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The Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania Law School public service program, officially launches its legal clinic today, in hopes of meeting a previously unfulfilled need for assistance to lesbian and gay attorneys and clients in Pennsylvania. The legal clinic — the first in the nation to focus strictly on lesbian and gay issues — will be entirely student-run, mainly with students from Penn Law School, although other local law schools are represented. Law students will decide management strategies and policies for the clinic — a valuable opportunity for not only the students, but also the clients, according to Susan Feathers, director of the public service program at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “These issues are very difficult and complex,” said Feathers, an honorary co-chair of the clinic. “Our students are excited to get out there and help the people who need it most. It will be an important transitive experience for the law students and will enhance the clinic’s ability to fulfill its mission.” The clinic — which has been in the works since January — will offer both clients and attorneys in lesbian and gay civil rights cases help ranging from simply answering questions to providing representation. With an average of 50 cases, ranging from real estate law to criminal law, in the litigation docket at any time, the students must be prepared for a variety of problems. With an expectation of 1,000 calls to the legal hotline this year, according to Feathers, the extra staff will be needed to assist all who need help. Andrew Park, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, said he understands the importance of getting the message of the legal clinic to the people. The center itself is only four years old, and many in the legal community are still unfamiliar with the rights of lesbians and gays. “The students really increase our capacity to help people, particularly people of low income, many times over.” Park said. “There is no possible way to handle 1,000 calls without the students.” All students are trained before joining the clinic. Students learn how to handle a request for assistance and work through the most substantive areas of the law regarding the lesbian and gay community. However, extra help might be needed. In this case, private attorneys will volunteer their services. Park said that an effort from the entire legal community is the only way to bring long-term change in this area of law. “Every student and attorney who helps us knows that this would not and could not be done without them.” The clinic is funded through University of Pennsylvania’s Law School. Listed as clinic benefactors are attorneys David Schellenberg and Arthur Kaplan. Park said that the center, whose clients have never lost a single lesbian or gay custody case since its inception, will use the clinic to change the misconception that being a lesbian or gay man immediately puts one at a legal disadvantage. “One of the primary problems is that people, both clients and attorneys, do not know their rights,” Park added. “There is a huge gap in the legal community, a lower level of services for lesbian and gay clients.” This gap should narrow with the help of Penn’s public service program. Penn was the first law school to win the ABA pro bono publica award of 2000 for innovative legal services to the poor, according to Feathers. “This program is not just another academic exercise,” Feathers said. “It really helps the community at need and is a very powerful tool for social change.”

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