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Students’ Legal Skills Help Prevent Homelessness

William* was feeling hopeless. Elderly, disabled, and receiving treatment for a recent kidney transplant, he was stunned when his landlord unexpectedly served him with a no-fault notice of eviction. With his health failing in the dead of a frigid Boston winter, he suddenly faced the alarming prospect of living on the streets.

Yet when it looked like all was lost, William experienced a spectacular reversal of fortune. He walked into Edward D. Brooke Courthouse in Boston and obtained free legal assistance from a student of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC), who was participating in the clinic’s ‘Attorney for the Day’ program.

Moments after William approached the Attorney for the Day booth that March day, LSC Housing Court student Nicolette Roger ‘19 went right to work; she reviewed the facts of his case and counseled him on how to advocate for himself in court.

A roll of the dice

It was not an easy task. According to Roger, his case “was a roll of the dice.” William was scheduled to be evicted from his home that same day; he had exceeded a deadline that a judge had given him to find new housing.

William had been struggling to manage the situation not only because of his extensive hospital stay after the transplant, but also due to the fact that, like 95 percent of low-income tenants who find themselves in Housing Court, he had no attorney to represent him.

He is precisely the type of Bostonian that Attorney for the Day aims to reach. Organized by the Boston Bar Association (BBA), the program draws attorneys from local legal services organizations as well as volunteers from the area’s leading firms.

The BBA advertises that these services are available at Boston Housing Court every Thursday morning, though many community members find out about the program by word of mouth or simply happen upon the sign and table on the day of their hearing.

The guidance that tenants receive can make a huge difference. Roger explains that for someone like William who has no familiarity with the legal system, “even just navigating the courthouse can be difficult,” much less winning a case as a pro se tenant.

While the Attorney for the Day program is a transformative learning opportunity for students, it is life-changing for clients like William, who receive last-minute, ‘game-day’ counsel.

“One of my favorite experiences at Harvard”

Tom Snyder ‘18, who was participating in Attorney for the Day with the LSC for the first time last spring before graduation, attests that it is an incredibly challenging and demanding experience, but also one so rewarding that “it’s been one of my favorite experiences at Harvard.”

The program is overseen by the Director of the Housing Law Clinic, Maureen McDonagh. Students’ responsibilities at Attorney for the Day typically begin with ensuring that clients are in the courtroom at the proper time to respond when the judge does roll call. This is crucial because if the client is not present, the judge will issue a default judgment – an outcome that will likely lead to eviction.

“You’re definitely thrown right in,” explains Tyra Walker ‘18.

While the student attorney is often needed inside the courtroom to help a client file a motion or address a judge, frequently the work takes place in the adjacent hallway or in the mediation room, where negotiations between tenant and the landlord’s attorney occur.

In these cases, students must quickly learn about the client’s situation, assess whether defenses or counterclaims exist, and, where appropriate, determine how to reach an agreement with the landlord.

Righting a power imbalance

The students’ presence is crucial because often, a striking power imbalance is at play. Over 95 percent of landlords enter the courtroom with an attorney, while only 5 percent of low-income renters have that same protection.

When tenants lack representation, it is typically the case that “the landlord’s attorneys have more negotiating power, and clients end up agreeing to terms they can’t adhere to,” according to Kelsey Annu-Essuman ‘19.

Clients like William could easily slip through the cracks without the help from students. There were 127 cases on trial that day, and just two judges and five mediators present.

For many HLS students, this high-stakes environment is the first in which they will be responsible for representing a client in a dispute with real-world consequences. The situation is distinctly challenging because they have just a fraction of the time that Housing Court students typically would to secure a favorable outcome for the client.

Last-minute intervention of the sort that Attorney for the Day provides can be a lifeline for a tenant in a tough situation and can play a vital role in preventing homelessness. Still, the majority of cases handled by Housing Clinic students involve full representation of low-income tenants in complex and ongoing litigation, rather than emergency advice.

Indeed, for the students, Attorney for the Day is a highly educative and memorable experience precisely because it is so different from the in-depth, long-term work that students normally do in the Clinic – instead, just an hour in the courthouse can save a client from homelessness.

“You don’t get a lot of these experiences in law school,” affirms Walker, a three-time veteran of Attorney for the Day.

Using legal training in high-stakes courtroom experience

During Attorney for the Day, students work toward the same outcomes as they do during the semester – preventing eviction, improving housing conditions, halting utilities shutdown — but in this case, they have the opportunity to effect change behind the scenes, and very quickly.

Roger seized this opportunity when she prepped William to stand in front of the judge and request an extension on his timeline to pursue alternatives.

She explained to him what was about to happen and provided William with talking points. He listened intently, and when the time came he explained to the judge that because of his kidney transplant and severe medical problems, he had not yet found a new place. Moreover, he explained, in his condition homelessness would equate to a certain health catastrophe. In setting forth all this, William – again, relying on the advice Roger had shared – successfully documented the efforts he had made to date to obtain housing.

The appeal was successful. The judge offered William a one-month stay of eviction, given that he provided ample evidence of his ongoing housing search.

Roger, McDonagh, and other members of the Housing Clinic team made sure to follow up and help William with the search. Shortly thereafter, he took the first steps through the doorway of his affordable new housing unit, with time to spare.

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.