Making an Impact: Working in the International Human Rights Practicum

Today I am hosting a guest post by BC Law student Marija Tesla about her experience in BC Law’s new International Human Rights Practicum.


I have taken many international law and human rights courses at BC Law, and have loved them all: International Law with Professor David Wirth; International Human Rights: The Law of War, War Crimes, and Genocide (or what is more commonly known as humanitarian law) with Professor Allen Ryan; Immigration Law and the Human Rights Interdisciplinary Seminar with Professor Daniel Kanstroom; International Legal Research with Professor Sherry Chen. I came to law school because this is my calling in life, and every experience I got here (after the slog of the very provincial 1L experience), further proved to me that this is what I was meant to do. 

All those courses were amazing, but what I have loved most of all is my experience in the International Human Rights Practicum with Professor Daniela Urosa. 

I loved working on the amicus brief that we submitted to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) with Professor Urosa and my amicus partner, Nadia Bouquet, because I got to think about and analyze a technical area of international human rights law while having an opportunity to be creative and to think outside the box (I wrote an earlier post about our visit to the IACtHR; read it here). My aim in everything I do is to challenge the status quo and to focus on how the law can challenge systems of oppression and create societies in which every person can and does live a life of dignity. Human rights law is aspirational and sometimes it creates standards that are not at all lived on the ground by the people who are most marginalized in our societies. Yet, if those of us who dare to remain idealists in a world often run by realists stop aspiring and working towards creating a more just and equitable world, then where will we end up as a collective? What I love about human rights law is that it cares deeply about individual life while caring about the collective. In a world of great economic inequality, environmental and racial injustice, human rights law is not just necessary, it is a difference of not just life and death, but a difference of what it means to live and to be alive.

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Narrative of a Real-Life Courtroom Scene

The following is a reflection based on my experience observing a Zoom hearing in housing court. Attending this hearing was part of an assignment for my clinic, the COVID-19 Relief Housing Clinic. The case I observed is not that of a client of our firm, but simply that of a litigant who virtually appeared in Zoom court that morning.

When I watch courtroom scenes on television and in movies, I am captivated by the persuasive oration, surprise evidence, and yes, the juicy drama. Superficially, attending a status hearing in Housing Court via Zoom was not so different from watching a televised courtroom experience. After all, I opened up my laptop and sat down at my desk to watch the scenes unfold through my screen. But the experience was nothing like watching a media portrayal of a courtroom drama. Because this wasn’t Netflix, and the spectacle wasn’t written with the sole function of my entertainment. That morning, I left feeling the opposite of entertained. It’s a lot less fun when the characters aren’t just reciting their scripts on a stage. It’s hard to find enjoyment in the unfolding of real problems of real people, especially when you can sense that there may not be a happy ending.

In my eyes, the protagonist of today’s narrative was the defendant tenant (let’s call her J), setting forth her case for numerous civil damages against her landlord, C. Particularly, she was experiencing various issues with heat, both in a bedroom and with her oven. This made me remember my own apartment last winter, when the heat was stuck at 64 degrees for less than a day. I was angry, less so because the cold was intolerable, and more so because I feel I have an entrenched right to this utility at all times.

J was situated in her apartment, wearing what looked like a bathrobe. She had attended the hearing after getting three hours of sleep after her overnight shift at work. She looked stressed and overwhelmed. It was like the frustration I feel when I have to stay up late for RA duty, but still have an 8 am class the next day.

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The Covid Relief Housing Clinic

The one year-mark of the Covid-19 shutdown that forced BC Law to fundamentally change its operations came and went last week. This pandemic-focused world has created realities that none of us could have ever predicted, simultaneously shutting doors and forcing new opportunities to emerge in their wake. The only thing that has remained constant over the past year is the uncertainty of what the near-future will bring.

BC Law has done its best to adapt. A unique example of this is the emergence of the Covid Relief Housing Clinic earlier this semester. What began as a Summer 2020 effort to help people in the greater Boston area receive unemployment benefits has transformed to a semester-long clinic opportunity, addressing urgent legal issues regarding housing and upholding the original goal to meet the timely legal needs of those within our community. 

I spoke with Professor Ana Rivera, who runs the clinic, to discuss the creation and utilization of this new addition to BC Law’s Experiential Learning Center.

1. When and how did the idea emerge for this clinic?

The idea for a clinic focused exclusively on housing came to me in the fall 2020, when the federal and local moratoria on evictions were scheduled to expire.  There was a great concern that the number of eviction matters would spike exponentially, as workers in the retail, hotel, and restaurant industries continued to struggle either to find new work or to receive unemployment insurance benefits. It seemed right from a social justice perspective to divert resources to this particular problem.  I contacted WATCH CDC, a family, housing, and adult education advocacy organization in Waltham, MA, with which our Civil Litigation Clinic has collaborated in the past, and proposed a partnership with BC Law to identify and provide legal assistance to Waltham tenants facing housing insecurity as a result of Covid-19.  Having such an intimate relationship with tenants in Waltham, WATCH, through its executive director Daria Gere, was acutely aware of the need and embraced the opportunity.  With the support of Professors Judy McMorrow and Renee Jones, the idea was realized.

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Gentleness, A Silent Strength

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” – Saint Francis de Sales

In the law, and especially in litigation, it can seem like being gentle has no place. The adversarial system is set up like a zero-sum game, and it can feel like softness is in direct contrast with winning in the courtroom. However, in a profession where we lawyers are painted as aggressive and combative, perhaps gentleness is a silent strength, particularly in our relationships with our clients.

I’m in the COVID-19 Housing Relief Clinic this semester, and we spent this first week in trainings. During these training sessions, we conducted role-play situations, both interviewing and counseling “clients.” In our training, the “clients” were just our supervising professors and the situations were merely hypothetical. Yet, these simulations reflected the very types of cases and clients that, as student attorneys at the BC Legal Services Lab, we might see this semester. For example, some of these scenarios included a wife trying to keep custody of her son in a divorce case with her potentially abusive husband or a landlord using unjust practices to force evictions.

At first, I wondered how useful this training would be. After all, how much is there to learn about just talking to clients? Turns out the answer, is a lot.

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Innocence Program: Inspiring the Fight for Justice

Over the decade and a half since its start, The Boston College Innocence Program has amassed an astonishing reputation for its work in innocence advocacy and wrongful convictions. Bolstering an impressive record, BCIP both represents innocent individuals and works with policymakers regarding legislative reform, quite literally changing lives every step of the way.

This year in particular, BCIP has secured an impressive amount of exonerations and releases, using new evidence and instances of misconduct, with three major victories in 2020 alone:

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My Most Valuable BC Law Experience

I’m pleased to host a guest post from 3L Jared Friedberg, who spent some time last year working in BC’s Immigration Clinic.

With the semester winding down and people thinking about next year, I wanted to provide a recommendation: enroll in the immigration clinic. I spent my 2L year in the immigration clinic, and as I look back on my time at BC, it was the most impactful experience that I have had in law school.

The purpose of a clinic is to give students the opportunity to work directly with clients. In the immigration clinic, that means visits to immigration court, detention facilities, the clients’ homes, and anywhere else that the case requires you to go. Over the course of two semesters, I had five clients. While representing our clients, my classmates and I met their families, friends, and coworkers. Some of them lived a few streets from where I grew up and some lived across the world.

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How To Be A Lawyer While You’re Still in Law School

As future law students, I’m sure you’ve all heard the rumors and stereotypes about law schools. They run the gamut — from the terrifying and incorrect (“EVERYONE IS SO COMPETITIVE AND NO ONE IS FRIENDLY AND IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO GET AN A YOUR FIRST YEAR”), to the hilariously accurate (“Law school is high school for adults”), to the tongue-in-cheek (see, for example, Thought Catalog’s take on the 19 People You Meet in Law School). But the stereotype that most stuck out to and worried me as a prospective student was what I’d like to call the Myth of the Library Lockdown. That is, by heading off to law school, you are essentially signing yourself up for three years of good ol’ book learning, tied to a library carrel, buried under 200 pounds of Supreme Court opinions and study aids.

Don’t get me wrong. As a former English major, I can get down with the heavy reading. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and I used to be great pals; I can handle my fair share of tiny print. But that’s not why I wanted to come to law school. I taught for three years after college, came to law school with a really specific focus, and knew I wanted to get right to making an impact in real people’s lives. I was really nervous that law school was going to feel like a fruitless and frustrating gesture, a means to an end I had to just get through in order to do the work I am passionate about. But that’s because I didn’t know about clinics.

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