The East Bay Community Law Center will be celebrating its 15th anniversary Saturday, honoring the people who have helped the center become one of the most important resources for low-income residents battling to stay alive and in need of legal help.
The celebration happens from noon to three at the clinic, 3130 Shattuck Ave.
Founded on Sept. 26, 1988, by a group of Boalt law students, the center has continued to serve its original purpose of providing legal aid for those most in need.
Brad Adams, one of the original founders, now runs the Asia Watch division of Human Rights Watch, one of the largest human rights groups in the country. He says many of the original founders had come to Boalt expecting the school to be a leader in social justice work. Quickly disillusioned, they started the center to tackle the work on their own—which for Berkeley meant handling the problems of the city’s large homeless population.
“These were the days when you literally had to step over homeless people on Telegraph,” said Adams.
For Adams, watching the center grow into a formidable institution with 14 staff attorneys and the ability to train around 30 Boalt interns every semester has been nothing short of amazing.
“I never thought it was going to be possible to open the center. We were hardly encouraged by anyone,” said Adams. “They told us not to waste our time. But to see this many clients served is thrilling.”
Today’s center offers help in four specialties, including housing and tenant’s rights, employment and income support, community economic development, and legal services to people living with HIV and AIDS.
One constant throughout has been the training program for Boalt students, which led to their role in helping the law school to establish their first clinical training course—which remains the largest of those offered to Boalt students, giving hands-on training to 116 students in the past two years.
Jeff Selbin, the center’s executive director, said unpaid Boalt interns do the majority of the case work, receiving school credit in return. Students who intern during the fall and spring semesters also have the opportunity to take a for-credit law class taught by clinic staff.
Over the last decade-and-a-half, interns and staff attorneys have assisted more than 20,000 clients, Selbin said, helping people obtain the most basic survival needs, including shelter, income and medical attention.
“In most cases, without legal assistance [the clients] would have never stood a chance,” said Selbin.
Cseneca Parker is a prime example. Facing eviction, Parker approached the center and got the help he needed to win. A grateful Parker began volunteering, and serves as the center’s client liaison.
Asked what might have happened had he not received help, Parker said, “I would have been on skid row more or less.”
Some of those who have passed through the center’s clinical training program have signed on as staff attorneys, like Laura Lane. A student at Boalt when she interned with the law center in 1994, after graduation she signed on as a staff attorney and is now working on tenant’s rights issues.
Lane knew she wanted to do public interest work before she got into law school, and says that her internship with the center was the most valuable experience she had at Boalt.
“My internship was much more relevant than law school,” said Lane. “I learned so much more in a semester here than I did in three years of law school.”
Before the center started its clinical training program, Boalt students went through simulated programs on campus but never received any hands-on training.
Boalt Professor Steve Sugarman says the clinical practice that the law center provides is one of the most important parts of the student’s education.
“The students have received tremendous benefit from the training,” said Sugarman. “They have also ended up being a very important provider for people in need.”
Boalt has also given back to the law center with a $180,000 dollar annual contribution.
The center’s total budget averages $1.5-1.6 million dollars per year, of which 60 percent comes from government sources and the rest from law firms, individuals and foundations.
Most of the students from Boalt who participate in the internship continue on in public interest law, and a few open their own community law centers.
“It’s a goal of ours to train the next generation of lawyers who will do economic and social justice work,” said Selbin.
To date, over 600 students have participated in the internship program.
Several of the students who participate in the internship program have been recognized with awards, including Mark Davey, who recently received Boalt Law school’s Brian M. Sax ’69 Prize for Excellence in Clinical Advocacy for his work with the center’s Suitcase Clinic Legal Services (SCLS)—a program that provides legal support for the local homeless community.
Davey spent two years living on the streets of Berkeley after leaving home at 16, but was able to turn his life around after enrolling in Berkeley as an undergraduate and then moving on to attend Boalt.
Besides becoming one of the leaders in the SCLS program, Davey co-founded the Vehicular Integration Program, a project that is being reviewed by the Berkeley City Council that would create designated areas for people living out of their cars.
Among those planning to attend Saturday’s anniversary fete—which features free food and entertainment—are Boalt Law School Dean Robert C. Berring Jr., Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
For more information and to RSVP, contact Michelle Eddleman Shin at 548-4040.