Teaching the Immigrant Rights Practicum at University of Richmond School of Law

As we enter summer I’ve started to reflect on this recent school year and the course that I teach at the University of Richmond School of Law: The Immigrant Rights Practicum.

What is the Immigrant Rights Practicum?

The class is a mix between clinical experience and a standard law school class. UR Law School doesn’t have a full-blown immigration clinic, but the practicum course in some ways offers the best of both worlds of classroom instruction and practical training.

I’ve been teaching the course now for about two years. This all started as a result of my work mentoring law students through a legal clinical program at the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Due to some successes through that program, and positive feedback to the local law school through my mentorship of law students there, I was offered the opportunity to teach this class at University of Richmond.

It has been a rewarding experience to return to my alma mater and share some of the knowledge I’ve gained through the actual practice of law. It’s also fun to work with law students, talk about law and policy surrounding the current immigration debate, and play an active role in training more attorneys to help immigrants.

Who can take the class?

The class is offered in the spring semester, and is open to 2Ls and 3Ls. There aren’t any specific prerequisites, but I’m finding that students who have taken the school’s immigration law class, or who have participated with other immigration-related extracurricular activities tend to perform better.

So aside from passing the first year of law school, the class doesn’t have any specific requirements, but I do generally ask for a copy of each student’s resume before the class begins just so I know everyone’s experience level.

The class is limited to 4 to 8 students a semester.

What do students learn in the class?

The Immigrant Rights Practicum is different from the standard immigration law class at UR for a lot of reasons. But I think the primary reason is focus.

The Immigrant Rights Practicum is focused on deportation defense and helping clients work through the immigration maze in less than ideal situations, whereas the primary immigration class is focused more on standard immigration processes without the prospect of removal proceedings.

We read and discuss case law, analyzing recent opinions of the Board of Immigration Appeals. We also give a primary focus to 4th circuit precedents, though some interesting developments in the interpretation of asylum law and deportation defense are happening in other circuits as well.

My purpose is to give a practical course experience geared towards representing immigrants inside the 4th circuit.

One final key aspect to the class is the fact that I keep my eye on trends in intersection of immigration and constitutional law in the news. Several years ago, my firm and I made a splash in the news when we filed a case about the detention of immigrants in the Eastern District of Virginia, and ultimately settled.

Since I’ve been on the front lines of the issues of immigration and constitutional rights for immigrants, I’m able to give my students a perspective they can’t really find elsewhere.

What else do students do in the Immigrant Rights Practicum?

We represent actual clients.

This is something that I love about the Immigrant Rights Practicum. I started my law firm because of pro bono service, and I’m glad that I’m able to keep a steady flow of pro bono cases in what I do from year to year.

Typically, a few months before the spring semester gets under way, I choose some cases from my existing workload and approach a few clients about the idea of law student representation.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (the immigration courts) allows law students to represent clients in removal proceedings, provided that representation is pro bono.

It feels good to be able to hand pick cases of deserving clients, and give them pro bono representation through this course. The response from students and clients has been excellent.

Students are grateful for the chance to represent a real client and make a difference in the lives of the people they represent. Clients are grateful that what once seemed out of their reach–affordable legal representation–is now provided by law students, supervised by an attorney they trust.

The class has been a win-win-win, for me, my clients, and my students.

Past Successes

The class has always been about more than just a class. It’s about the clients.

It’s always rewarding when students represent clients in immigration court, and then win. It doesn’t happen all the time, and during the Obama years, DHS attorneys would frequently move for administrative closure when a law student prepared a case.

It’s a fact that law students, nervous as they are, may actually prepare a case better than a seasoned attorney. They definitely have more time to put into each case than the average practicing attorney as well.

But as the years go on, and I’ve had the opportunity to sit next to several law students as they represent clients, the victory is sweeter when a student wins.

The Future of the Practicum

I’ve taught the practicum for two years, and I’ve been invited back to teach a third. It’s an uplifting experience, and one I plan to keep doing as long as they’ll let me.

Now that I’ve got a couple of years teaching the class under my belt, I expect to tighten that belt a little in future years, so the class may get even more challenging than it has been in the past. Immigration law is developing at a rapid pace as it remains in the news, and so the need for a course like continues to grow.