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VLS Faculty and Students Put a Priority on Public-Interest Law

August 6, 2020

By Rebecca Beyer 

Vermont Law School student Natacha Tremblay JD’19 was finishing up her last day in the South Royalton Legal Clinic (SRLC) when she got some good news: one of her clients, a man who had immigrated to the United States from Vietnam when he was a child, was no longer at risk of deportation.


Tremblay and Assistant Professor Erin Jacobsen JD’11, the lead attorney for the clinic’s Vermont Immigration Assistance (VIA) Project, had begun representing the man, Thao Vo, in December when he was given 60 days to leave the country after serving several months in detention for a past marijuana-related conviction. Working with the Vermont Office of the Defender General’s Prisoners’ Rights Office, Tremblay and Jacobsen were able to vacate the old conviction under the state’s expungement process (Vermont legalized recreational marijuana use in 2018) and reopen his immigration case to close the removal proceedings that had been initiated against him.

On April 22, Jacobsen and Tremblay learned Vo would be allowed to stay in the United States.

“Having one of my last interactions with a client be being able to tell him that news, it was sort of like a really nice present,” Tremblay says. “I was over the moon.”

So was Vo.

“It was definitely a lot of weight off my shoulders,” he says, adding that Tremblay and Jacobsen worked “hand in hand” with him to resolve his case.

Vo’s is just one of many matters in which Vermont Law School faculty and students are putting their expertise
and experience to work for the public interest. In recent months, the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) has helped advocate for a provision in the Farm Bill passed by Congress in December that allows farmers markets to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, launched a transactional clinic to assist farmers with estate and business planning, and updated guidance for people hoping to bring local food to school systems. The South Royalton Legal Clinic (SRLC)in addition to its work on behalf of immigrants—has assisted domestic violence survivors, children at the heart of difficult custody battles, and veterans facing insurmountable debt or the loss of military benefits. And the Center for Justice Reform, which launched in 2017, has partnered with Vermont state’s attorneys to help people expunge eligible past criminal convictions.

Students are at the heart of all that work. Alyssa Hartman JD/ MFALP’19 came to Vermont Law School to learn how to improve food and agriculture policy after working on farms, as a field organizer for a nonprofit, and as a chef. At CAFS, she helped update the State Farm to School Policy Handbook, researching relevant laws across the United States that advance the local food procurement movement.

“Something that CAFS does well and one of its primary focuses and value adds to the food space is taking really technical legal information and putting it into a format that the average person can understand,” she says.

The center’s director, Professor Laurie Beyranevand JD’03, confirms that making food policy more transparent and accessible so that people can participate in relevant decision-making processes is a major part of CAFS’ work.

“Food is so fundamental, and it should be,” she says. “How we regulate it and how we deal with it should be something everyone understands.”

Outside the policy realm, many of the direct services Vermont Law School clinics and centers provide can be emotionally exhausting (Tremblay says she “couldn’t stop crying” after she got the results in Vo’s case). As a result, faculty pay special attention to the mental health of the future lawyers in their classrooms and out in the field. During the spring semester, the South Royalton Legal Clinic brought in Cara Cookson JD’10, former policy director for the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services to speak to clinical students about “trauma-informed practice.”

“We work really closely with our students,” says Assistant Professor Michelle Donnelly JD’13, who oversees SRLC’s ChildrenFirst! Legal Advocacy Project and the Domestic Violence Project. “It’s real-life client work, and it can be draining. We make sure we address that and talk about it so they can go home to their families or do the homework they need to do for other classes and not get consumed by the caseload.”

Despite the traumatic nature of the cases—or perhaps because of it—the payoffs for clients can be huge. One of Donnelly’s students, Matthew Phillips JD’19, recently helped negotiate the safe return of three children whose father had not brought them back to their mother after a scheduled visitation.

“The case was very gratifying,” says Phillips, who notes that some matters drag on and on without ever achieving a positive outcome. “When the law can resolve a problem in a responsive, satisfying way, that’s a good feeling.”

Kassie Tibbott JD’18, who is joining the Center for Justice Reform as a research fellow working to expand expungement in the state and beyond, agrees. She has volunteered in prisons and with formerly incarcerated people since her first year in law school. Through the expungement clinics Vermont Law School is providing around the state with county prosecutors and Vermont Legal Aid, she has worked with people who have been denied employment, housing, or government assistance because of past criminal convictions, including marijuana arrests.

“What stands out to me is just the sense of relief that every individual I’ve assisted has had,” Tibbott says. “Their eyes light up when you tell them that some—if not all—of the items on their criminal record are expungement eligible.”

Donald F. Hayes JD’10, who leads the South Royalton Legal Clinic’s Veterans Legal Assistance Project, has seen similar reactions in his clients. In addition to bankruptcy and estate planning, he helps former service members appeal dishonorable or less than honorable discharges, which can prevent veterans from receiving benefits ranging from tuition under the GI Bill to burial in a military cemetery. Often, Hayes says, a servicemember has an exemplary record until some adverse event—an injury from an improvised explosive device, for instance— leads to a diagnosis of PTSD, and then symptomatic behavior leads to a negative discharge record.

“Those are rewarding cases to work on,” Hayes says. “You’re giving the servicemember a shot—taking someone who’s not eligible for anything and making them eligible.”

Hayes says it can be hard for students—and faculty—to connect with people who have experienced trauma, especially veterans who have been in combat, which many people have never experienced.

“The only way to communicate that you’re on their side is to do the work and prove that you’re on their side,” Hayes says.

Donnelly agrees. She says domestic violence survivors are more likely to show up for relief from abuse hearings if they have an advocate on their side.

“They know they’re not going to be there alone and not going to have to face their abuser by themselves,” she says. “It can be really empowering for somebody to be able to say out loud in court in front of the judge and their abuser what’s happening to them.”

Vermont Law School’s public interest work—including more than $1.5 million annually in pro bono legal services provided by the South Royalton Legal Clinic alone—hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, in partnership with the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, launched a Blueprint for a National Food Strategy to help policymakers and legislators streamline decisions that impact food security and safety in the United States. Earlier this year, Beyranevand says she heard from Canadian policymakers that they used the blueprint in developing Canada’s first national
food policy.

Funders are taking notice, too. This spring, the SRLC received grants totaling more than $200,000 in support of the Vermont Immigrant Assistance Project and the Vermont Veterans Legal Assistance Project, and the Center for Justice Reform received $45,000 from the Vermont Bar Foundation to expand its expungement work and research (the Pennywise Foundation was an early supporter as well).

Stephanie Clark, assistant director of the Center for Justice Reform, says the center and its partners have already helped hundreds of Ver- monters clear their records and came close to exceeding their service goal even before the center had submitted its grant application.

“The notion of restorative justice is older than our criminal justice system,” she says. “These people have paid their debt to society, and they are entitled to this [relief] under the law. We should absolutely help them do that.”

Jacobsen is using the money directed to the Vermont Immigrant Assistance Project to grow her practice, including opening a new satellite office in Burlington and hiring an additional immigration- focused staff attorney. That means more learning opportunities for students like Tremblay, and more positive results for clients like Vo.

“I think the technical aspects of being an attorney are things that I can always learn and that I have a long time to figure out,” says Tremblay. “But the important things that matter more than how to do a Bluebook citation—and that I think I took away from [working on Vo’s case]—are how to be compassionate and how to listen and how to make someone feel validated and heard.”

Jacobsen says she loves her work helping immigrants—“I’d rather be doing what I can than watching from the sidelines”—and adds that, when she gets frustrated or overwhelmed, her students’ commitment keeps her going.

“You know there’s going to be more people sharing in the work, and that’s really inspiring,” she says.