For 36 years, the South Royalton Legal Clinic has taught Vermont Law School students how to represent clients by integrating legal substance and procedure with essential practice skills. The clinic's goals have always been two:
- First, to provide much-needed legal assistance to unemployed and low income working Vermonters in a wide array of civil cases.
- Second, to help students learn how to engage in the reflective, ethical practice of law.
The seeds of the Clinic were planted early. On the first page of the first issue of the new student newspaper The Forum (12/16/75), Dean Thomas Debevoise described key elements of VLS's educational mission: "The faculty believes that the availability of clinical training is an appropriate part of the school's basic program."
Over the next three years, an ad hoc committee led by Dean Debevoise and Professor Ken Kreiling set out to develop an in-house clinic. The project had the support of the full faculty and the Board of Trustees. The clinic opened in January 1979, with Zander Rubin as the first director. Zander was formerly director of training for Vermont Legal Aid. He hired Tavian Mayer, VLS '78, as the first staff attorney.
The clinic filled in a gap in Vermont Legal Aid's coverage in northern Windsor and Orange counties. Tavian remembers that the clinic met a tremendous need in east-central Vermont by providing free legal services to low income Vermonters.
"We were simply overwhelmed by the need for service. We were limited in the case load we could do, so we wound up in-taking, then attempting to farm out to Vermont Legal Aid or Judicare what we couldn't handle."
Tavian added: "We tried to do things we could handle in one semester. Discrete type cases: landlord/tenant, housing, and domestic abuse. It wasn't till we had really established ourselves that we started to take on the civil rights cases which would carry on more than one semester."
By the end of its first year, the clinic had "provided brief service and/or representation to 172 low-income Vermonters and ...handled two appeals to the Vermont Supreme Court" (Forum, 3/21/80, p. 5). Just three years after opening its doors, the clinic had "grown to provide for three times as many students and clients" as in its first year.
In Summer 1980 Zander left the clinic to work at the Vermont Attorney General's office, and was succeeded as director by Elliot Burg of Vermont Legal Aid's Rutland office.
Susan Apel arrived in 1982 from Keystone Legal Services in Pennsylvania, succeeding Tavian Mayer, who went into private practice in South Royalton. The next year, 1983, saw the arrival of James May from Vermont Legal Aid's Springfield office. He came to SRLC as a Clinical Fellow, jointly sponsored by VLS and VLA.
When Elliot left in 1986 to work in Bolivia for a year, and then to work for the Vermont Attorney General's Office, Dean Jonathan Chase appointed Susan and Jim as co-directors for the next year. Susan moved "across the street" in 1987 to help start the General Practice Program, and Jim became SRLC director, a post he still occupies.
Elliot Burg's recollection of the six years he led the clinic rings true to the students and lawyers working there today. "Early on, the clinic embraced a model that fostered maximum student involvement in cases and at the same time required staff to be here every step of the way. In my view, that model was the best one in terms of representing clients competently and learning most fully. It was also extremely intense. What we expected of students, we imposed upon ourselves as staff."
Of her years at the clinic, Susan Apel has the fondest of memories: "It was the hardest, and at the same time, the most fulfilling job. To be there as students are beginning to develop a professional self, and to foster that process, is a great privilege. I remember many hours spent in the car with students, on our way to Burlington or Rutland or Montpelier. The time and proximity of being in the car allowed me to get to know students in ways that I wouldn't have otherwise. Many important conversations took place in that Honda." Additionally, "Elliot and Jim and I worked hard together. I learned an enormous amount about lawyering and teaching from both of them."
Jim May recalls that "working with Susan and Elliot was a remarkable experience. We were friends, and mutually supportive. Susan had great rapport with students, always asked the difficult questions, and was remarkably successful in her cases. Elliot was not only brilliant as both an attorney and administrator, but disciplined and hardworking, as well. Most of what I know about program administration is based on what I learned from Elliot."
Since 1987, we have built a strong clinic of professionally accomplished attorneys and support staff.
During a key transition period in 1990, recent graduate Jud Burnham, VLS '89, played an important role as temporary staff attorney while the school conducted a search for an attorney with enough years of experience to supervise students in court under state and federal student practice rules. Jud went on to become Vermont's longest-serving trial court clerk until his retirement in 2008.
The permanent attorney selected in December 1990, Maryann Zavez, became tenured in 1999 and served through 2013, when she retired. Maryann brought a solid knowledge of and passion for work with juvenile clients to her position, which set a standard for the Clinic's work in that area.
With the encouragement of Dean Douglas Costle, a third attorney slot focusing on family law was created in 1991 with funds from the Vermont Bar Foundation's IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts) program. It was originally filled by Attorney Nina Lloyd, who came from the law firm of Baker and Hayes in Lebanon, N.H. Since 1995, it has been filled by Alex Banks, VLS '87, who returned to Vermont from Northwest Legal Services in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. For the last decade Alex has divided his work between representation of domestic violence survivors and representation of children in our Children First! Legal Advocacy Project. CF! represents children caught up in difficult family law cases, and receives its cases as court referrals.
In 1994, SRLC Director James May, who heads up the Clinic's Core Program of civil legal aid, helped establish Russia's first law school legal clinic at Petrozavodsk State University (PSU) in Karelia, a northwestern Russian republic bordering Finland. The PSU clinic has served as a model for creation of other clinics throughout Russia. Since 1999, Mr. May, as part of the Vermont/Karelia Rule of Law Project, has worked to help develop a civil legal aid program in Karelia.
Kinvin Wroth came to VLS as Dean in 1996 with a strong track record on, among other things, Access to Justice issues. As Dean, he was instrumental in creating the Vermont Access to Justice Coalition, of which VLS is a key player. In 1999, he supported the clinic's hiring of a fourth attorney, Arthur Edersheim, with U.S. Department of Justice funding.
Coming from private practice in Orwell, Vt., Art also had valuable experience as an attorney with the Vermont Office of Child Support Enforcement. After a few years of representing domestic violence clients, Art assisted in setting up the Vermont Immigrant Assistance Project (VIA) in 2003. The project provides direct representation to immigrant clients in U-Visa (victims of crime), T-Visa (victims of human trafficking), VAWA petitions and I-751 filings (domestic violence), and asylum cases. VIA also provides legal information to persons and agencies regarding family-based immigration filings; adjustment of status cases and naturalization petitions; and civil legal matters under state and federal law. In the Fall of 2013, Art decided to reduced his workload and hours to part-time and SRLC brought attorney Erin Jacobsen from Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates (VIAA) on board, under a partnership with Vermont Legal Aid under a Legal Assistance for Victims (LAV) grant. With the dissolution of VIAA in June 2014, SRLC was able to take Erin on as a full-time immigration staff attorney with funding to support our work with the Behavioral Therapy and Psychotherapy Center at the University of Vermont under the New England Survivors of Torture and Trauma (NESTT) program. This effort allows our student clinicians to work with UVM's Ph.D. students in assisting immigration clients who have endured horrific life experiences in their home countries and are now seeking asylum in the U.S.
In the spring of 2014 another important change took place at SRLC with the hiring of Katelyn Atwood, VLS '11, as the Vermont Poverty Law Fellow. Funds for this position were raised through a coordinated campaign led by the Vermont Bar Association and Vermont Bar Foundation. Her project focuses on the legal needs of veterans, of which there are over 50,000 in Vermont. Many of them face a wide array of legal issues, from VA benefit denials and family law cases to lack of access to public benefits and housing. Katelyn's focus on these issues will help provide these veterans with much-needed representation. The project, Vermont Veterans Legal Assistance Project, is in the process of putting together a network of attorneys, agencies, and other important individuals and groups in order to deliver timely legal help.
The Clinic's current staffing is rounded out by Office Manager Sharon Mee, with over 15 years of service, and Clinical Administrative Specialist. Both staff members provide key services within SRLC to assist in the delivery of legal services.