Child custody and support matters are among the most emotional, personal, and complex issues for parents, guardians, and caregivers, and can determine whether or not they can spend time with a child, put food on the table, and a roof over their head.
In Pennsylvania, child support and custody disputes are civil matters, and independent parties facing each other in Family Court do not have a guaranteed right of legal representation. The two sides enter court as pro se litigants, or individuals who represent themselves.
“These people are often generally on their own to try to figure it out, so there’s a big gap there where people don’t even know what’s going on in the process,” says Brian Wilmot, a third-year student at Penn Law School. “They don’t know the law, they don’t know their rights, they don’t know how the process works, they don’t know how to prepare for court, even in the most basic sense.”
Since the mid-1990s, Penn Law’s Custody and Support Assistance Clinic (CASAC) has been helping low-income clients with child support and custody cases pro bono, assisting them as they navigate the often arduous and protracted Family Court system.
A staff of about 20 Penn Law student advocates aid clients in understanding how the legal process works, how to persuasively present their case, relevant and irrelevant questions and facts, how they should dress, how to address the judge, and how to maintain their composure when emotions run high.
Wilmot, executive director of CASAC, has been involved with the program since he was a first-year law student.
“It was kind of what I was looking for in terms of something that would allow me to do some more direct service-related work in a legal field,” he says. “We help clients directly in ways that a lot of other organizations don’t.”
Most advocates apply for CASAC during the first semester of their first year of law school and are required to commit to the clinic for a minimum of one year. On average, students volunteer five to seven hours per week, in addition to their demanding first-year schedules. The clinic serves 500 to 600 clients per year and each advocate handles around 20 to 25 cases per semester. CASAC assisted more than 190 new clients last semester and has more than 350 existing cases.
Margaret Zhang, a second-year student at Penn Law, is also in her second year with the clinic and serves as its resource director. She says the work is “intense” and “time-consuming” but enjoyable.
“It’s much different than a typical law school class where you’re basically just learning things and then regurgitating them,” she says. “You actually get to help people, so that’s wonderful.”
The majority of the cases the advocates manage have to do with custody—which is technically a separate process from child support. The clinic also serves clients who have filed a protection from abuse and with spousal support cases.
Wilmot says CASAC is almost completely student-run, with legal oversight from supervisors at Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA), an organization that provides free civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and families, and guidance from Penn Law’s Toll Public Interest Center. Advocates operate out of the PLA office at 15th and Chestnut streets.
“CASAC is one of the earliest student-initiated pro bono programs at the Law School, and it’s an extraordinary project that provides an exceptional service to the community,” says Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, executive director of the Toll Public Interest Center.
Clients, who must meet income requirements and be eligible for legal aid, usually come through the Family Court system and range from teenagers, to great-grandparents, to people who have no relation to the child but serve as caregivers.
Kelly Gorton, a third-year Penn Law student and CASAC program director, says she applied for the clinic because of “the ability to work with individuals on a very intimate basis.” During her nearly three years with CASAC, she says she has worked with many different age groups.
“Sometimes we get elderly clients with spousal support issues because they’ve had a late-in-life divorce and maybe aren’t of an age where they can rejoin the workforce,” she says. Gorton recently had such a case and was able to help an elderly woman receive spousal support.
“She was just so grateful and so relieved because with something like that, if it doesn’t work out, I don’t know what you do,” Gorton says.
Some of the more experienced advocates can actually represent clients in court. After a year and a half of law school, students can become a certified legal intern (CLI) and represent their clients in the courtroom under a supervising attorney. Both Wilmot and Gorton are CLIs, serving under supervising attorneys at Berner Klaw & Watson (BKW), a law firm in Center City. Stephanie Gonzalez Ferrandez, a family lawyer at BKW, is a Penn Law and CASAC alumna, and played a key role in establishing the clinic.
Response from clients can vary, depending on the outcome of the case. Assistance from CASAC is no guarantee of success.
“Managing expectations is a big thing,” Gorton says. “Not every client has the best case.”
Wilmot says a lot of clients “are absolutely grateful to have any support, just to have somebody to talk to about their process.” Zhang says others can be difficult and want things that the law can’t give them, but in either case, the advocates serve their clients to the best of their legal ability.
“Part of the experience is learning that as a lawyer-to-be, you have professional responsibilities to any client that you have, and it’s your job to always present to them the facts of the law so that they can make their own decisions about what is best for themselves,” Zhang says.
In an ideal custody or support situation, opposing sides can come to a negotiated agreement outside of the courtroom by filing a stipulation for an agreed order of support or custody. The advocates will help them draft a stipulation and the two parties then file the document in Family Court.
Neither Wilmot, nor Zhang, nor Gorton plan on entering family law, but they all say volunteering at CASAC has helped them acquire real-world skills that are useful in any type of law, such as interviewing clients, balancing a workload, and managing client relationships with school demands.
“I think it’s the most practical experience of any program at the Law School outside of the clinical programs, and even then I think sometimes it has more to offer than the clinical programs because there is appropriate supervision but you definitely have more of a leading role,” Gorton says. “A lot of it is just responsibility, time management, and juggling multiple cases. When you go to a law firm, they’ll tell you the biggest thing you have to learn is time management because you’re going to get multiple cases with deadlines. I think that’s the biggest thing you learn [with CASAC], time management and prioritization.”
Originally published on January 16, 2014