In popular culture, lawyers are not infrequently depicted as motivated primarily by a quest for billable hours. The recent Netflix hit Better Call Saul is an entertaining example of this stereotype.
Reality, of course, is more complex. Stepping inside The University of Tulsa College of Law – one of the Top 100 law schools in the United States – offers myriad instances of people who are committed to using their legal expertise in the cause of social justice and community support. Many of TU Law’s students and faculty members work year after year for the betterment of vulnerable, underserved people in Tulsa and further afield.
A commitment to public service
“TU Law has a long history of public service,” observed Lyn Entzeroth, the dean of the college. “Corporate law and litigation are, certainly, essential elements of students’ preparation. In addition, however, many students and faculty use their legal knowledge and skills to increase access to justice for individuals and groups who face barriers, such as limited economic means.
“While our clinical education program is at the forefront of such training and activity, students also find and create many social justice and community support activities through internships, externships and volunteer projects undertaken by TU Law’s numerous student organizations. I am so proud of the fact that, in 2018, TU Law students contributed 3,752 pro bono and public service hours.”
In this article, we shine a light on five initiatives that showcase various ways TU Law community members are rolling up their sleeves and making a positive difference:
- Project Commutation
- Expungement Expo
- Terry West Civil Legal Clinic
- Immigrant Rights Project
- Assisting refugees and asylum seekers in Mexico
TU Law students have taken part in Project Commutation for the past two years. Spearheaded by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the initiative involves several partners, including TU Law, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the Tulsa County Public Defenders Office and Family & Children’s Services.
Project Commutation arose as a result of the 2016 passage of State Questions 780 and 781, which reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property crimes as misdemeanors. TU Law students’ main tasks were to sort through thousands of pages of records to identify likely candidates for commutation, and then travel to every prison across Oklahoma to meet and develop a plan with those who stood a particularly strong chance of being granted early release. As a result, in 2018, the governor of Oklahoma set 29 inmates free. This year, TU Law students’ Project Commutation efforts contributed to the record-breaking release of nearly 500 prisoners.
“Students at TU Law constantly find ways to give back to our community because they recognize the influence that a helping hand can have on an individual,” remarked Madison Cataudella, the president of TU Law’s Public Interest Board (PIB) student organization. PIB is a student-run organization at TU Law that involves students in community service, public service and pro bono work as they progress through their legal education. Students assist underserved and underrepresented individuals and groups across Tulsa. One of the mainstays of PIB’s community support is getting involved in Tulsa’s Expungement Expo.
For the past three years, Tulsa’s Expungement Expo has delivered information and assistance to people who have been charged with a nonviolent offense in Tulsa County, helping them to determine whether they qualify to have their records expunged. When undertaken outside the expo, this can be an enormously daunting and expensive process.
Students from TU Law’s PIB volunteer at the expo alongside Tulsa attorneys and representatives from community organizations, including the Tulsa County Clerk’s Office, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Tulsa District Attorney’s Office and Still She Rises. TU Law students’ main activities are to help maintain the flow of the hundreds of people who attend by checking them in and steering them toward the correct individuals with whom they need to consult.
“Nothing fills my cup more than pouring into other people,” remarked Cataudella. “I did not get to where I am today without several other people in my life guiding and mentoring me. In turn, I want to be an encouragement and guide to those around me. In fact, many of us went to law school aspiring to help our surrounding communities. The Expungement Expo gives people hope and a renewed view of themselves. It gives a person an opportunity to be defined by more than a single act.”
TU Law’s legal clinics: expanding access to social justice
US News & World Report ranks TU Law’s clinical education program 74th in the country. The college’s clinics prepare students for personally meaningful and socially impactful careers, while expanding access to legal services to Tulsa’s underserved populations.
Terry West Civil Legal Clinic
The most recent addition to this dimension of the college is the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic. Named in honor of TU Law alumnus Terry West (JD ’66), this clinic was made possible by a grant from Sarkeys Foundation. The clinic’s inaugural director is Roni Amit, an international access-to-justice and human rights expert who has worked both in the United States as well as Africa and the Middle East.
In a recent interview, Amit laid out her vision for the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic, which had its grand opening in September 2019 and will officially begin its work in January 2020: “This clinic is intended to make justice real for marginalized people. The promise and potential of legal rights often remain inaccessible to those lacking political and economic capital. I hope to develop the clinic and TU Law as an integral part of the community and an important resource for community members in accessing their legal rights. This engagement will also teach students – who will act as counselors, advocates and problem-solvers for clients – to actively use the law as an instrument for social change.”
Immigrant Rights Project
Another of TU Law’s clinics is the Immigrant Rights Project (IRP), co-directed by Mimi Marton, associate dean of experiential learning, and Robin Sherman. This clinic is a one-semester, six-credit opportunity for students to represent non-citizens in immigration matters. IRP clients include persons seeking asylum in the U.S. as a result of persecution or fear of persecution in their home countries, as well as noncitizen victims of domestic violence and other crimes, unaccompanied noncitizen minors or other noncitizens subject to removal and immigration detention.
In summer 2019, IRP students focused on serving the needs of noncitizen immigrants who were being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Tulsa County Jail. The first two weeks of the clinic were spent introducing the students to immigration law and developing techniques and approaches for interviewing clients. Over the next four weeks, the students held consultations with ICE detainees aimed at clarifying each individual’s circumstances and then counseling them on their various options. IRP students also advocated with ICE officers.
For TU Law student Jared Cannon, “Working in the IRP clinic made me more empathetic. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the current state of immigration, the related laws and the archaic nature of the processes detainees confront.”
Assisting refugees and asylum seekers in Mexico
During the past few years, students involved in TU Law’s clinical education program have journeyed to the Karnes County Residential Center near San Antonio. There, they provided assistance to women and children seeking asylum in the U.S.
In November 2019, Marton, Amit and Clinical Instructor Robin Sherman led a group of students and a Spanish-language interpreter who is a staff member at TU Law across the border to Matamoros, Mexico. There, under a mile from Brownsville, Texas, lies a non-United Nations refugee camp of approximately 2,000 people surrounded by 10,000 more refugees and asylum seekers living in conditions of squalor and violence.
The NGO Lawyers for Good Government paid for the airfare, lodging and most meals for the TU Law group as well as representatives from their partners Domestic Violence Intervention Services and New Sanctuary Tulsa. Each day, the Tulsans crossed the bridge into Mexico, encountering the abjection and despair – in Sherman’s words, “a whole other level of hopelessness” – that infuses the lives of the families residing in the Matamoros camp.
Working steadily throughout each day and evening, the TU Law students conducted in-depth interviews with camp residents. Their main goals were to help them establish what their options were for seeking refugee status in the U.S. and to prepare the documents required at immigration meetings in the U.S. immigration agents’ “tent courts.”
Beyond the value of developing their research and interviewing skills as well as delivering practical guidance for people desperate to escape the harsh conditions of life in Matamoros, Marton noted that the students were able to “bear witness” to the brutality and brokenness of the current refugee and asylum system. “The experience in Mexico also caused them to challenge and rethink their identities as advocates and lawyers,” she remarked. “What, after all, does one’s ‘professional identity’ mean when you are supposed to be helping but encounter a system that is so stacked against success and conditions that are so chaotic and dangerous? What is a lawyer’s role in such a context? These are one type of important question TU Law students grapple with in the course of their involvement with our clinics.”
If public service through the law interests you, consider earning a juris doctor (JD) from The University of Tulsa College of Law. We are a Top 100 law school that’s ranked No. 10 in the nation for job placement and No. 74 for our clinical education program.