Susan DeBusk, L'13, Danielle Wingfield, L'13, and Laura Maughan, L'14, are currently handling twelve family law cases, including a juvenile case in the foster care system, contested and uncontested divorces, and a custody case with the Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic.
Established in 2008, the Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic is a full-year course for second and third year law students. Under the supervision of Associate Professor of Law and Director Dale Cecka, law students represent families and children in the City of Richmond with a variety of legal needs, including abuse and neglect, divorce, custody, child in need of supervision/services (CHINS), public benefits, housing, and domestic violence.
DeBusk said she was interested in participating in the clinic because she's working on completing a certificate in family law. She explained, "This is a way to get hands-on practical learning through the school." She said the clinic's year-long process allows students to work with clients for longer than just a semester. Comparing the clinical experience to an internship, DeBusk said internships may not offer the same responsibilities. "With the clinic, you're in charge of it all." She said the clinic was a great learning experience because it teaches important skills such as interviewing clients and filing motions.
Wingfield, who is planning to specialize in international family law, said she was interested in attending Richmond Law because of the family law clinic, a unique feature of the school's curriculum. She said, "It's such a great thing that the school offers, not only to the students, but to the community of Richmond. You get the best of both worlds—you're putting yourself in the community, you're helping the community, but you're also really helping yourself as a law student."
For Wingfield, international family law encompasses all of her interests, including working with children, international travel, and law. She has the opportunity to travel to Uruguay this spring. In addition to attending law school, Wingfield is also pursuing a Ph.D. in Leadership, Foundations, and Policy in the School of Education at the University of Virginia.
Both students gained family law experience before joining the clinic in August 2012. DeBusk worked at the National Juvenile Defender Center in Washington last summer, and Wingfield spent the summer working for the Human Rights Advocacy Center in Ghana. She worked with clients on divorce and domestic violence cases and a Supreme Court case regarding the rights of LGBTQ people in Ghana.
Their team has had the opportunity to handle a variety of legal tasks associated with their cases, including filing motions, interviewing clients, meeting with other attorneys, working with Department of Social Services staff, and arguing cases in the Chesterfield, Henrico, and Richmond court systems. Since DeBusk has her third year practice certificate, she can represent their team's clients in court, which adds responsibilities to her caseload. Wingfield added, "We all help her prepare, but ultimately, at the end of the day, she's going to be the one standing in front of the judge."
Family law clinic students have the opportunity to work with Masters of Social Work students at Virginia Commonwealth University. Wingfield said, "We do everything an associate in a small law firm would do, plus we collaborate with M.S.W. students at VCU." M.S.W. students and their professor assist the legal team in recognizing and understanding non-legal barriers through case management, direct assistance with local agencies, and referrals.
DeBusk takes the lead on four of their team's assigned cases, Wingfield takes lead on three cases, and Maughan is lead on five cases. In assuming the role of lead attorney, students are responsible for performing the research on the case and serving as the primary contact with the client. DeBusk added, "It's a really good experience because it really teaches you how to work with clients. You're learning how to file your own motions, file a memo in support of your motions, and it's not something that you've drafted in class—this really matters. If you do it wrong, your client's in trouble."
DeBusk said it was a rewarding experience working with clients in the clinic. "What draws me to family law is being able to help people." She said she strives to do the best she can do during the legal process so that she can help clients to make a new start.
Wingfield said, "I think you have to share that same passion for people and problems, and working with people, to work in family law." She also said it's rewarding to help clients solve real life problems that affect them every day.
Wingfield said she enjoyed working in the family law clinic because it allows students to work with a diverse clientele. "You learn so much, and I think it really helps you grow as an attorney and as a person in general."
DeBusk said she has learned a lot from her cases this past year, and it was rewarding to receive thanks from clients. "At the end of the day, that makes you feel good about what you're doing." Wingfield also said that the skills she has learned at the clinic have been extremely useful. She also said it was rewarding to confirm her desire to become an advocate." I enjoy working for clients who can't speak for themselves or don't have the means to get anyone else to help them."
DeBusk said her clinical experience has been a topic of discussion during job interviews. She said it has been beneficial to be able to talk about her practical experiences, such as interrogatories and court appearances, to potential employers. "It's something that you can really sell yourself on when applying for jobs." Wingfield added, "Even if you're not planning to work in a family law firm, it can help with whatever you decide to do."
Wingfield and DeBusk both said they enjoyed the teamwork aspect of working in the family law clinic. Wingfield said it's important to learn how to work with people, a skill that prepares you for work in a law firm. DeBusk added, "You're learning with other people who are starting at the same point, so you're able to share in the experience. You always have that sounding board, which is really helpful."
The Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic is located at the School of Law's Clinical Law Center and at University of Richmond Downtown, the University's downtown campus located at 626 East Broad Street.