Alumni, staff reflect on 50 years of Legal Aid Clinic

50 year of the KU Law Legal Aid Clinic

Since 1967, more than 1,300 students have cut their teeth in KU Law’s Legal Aid Clinic under the supervision of seasoned attorneys and faculty, working to secure “justice for and to protect the rights of the needy.”

The Fall 2017 issue of KU Law Magazine features a retrospective story marking the 50th anniversary of the Clinic. We received far too many fond recollections from alumni and staff to include them all in the print edition, so we’re sharing them here on our blog.

Have a story to share? Add it in the comments!


Randolph Starr, L’73
Starr & Westbrook PC | Loveland, Colorado

My world as a lawyer bloomed with Legal Aid. I was the first in my family to attend law school. I didn’t really know what lawyers did, and I had never been in a court or in a law office. I enrolled in the fall of 1970. I struggled in the beginning (not much writing instruction in business school). As I hit my stride in law school, I decided to try my hand at one of the law school’s clinical programs. Mike Davis and Louise Wheeler were the sponsors and helped guide us through representation of real clients. I remember my first DUI case for a third offender. It scared the pants off me to think that he would probably spend time in the Douglas County Jail (not a nice place). He was happy with his three-month sentence, and I learned how to deal with alcohol offenses.

My first real trial was a change-in-custody case. The trial was held in Kansas City, Kansas, since that was the original venue. Neither Mike nor Louise could go with me, so they arranged to have the head of the legal aid program in KCK sit at the table with me. Of course he knew nothing of the facts; I was on my own. I violated one of the first rules of examination of one of my witnesses in trying to rehabilitate his damaging testimony: I asked a question that I did not know the answer to. My client was successful in maintaining custody, and I had won my first litigated case. I was, thereafter, hooked.

My years of sports had prepared me for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But to help out another person using my knowledge and understanding was addictive. Legal Aid changed my goal and purpose for the law. I became a civil trial attorney, and my fundamentals served me well over the many trials I had over the last 44 years. Mike Davis was an incredible mentor to me. Judge Gray was tolerant with the “kids” who would appear on dissolution cases. And I learned what a “sundowner” order from the municipal judge was to our local traveling population. I would put my education at KU up against any other place.


Chuck Briscoe, L’75
Director, Legal Aid Clinic, Fall 1999 – Fall 2012

Chuck BriscoeIn the spring of 1995, while having coffee with friends in the Shawnee County Courthouse, one of the group mentioned a job posting for a supervising attorney in the Legal Aid Clinic. At the time, I had been practicing law for 20 years and I saw this as an opportunity to accomplish two of my professional goals: to teach soon-to-be attorneys how to practice law and to provide legal services to people who did not have the financial resources to hire counsel.

Dennis Prater was leaving the clinic, and Shelley Hickman Clark was succeeding him as the director. I had known Shelley since law school, and we had worked together in state government during Gov. John Carlin’s administration. As Shelly and I already had a good professional relationship, I was hopeful for the opportunity to join her in the clinic. Following the interview, I gladly accepted Shelley’s offer to become a supervising attorney.

I began working in the clinic in June 1995, joining Shelley, Stephanie Matthews and Barbara Wrigley, our office manager. With Shelley’s approval, I continued my private practice in Topeka. I asked for this concession because I did not want to leave my practice until I was certain the clinic would be a rewarding experience for the students and me. I also wanted to be confident our clients could be ably represented by a teaching clinic. By 1997, I knew that all of these conditions could be met and I closed my practice so I could work in the clinic full time.

In 1999, Shelley left the clinic to become the associate dean for KU Law. I became the director, and Suzanne Valdez joined us as a supervising attorney. Stephanie left the clinic in 2000, and Shelley later rejoined us. In 2003, Suzanne left and was eventually replaced by Jody Lamb Meyer in 2005. So the team from 2005 until my retirement on Dec. 31, 2012 was Shelly, Jody, Barbara Wrigley and me.

During my 17-year association with the clinic, it functioned as a small law firm with the supervising attorneys as the partners and our students as the associate attorneys. The firm’s practice consisted of domestic relations cases (which included divorce, annulment, paternity, protection from abuse and protection from stalking), defense of adults in municipal court and defense of juvenile offenders in district court.

We also represented clients in a variety of other matters, including landlord and tenant disputes, adoptions, guardianships, expungement of criminal convictions and juvenile offender adjudications, and preparation of wills.

From 1995 through 2012, approximately 370 students were enrolled in our program. Each student had an average caseload of 10 to 15 files, and the supervising attorneys were fully involved in each of the cases. On their first day in the clinic, the students were assigned to a supervising attorney and they received their case files. Often the students were overwhelmed during the first weeks of the semester when they were scheduled for court appearances shortly after arriving in the clinic.

Initially the supervising attorneys took the lead and the new students were second-chair observers. However, the goal of the supervising attorneys was to get the fledglings out of the nest as soon as possible, with a caveat: At no time would a student be placed in a position where the client’s interests might be jeopardized due to the student’s lack of experience.

Eventually the students settled in and the supervising attorneys were able to spend more time suggesting and directing case strategies. These discussions always included practical applications of the Codes of Civil and Criminal Procedure, statutory interpretation and legal research. During my tenure in the clinic, our students were required to enroll in the clinic for two semesters, and by the second semester they worked with more independence – to the mutual satisfaction of the supervising attorneys and the students.

The supervising attorneys were constantly teaching, in the clinic and in courtrooms. We had an open-door policy, which encouraged the students to ask questions and seek guidance at any time. It seemed the supervising attorneys always had a student standing at the doorways to their offices throughout the day, and we learned to work with constant interruptions.

Our law firm was very busy. From 1995 through 2012, we opened 7,484 files: 3,508 municipal court cases, 1,631 juvenile offender cases, 1,684 domestic relations cases and 661 miscellaneous civil cases. Most of our representation involved contested matters, and we were constantly in court. In our domestic relations practice, we did not hesitate to take contested cases involving issues such as child custody and domestic abuse. As a result, we were representing clients who were not only in need of legal representation, but also often in crisis.

A special tribute to Barbara Wrigley is in order here. She handled an unfathomable number of incoming telephone calls, many of which were from frantic clients, ran our court appearance calendar, scheduled office visits for clients, communicated with the courts, dealt with innumerable persons who came to the office without appointments, soothed many frustrated students (and an occasional frustrated supervising attorney), and so much more. Additionally, Barbara began working in the clinic in 1988, and her institutional memory was invaluable.

Although I enjoyed all of our areas of practice, I was especially proud of our representation of clients in contested domestic relations cases. While I was in the clinic, Kansas Legal Services had a limited presence in Douglas County, but it could not accommodate many clients. Therefore we felt the clinic had a moral obligation to accept as many domestic relations clients as we could, particularly in cases which involved either child custody or domestic violence. Without us, those clients would have to represent themselves in extremely difficult and stressful matters, often against retained counsel.

The large number of clients we represented is, in itself, significant, but more impressive was the quality of the legal services we provided. To put this into perspective, one has to consider that most of the students had no prior experience in interviewing clients, marshaling facts, maintaining case files, preparing and filing legal documents, negotiating with opposing counsel or appearing in court. Additionally, given the demands of their other law school classes, the students were not able to be in the clinic office full-time, so communication with clients and opposing attorneys was sometimes sporadic. When the students were not in the office, important phone calls and various crises had to be covered and resolved by the supervising attorneys. In addition, as our clients and cases did not pause for final exams, semester breaks and the summer (when our enrollment was lower), the supervising attorneys often had to assume full responsibility for some of the clients’ cases.

Through it all, our students gained experience by analyzing the facts and the law of each case, explaining possible options and outcomes to our clients, using negotiation in an attempt to resolve disputes and, when negotiation failed, advocating for our clients in trial. We were always prepared and professional, and we represented each of our clients to the best of our abilities. I marvel at all we accomplished given the constraints inherent in the representation of so many clients by law students who were just starting their legal training.

In the clinic, we taught basic legal skills to prepare our students to become counselors and advocates. They learned how to be organized, prepared, practical and compassionate, and they participated in numerous courtroom proceedings. There was no other course in the law school that provided similar training. I am confident that after graduation our students were better prepared to face their first days in practice having benefitted from their Legal Aid Clinic experience. As was said by a Confucian scholar, “What I hear, I forget; What I see, I remember; What I do, I understand.” And our students did a lot.


Jim Clark, L’75
Retired

I was a student director-in-training in the spring of 1974, and student director in fall of ’74 and spring of ’75, assigned to what was then Haskell Indian Junior College. At that time the Legal Aid office was located above Owens Flower Shop, as there was no room in Old Green Hall. At that office, not only did we have the constant scent of flowers, but often the smell of fresh donuts when someone dashed downstairs and next door to Joe’s Bakery. The office also had satellite locations at Haskell Indian Junior College, Ballard Place and Penn House, hence the need for student directors. While we were legal interns, we still needed supervision by practicing attorneys. The director of the Legal Aid Clinic, then Professor Louise Wheeler, followed by Professor Deanell Tacha, provided much of the court supervision, but we were also assigned to members of the Douglas County Bar Association. While representing clients in civil matters in district court and criminal matters in municipal court were challenging, often our biggest challenge was coordinating our cases with the schedule of our supervising attorney.


Nathan Harbur, L’77
Nathan C. Harbur, Chartered | Leawood, Kansas

I was a Legal Aid intern during the summer before and during my third year of law school. I was in the class of ’77. A big thanks to Deanell Tacha for choosing me as an intern. Having the guidance of an experienced mentor, an office and support as an intern were very inspiring to me. My experiences in the Clinic allowed me to better understand what practicing law in a small office was like and definitely confirmed my desire to represent regular people as a young lawyer.


Gary Pomeroy, L’84
Kansas Department for Children & Families | Kansas City, Kansas

I did Legal Aid during the summer of 1983. I was the first one of my group to appear in front of Judge George Catt, the municipal court judge. My client was charged with some alcohol-related violation. Judge Catt then asked me to state the appearances. I had no idea what he was asking me to do. So I did what I always do when confused and flustered: I improvised. I said, “I believe we are all here, your honor.” At which point the supervising attorney realized what was happening, stepped in and formally entered our appearances. She then pulled everyone else out into the hallway (this was when Municipal Court was roughly where Division 2 is in the Douglas County Courthouse now) and explained to them what to say and how to enter one’s appearance.

The following Thursday morning, we were back in Municipal Court for the criminal misdemeanor docket. I was again the first of my group up.

Before Judge Catt asked me to enter the appearances, he looked down from the bench, recognized me from the week before, and asked, “Counselor, are we all here?”

I bumped into Judge Catt at the Douglas County Courthouse shortly before he retired from the Municipal bench in 1998. I reminded him of our first meeting, and he responded, “That was you?” He then told me I had provided him with many free drinks based on the story of our first meeting.


Marty Brown, L’86
Farmers Corporate Legal & Foremost (a Farmers subsidiary) | Michigan

Marty BrownI participated in the Legal Aid Clinic in 1985-86, and it was a very memorable, influential and rewarding experience. Dennis Prater was the director. Dennis was a great mentor and teacher. I’ll never forget my first client, though I can’t recall her name, who was blind and had both legs amputated below the knees, both a result of diabetes. My job was to get her Social Security Supplemental Income payments restored. I went to visit her in a nursing home on the southwest side of Lawrence, not far from where I was living on south Ousdahl. As is often the case with government bureaucracy, her situation was due to a comedy/tragedy of errors. I made several visits to the Social Security office with various documents to show my client’s plight. While the Social Security folks were nice and understanding, they had their procedures and I had to cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s. After a few weeks, my client’s SI payments were restored.

While that was my first, and the most memorable of my LAC experiences, there were a lot more and I learned a lot about the actual practice of law. Of all my law school classes, there is no doubt that the Legal Aid Clinic is the class from which I received the most benefit. I interacted with many clients, made my only jail visit (to interview a client), had several court appearances, prepared many pleadings and did a ton of legal research, all of which were very beneficial to me in my post-Lawrence career.


Brian McLeod, L’89
City of Wichita | Wichita, Kansas

I was in the Legal Aid Clinic in the late ’80s, when Dennis Prater was director. In the large file room we called “The Bullpen,” there were a couple of old typewriters and a copy machine, none of which worked very well. Barb Wrigley was the only secretarial support for the whole office, and if we needed her help, we had to get stuff to her quite a while in advance. It was useful practical experience. I worked on a number of misdemeanor defense cases, some DUIs, a handful of interesting domestic cases with parentage, custody and property division issues, and one step-parent adoption. The report forms were a useful mechanism for keeping track of cases and, of course, conflict checking, client interviews and reporting to a supervisor apply in some form in most small law offices.


Peggy Rowe, L’90
Commerce Bancshares Inc. | Kansas City, Missouri

Peggy RoweI participated in the Legal Aid Clinic in my third year (1989-1990). I really enjoyed the experience. One thing I remember, and the story I tell all of the time is:

During our “orientation” to the Clinic, Professor Prater told us something very empowering: “There is nothing you can do that I can’t undo.” That sentence empowered the participants to have no fear of failure, or at least no fear that a “failure” would be detrimental to a client. That grant of freedom also empowered us to be willing to take on any issue/matter. What is interesting is the experience I had in the Clinic was foundational to the work I do today. The skills I learned related to reviewing a matter (triage), understanding the law associated with the matter and offering solutions defines my daily work as deputy general counsel with Commerce Bancshares Inc. Today I am offered the opportunity to handle a wide variety of matters for our company, and that variety of work is one of the many reasons I love my job. While I am not handling criminal work or spending much time in the courtroom, meeting the challenge of handling a variety of matters began in the Legal Aid Clinic.


Tanya Rodecker Wendt, L’05
Deacy & Deacy LLP | Kansas City, Missouri

I was part of the Legal Aid Clinic during the 2004-2005 academic year. I feel like I gained so much from the Legal Aid Clinic, from appearing in court, to preparing documents, to meeting with clients. It provided me my first real-life experiences of being a litigator, and it gave me a venue to apply the skills I was learning about in my litigation classes. I also value the friendships I made with members of my class who I had not otherwise crossed paths with during our first two years of law school, some of whom are still close friends today. The Clinic is certainly one of my favorite memories of law school.

I’d like to share a story: I had a woman come in who was wanting a divorce. We went through our intake and proceeded to prepare papers for her. The next time she came in, she had a newborn baby with her. The fact that she was pregnant was never mentioned in our prior meetings and conversations. So we politely commented that we would have to make changes to the papers to account for the child, to which the client replied, “Oh, my husband is not the father.” To her, the child was not a factor in the divorce because they had been separated for some time. Little did she know, Kansas law presumes the husband to be the father, so it did matter. What is crazy is this happened to me a second time! A woman came in requesting a divorce, came back to sign the papers with a newborn, but the child was not her husband’s so she thought it did not affect the divorce proceedings. And no, I was not oblivious to their mid-sections. Both of these women carried their babies in such a way that it was not obvious that they were pregnant. After that, we changed the divorce intake form to ask if the client was currently pregnant. Lesson learned.

Cold brew, Connect Four & Clinton Lake: Treat yo self to a study break

Alisha Peters, KU Law student

Law school can be overwhelming, and a 3L recently told me that feeling never really goes away.  So you need to make time to have fun. Treat yo self.  As an added bonus, the mental break will probably make you more productive when you hit the books again.

Although this list barely scratches the surface, here are some of my favorite places in Lawrence and Kansas City when I need a study break:

Alchemy Coffee and Bake House (Lawrence)
*happy sigh* You think you’ve had good cold brew before, but no. The cold brew coffee at Alchemy is amazing. And don’t worry, you can buy the nectar of the gods in a growler to fuel your caffeine addiction.  The location is also convenient for grabbing coffee and walking around Mass Street.

Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters (KC)
As soon as you step in the door, you feel like you’re in the Pacific Northwest. This place has great coffee, cocktails, cozy ambience and even a cereal bar. So put on your lumberjack flannel, order a drink and be prepared to want to stay all day.

23rd Street Brewery (Lawrence)
My small section goes here regularly for $1 beers during happy hour.

Up-Down (KC)
Retro arcade games, a rooftop patio and giant Jenga/Connect Four. It’s like being a kid again, but with drinking. Need I say more?

Green Lady Lounge (KC)
This bar has a speak-easy vibe with live jazz music every night of the year.

Ruins Pub (KC)
This pub is low-key awesome. It has a self-pour beer wall, Hungarian-inspired food, trivia nights and live shows. Some nights the DJ plays only ’90s through early 2000s hip hop/R&B. It’s a blast, although some of you may be too young to fully appreciate the school-dance throwback!

The Dusty Bookshelf (Lawrence)
Something about the smell of used books is just good for the soul. This is a quaint used bookstore on Mass Street complete with comfy chairs and a roaming cat.

River Market (KC)
A KC neighborhood filled with restaurants, coffee shops and an open-air market year-round.  I recommend buying spices at Al Habishi Market, drinking boba tea at Dragonfly and shopping at the pop-up flea markets.

Union Station (KC)
Allow me to geek out for a minute and confess how much I love Union Station. The building is over 100 years old and is absolutely beautiful, especially during the holidays. Pierpont’s at Union Station, a steak and seafood restaurant, has one of the coolest bars I’ve ever seen. If you want to dress up and splurge on fancy cocktails, this is a great place for it.

There’s also an event space for traveling museum exhibits, an extreme-screen movie theater, a science museum, planetarium, escape room and a stage for live theater. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, embrace your inner Sheldon Cooper and take the train somewhere.

Clinton Lake (Lawrence)
Located right outside of Lawrence, Clinton Lake is one of my favorite spots. In addition to boating and paddle sports, you can hike, camp, picnic, play disc golf and hang out on the “beach” (it’s Kansas; we take what we can get). It’s also far enough from town to make it a great place to watch meteor showers. The Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center on campus rents kayaks, paddleboards, canoes, bikes and camping equipment, so it’s really easy to take advantage of lake activities.

Alisha Peters is a 1L and KU Law Student Ambassador from McPherson, Kansas.

Tips from a departing 3L

With graduation just a few months away, 3L Sophia Dinkel took a break from post-law school planning to offer words of wisdom to future Jayhawk lawyers-in-training. 

As a 3L departing from law school in May, here are a few tips that I have picked up throughout the years.

  1. Get to know professors interested in the work you are interested in. They are great, very knowledgeable and will often times help you get a job.
  2. Take classes you enjoy. Enjoyable classes make the work much easier.
  3. Get to know your classmates! They are wonderful people and may also help you get a job.
  4. Make friends! The people in your class are the ones who will get you through the ups and the downs of law school.
  5. Do a clinic or two. They are good opportunities to get real-world experience.
  6. Be open. Your ideas about what you want to be when you grow up may change. Embrace it. You can be any kind of lawyer you want.
  7. Don’t pick a legal field for the money; pick one because you find it fascinating.
  8. Go to law school events! They are fun and a good way to meet other law students. Remember, they are going to help you get jobs. 😉
  9. Maintain a hobby. Law school is a lot of work, but find or maintain a hobby that keeps you sane. It will help your mental health and give you something interesting to talk to employers about.
  10. Join an organization you are interested in. Don’t join organizations for resume builders.
  11. If you see a program or event or opportunity that interests you, do it.
  12. Apply to that job, even if it seems like a far fetched plan. You never know what an employer is looking for. It could turn into the best job you’ve ever had.
  13. Find your study zone, whether it is at home, the library, a coffee shop. Find the place where you study best
  14. Don’t eat pizza every night. While it is tempting (law school events always have pizza), you will regret it later.
  15. Visit Career Services. They are great. Make them your friends and refer back to #3.
  16. Buy the law school gear. Its cool to sport it around town.
  17. You will make it through 1L year. We all did it, and you will too!
  18. Go to a law school where you feel comfortable. KU Law has a great laid back culture and is the perfect place to call home.
  19. Go to the firm meet-and-greets. It is always good to get your name out there and meet new people!
  20. Take care of your mental health, and practice good mental health tactics. Refer back to #9.
  21. Be open to new and different classes and experiences. You may just find something you love.
  22. Don’t just resume build.
  23. Use your resources! This could include study groups, professors, research librarians, online resources, etc.
  24. Do that interview! Even if it is just for practice.
  25. Use Jayhawk nation to help you find a job or get that introduction. They are great people and love KU Law.

— Sophia Dinkel is a 3L and KU Law Student Ambassador from Norman, Oklahoma.

Always supporting students, retired professor creates scholarship

Professor Emeritus Bill Westerbeke

Professor Bill Westerbeke has a straightforward reason for giving to KU Law: “The school and its students have been good to me,” he said. “I should pay it back.”

He followed that philosophy while teaching in Green Hall, contributing more than $57,000 over his 43-year career. A year after retiring from the classroom, he’s still going strong. Westerbeke has pledged $30,000 to create the William Westerbeke Scholarship at KU Law.

Known for his accessibility to students, Westerbeke won a number of teaching and mentoring awards at KU, including the law school’s Moreau Award for Student Counseling in 1987 and the university’s Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence in 2006.

His legacy lives on in the many careers he helped launch, the countless golf games he improved, and the dry wit and sharp humor that made his students and colleagues smile. He’s happy to extend that legacy with scholarship support for future Jayhawk lawyers.

“Students are good people. They’re fun,” Westerbeke said. “They make you feel younger than you are.”

To contribute to the fund in Professor Westerbeke’s honor, follow the link below and designate “William Westerbeke Scholarship” in the “Other Purpose” field.

Make a gift

Suiting up, gaining confidence

Rayven Garcia

Legal Aid Clinic teaches student ‘how to be a lawyer’

My almost three years at KU Law have been less than perfect, but I would not change my experience for anything. As my time in law school slowly comes to an end, I would like to discuss one of the best experiences I have had at KU Law: the Legal Aid Clinic. When I started law school, I was determined to be a corporate lawyer who never saw the inside of a courtroom. But during an internship I realized that was no longer true. I wanted to assist people in court. I wanted to appear in front of a judge and negotiate with prosecutors. Once I realized that, I applied for the Legal Aid Clinic. Lucky for me, Professors Melanie DeRousse and Meredith Shnug believed I would be a good legal intern.

In the Clinic I have learned something that the rest of law school essentially does not teach you: how to be a lawyer. Along the way, I also discovered how to manage my anxiety, step out of my comfort zone and appreciate how important it is to work in a friendly and caring environment.

Anxiety

The first time I had to appear in court, I was a nervous wreck. I arrived an hour before the hearing because I knew I would need to calm my nerves. Soon, the moment came for me to appear before the judge, and guess what? Nothing bad happened. Since then I have appeared in front of a judge at least a dozen times, and not once has anything gone wrong. I have survived each appearance and chipped away at my anxiety and fear. I have the Legal Aid Clinic to thank for that.

Comfort Zone

Beyond gaining confidence in the courtroom, the Legal Aid Clinic has helped me step out of my comfort zone in other ways. In the past, I probably would have never considered trying to help change a local policy. But here I am, helping. The Clinic has started researching juvenile shackling with an eye toward figuring out what we can do about the issue. I never would have thought of tackling or pursuing a cause like that if it weren’t for the Legal Aid Clinic.

Friendly and Caring Work Atmosphere

Legal Aid Clinic internsLegal work can be stressful, but the lawyers at my internship last summer were friendly and helpful. They created a calming atmosphere that I feared would not be possible in the Legal Aid Clinic, with competitive law students as interns. That has not been the case. Working in the Legal Aid office is the best part of my week. Almost every time I walk in, I’m greeted with a smile and friendly “Good morning, Rayven” from Barb Wrigley, which starts my day off great. I have worked with two amazing supervising attorneys and some of the most inspiring law students in Green Hall.

The Legal Aid Clinic has given me the opportunity to put on my lawyer suit, shed all my doubts about becoming an advocate and know that coming to law school was the right path for me.

— Rayven Garcia is a 3L and KU Law Student Ambassador from Tucson, Arizona.

Help Mobilize KU Law’s Legal Aid Clinic
Legal problems have no regard for deadlines or convenience, and KU Law’s Legal Aid Clinic is ready to mobilize. It can assemble its army of student volunteers at a moment’s notice. As the Legal Aid Clinic celebrates its 50th anniversary, please consider donating to help the Clinic spring into action when the community needs it most. Gifts of any size will get us one step closer to our $5,000 goal!

MAKE A GIFT

Reflections from a departing 3L

Allison Collins Dessert

As I write this blog, I have just 33 days left of law school (not that I’m counting). Yes, you can graduate in December of your third year. Be a summer starter — it pays off in many ways. Take a few intersession courses, and voila! You too can be the envy of your class come winter break.

I know the number of days I have left not because I cannot wait for it to be over. I love school. I’d happily hide here forever—especially if they would bring in a coffee bar. I know the number of days left because finishing my law degree will be the single greatest worldly accomplishment of my life.  Society makes a big deal out of high school graduations—more because it’s a rite of passage, I suppose. But this — the earning of my Juris Doctor — is an accomplishment worth savoring. Primarily because of the emotional roller coaster that law school puts you through. It will test not only your intellectual strength but also your belief in yourself. If there is any insecurity or doubt, law school has a way of reaching in, pulling it out and slapping it down on the table — forcing you to face it or be consumed by it. Does this sound dramatic? Well, it is. Like the burning away of anything that will no longer be useful to you.

There will be highs and lows in law school. Enjoy the highs and have perspective about the lows. On the good days, relish your victories. Let them guide you to an area of practice or service that will allow those strengths to shine. There are many different kinds of attorneys and many different ways to help people with your degree. Find the way and the path that brings you satisfaction and joy. Celebrate your fellow classmates’ victories. Do not be intimidated by their greatness, but instead learn from it and draw from it.

On the days when you feel weak, know that you have shown great courage by even stepping foot through the doors of Green Hall. Most people would never put themselves in a position to be challenged the way that you have chosen to be. And with that challenge comes strife. But your perseverance through that strife will give you a strength that could not have come any other way. And that strength is what will make you a fine attorney.

So, farewell Green Hall. Hopefully the fire you put me through produced a little gold.

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist. That is all.
— Oscar Wilde

Allison Collins Desert is a graduating 3L and KU Law Student Ambassador from Lawrence.

Legal Aid in Tanzania

Paeten Denning and TAWLA colleagues

In 2013 I made my first trip to Tanzania on a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship. Not only was this my first trip outside of the United States, but it was also my first experience speaking Swahili outside of the comforts of my classroom. I was terrified that I would only last one week. After traveling around to different cities and visiting with community groups, NGOs and policymakers, my nerves quickly went away and my love for East Africa and my passion for women and children’s rights began to grow.

After leaving Tanzania, I could not get back fast enough. However, from the time I attended law school with my dad when I was in second grade, I always knew that law school was in my future. My dad was a non-traditional law student with two young daughters. I attended class with him everyday after he picked me up from school. I was even called on once! After my first semester of law school, I spent the month of December researching and applying for organizations that would hopefully bring me back to East Africa. Finally, in January I received an email from the executive director of the Tanzania Women Lawyer’s Association (TAWLA). After interviewing in both Swahili and English, she offered me an internship where I would focus on custody issues and land right issues for women.

In July I finished my internship with Federal Magistrate Judge K. Gary Sebelius of the District of Kansas and hopped on a plane to Tanzania two days later. After arriving in Tanzania, with my baggage lost, I started my work. TAWLA consists of five offices in Tanzania, in the cities of Dodoma, Mwanza, Tanga, Arusha and Dar es Salaam. It is the largest legal aid organization in the country focusing on women and children’s rights. I worked in the Arusha office alongside five practicing attorneys. While the jobs at TAWLA are highly sought after, only two of the five attorneys are paid. All other members volunteer.

TAWLA office in Arusha

TAWLA’s Arusha office.

On top of regular budget restrictions that legal aid faces, TAWLA also functions with just two working computers, one testy printer and limited office supplies. Power outages or printer repairs often delayed our turnaround time for clients. My first week I was amazed by the amount of clients the attorneys would see in a day, sometimes as many as 20 for just a five-woman operation. Issues ranged from a village leader trying to take a widow’s land, to trying to remove a 15-year-old girl from her parents’ custody because they were trying to keep her from school in order to marry her off and reap the benefits of her bride price.

Throughout my five weeks at TAWLA I not only noticed the lack of funding, but also the extreme poverty and barriers that our clients were facing. TAWLA typically charges an attorney fee of 2,500 Tanzania shillings (around one American dollar). However, most clients could not afford it or even pay for their transportation to TAWLA. Not only did the fee normally get waived, but our volunteer attorneys–who were making no salary at all–would often pay or contribute to our clients’ transportation fares.

I was in awe of the attorneys’ generosity not only for their clients, but also for each other and myself. About two weeks into my trip I was rushed to a clinic on the instruction of our executive director, where I found out I had typhoid fever. When the doctors told me they wanted me to stay overnight so someone could watch me because I was living alone, one of the attorneys offered to take me in.

Denning at TAWLA office.

Denning on her first day of work at TAWLA.

After getting over my typhoid fever and studying the Tanzanian legal system, I began working with my own clients. I did intakes in Swahili and wrote affidavits for land issues and custody petitions. While it took awhile for clients to embrace me as their legal advocate, their confidence in me and my confidence in myself quickly began to grow. I went to Tanzania for an internship and left with not only an amazing experience, but also invaluable friends.

If you are looking to pursue a career in human rights and want to work abroad here are some tips I learned along the way:

  1. Language is key when working with clients. Speaking clients’ native language not only helps them feel comfortable, but also helps them realize that you are passionate about your work.
  2. Be aware of the culture you are walking into. Understanding the culture will allow you to not only understand your clients better, but also understand your role and what you should or should not be doing
  3. Talk to Career Services about funding opportunities.
  4. Have knowledge of the legal system you are working in.
  5. Make sure you do extensive medical research beforehand (I learned this one the hard way).
  6. Cast a wide net and do not give up when applying for international internships.
  7. Most important, know that you are there to learn and try to take in as much as you can.

-Paeten Denning is a 2L from Overland Park, Kansas.

Former teacher, stronger lawyer


Jake Turner, back row second from right, with his Spirit Award-winning Bluebook Relays team, Guns ‘n’ Rosenberg

Law student’s first career taught importance of client relationships, being prepared for anything

As a young child, I dreamed of being a veterinarian. Then I set my sights on the U.S. presidency. By the time I got to college, I had decided on a more practical career: teaching.

My family always thought I should go to law school, but I stubbornly dismissed the idea.

Professor of Sociology was the title I wanted, so I spent my time in undergrad at the University of Tulsa preparing to apply to graduate sociology programs. I started having second thoughts during my junior year. Could I really commit to studying sociology my entire life? I wanted to live in the Kansas City area. Would I be able to find a job at a local college? My life plan seemed to be devolving before me. But I still wanted to teach, so I decided to try it at the high school level.

KU Law student Jake TurnerI started my teaching career in Sliven, Bulgaria through the Fulbright program, helping sophomore through senior English language learners perfect their grasp of the language. I tutored students, taught them slang and empowered them to become stronger writers. It was challenging to live and teach in a foreign country, but I grew from adapting to new situations and understanding new cultures. I never knew what my students would say or what would happen in Bulgaria, but I learned to go with the flow.

When I returned to the United States, I continued my teaching career at Hogan Preparatory Academy in Kansas City, Missouri. I taught junior and senior mathematics, from AP statistics to pre-calculus. I built strong relationships with my students and learned from them, probably as much as they learned from me. I learned the importance of being passionate about what I teach: When I was excited about a subject, my students got excited, too.

Leaving Hogan after two years was difficult because I loved my students and colleagues. But I decided that teaching high school, while rewarding, was not something I could see myself doing for my entire life. That’s when I applied to KU Law. Although law is my second career, I’ve found my niche and think my teaching experience will make me a stronger lawyer. I know the importance of creating relationships with my clients and being prepared for any situation.

KU Law also gives me the opportunity to continue teaching. As a 2L, I am a teaching assistant for the first-year Lawyering Skills course. Once a week, I get to return to the classroom, teach lessons and then hold office hours to help my students. I think I’ve been able to cultivate a love of learning legal citation with my students. Last month, they took third place at the annual Bluebook Relays legal citation competition. More importantly, they also won the coveted award for most spirited team. I want my students to love what they’re doing, and I could not be prouder of them for doing just that.

Jake Turner is a 2L and KU Law Student Ambassador from Mission, Kansas.

Life is like a giant law school class

Colin Finnegan

Law school is an all-encompassing endeavor. Although challenging, it can be incredibly gratifying and rewarding. Law school really makes you think. There is liability everywhere. The world is a walking torts book.

Sometimes I miss the old days where I could walk through a grocery store and not wonder if someone slipping on the water near the entrance would be sufficient to find the store guilty of negligence. I miss the days where I could drive through Missouri on my back to Illinois without wondering if Missouri would have personal jurisdiction over me.

Sometimes I escape law school by watching television shows. Law school has managed to weasel its way into that aspect of my life as well. I can’t watch Game of Thrones without wondering if The Night King killing the Khaleesi’s Dragon would be trespass to chattels, battery, or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

I know tort law states that parents generally aren’t liable for their child’s torts, but could the Khaleesi be sued for the tortuous conduct of her adult dragons now that they are acting as adults and on her behalf? The Khaleesi probably has much bigger problems to worry about, but I’m more concerned about her possible tort claims against the Night King than I am about her conquest for the Iron Throne.

Sometimes Game of Thrones can be a little too hardcore for me, so I’ll watch The Office. Nope, law school applies there too. Was Michael Scott’s Golden Ticket idea a legally binding contract? Was Dwight guilty of battery when he sprayed mace in Roy’s eyes? How about the time when Jim put Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O, that has to be trespass to conversion, right?

Law school has changed me for the better. I may not be able to completely enjoy television shows anymore, but at least I can tell you a little something about the Article Two of The Uniform Commercial Code. I may not be able to tell you what happened in the news yesterday, but I can tell you all about Market Share Liability.

In all seriousness, law school has been a blast so far. I’ve never been so challenged academically. And although it can be stressful and frustrating, the people I’ve met and fun times I’ve had make it all worth it.

-Colin Finnegan is a 1L from Morris, Illinois.

Visiting Scholar Spotlight: Xiu “Monica” Huang

Xiu "Monica" Huang

Five questions with Xiu “Monica” Huang, Visiting Scholar from China

1. Why did you choose to study at KU Law? How did you learn about our program and establish contact?

KU offers world-class education and enjoys a strong international reputation. It welcomes students and scholars like me from all over the world to pursue their goals. And I learned and believe that KU Law will provide me with a supportive and quality academic environment for conducting legal research.

I learned about the program on the KU Law website while I was applying for the Visiting Students Program funded by the China Scholarship Council (CSC). As a Chinese Ph.D. candidate with a great interest in Water Law, I was so lucky to find and read Prof. John Peck’s profile on the KU Law website. I learned that he is a Water Law expert with abundant academic knowledge and practical experience. I emailed him to explore the possibility of being a visiting student, conducting my research under his guidance.

2. What are your professional goals for your time at KU Law? What will be your next career step after your time here? 

My professional goals at KU Law include studying American law, conducting Sino-U.S. comparative legal research in the specific area of ecological compensation in inter-basin water transferring, and preparing my doctoral dissertation on Environmental Law from a Marxist perspective. I hope to earn my doctoral degree and obtain a faculty position in China after my time here.

I believe my experience at KU Law will enable me to conduct comparative legal research and analysis between Sino law and American law and introduce the latest legal developments in U.S. Water Law to China, which will definitely play an important role in the pursuit of my legal and academic career.

Xiu "Monica" Huang at home in China3. How does the academic and research environment at KU Law differ from your home culture / institution?

At KU Law, teachers are always encouraging students to make comments or ask questions about the content of the lesson. Students here are very self-confident, always willing and positive to express their opinions and thoughts. Teachers here care about every student in their classes including the auditing ones. They guide students in terms of forming an effective learning style, doing plenty of readings before the class, absorbing knowledge and solving problems during the class, and continuing further research work after class. I appreciate the wonderful presentations given by the students in some classes. The Wheat Law Library provides abundant research resources as well as comfortable conditions. Areas for cooperative work, discussion, and quiet, independent work are well designed. All the faculty here are gentle or graceful, always ready to give a hand and solve the problem with high efficiency.

4. What are your favorite things about Lawrence? What about home do you miss the most?

Lawrence is a wonderful place. I enjoy its quietness and peace very much. Blue skies and white clouds can easily be seen. The air is fresh and clean, though a little bit dry. The weather here is totally different from my hometown of Wuhan, but quite similar to Beijing where my families live. Most people I meet in Lawrence are fairly friendly, warm-hearted and willing to help. I am deeply impressed with their politeness and consideration of others. I have been in Lawrence for no more than two months, so I guess there must be lots of things for me to explore and experience here.  I believe I could find more and more favorite things about Lawrence.

As I am alone here, the toughest thing for me to conquer is separation from my family, relatives and friends in my homeland. I miss my parents and siblings in Wuhan a lot. Who I miss most are my adorable 2-year-old baby girl and hardworking husband in Beijing. I feel sorry or even guilty leaving them so far away, especially when she or he gets sick.

5. What advice would you offer to other scholars who may want to do research abroad?

As far as I am concerned, if you decide to do research abroad, you’d better get yourself ready in terms of foreign language, research proposal and so on. With regard to the foreign language, it is the basic requirement of doing research in a foreign country. First, you have to gain the foreign language skills in listening, reading, writing, speaking and translating. Second, you should set a particular academic goal and make a detailed research proposal during your time abroad. With the goal, you could overcome the difficulties with your will and mind. You would be able to carry out your work step by step according to the plan without disturbance and confusion. Third, find a university and a school which could provide you with an excellent academic environment and resources, with professors capable of offering you wisdom, knowledge and support, and with other helpful faculty members. Last but not least,  even though your time and energy abroad are rather limited, it’s necessary and helpful to audit some classes not just to learn, but also to experience the foreign language teaching and learning style.

Xiu “Monica” Huang is a Ph.D. scholar at Huazhong University of Science & Technology.  While at KU, she is conducting research on the legalities of water allocation and usage in China.