment to see if there are any housing code violations (Allison’s landlord, Denise Johnson, said she hadn’t heard about any problems with the property until after she served papers to collect back rent). If the program decides to take Allison on as a client, she will then help her file an answer for the court, and if the parties can’t come to an agreement, she will take the case to trial. Dorn-Lopez wants to go into immigration law when she graduates, and though her area of practice probably won’t include many tenant disputes, she believes her experiences with Law Students in Court will transfer quite well. “I think that most people should do clinics like having doctors do residencies,” she says. “There’s only so much that you can learn in a classroom.”
Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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