Experiential education is thriving in Iowa Law’s six innovative legal clinics
Thursday, January 26, 2023

At Iowa Law, students in the clinical education program receive real-world training while providing much-needed service to the community. Consisting of six clinics, each dedicated to a distinct practice area, the Law Clinic program gives students the opportunity to represent clients (under the supervision of licensed attorneys) at all stages of the legal process. Read on for a look at how the clinics continue to raise the bar for experiential education—despite the many challenges posed by COVID. 


1. Federal Criminal Defense Clinic: “Enriching, gut-wrenching and motivating” 

An officer in the U.S. Army Infantry after four years in the service, Evan Zalenski (15BA, 22JD) was contemplating a career change. Then he learned of an Army program that provides law school scholarships to soldiers. 

That led him to the University of Iowa College of Law and, ultimately, to the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic, which represents indigent individuals charged with federal crimes in the U.S. District Courts of Iowa and engages in post-conviction and decarceration litigation in various federal District Courts as well as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 6th, 7th and 8th Circuits. 

Zalenski worked on three cases during his year in the clinic, including a “crimmigration” case that had been pending for several years. It involved a Central American who had been deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while being sought for prosecution by the Justice Department. Zalenski moved for dismissal for violation of the client’s right to a speedy trial—and he won. 

The successful outcome was the result of teamwork: Zalenski’s co-counsel, Nouha Ezouhri (22JD), worked on drafting briefs and participated in hours of moot courts to prepare for oral argument. “We had different working styles,” she recalled, “but a great working relationship.”  

Many hours were spent, as well, in consultation with the clinic’s director, Professor Alison Guernsey (08JD). She returned the first draft of their brief “covered in red,” Zalenski said, but most of the red ink consisted of questions. “She gave us suggestions and listened to our ideas, but she would almost never tell us, outright, what to do.” As he put it, “the clinic puts ownership of a case on the students.” 

Guernsey is a forceful proponent for experiential legal training. In the clinic, she said, “skill sets meet real human beings.” Indeed, she thinks it essential to a law school education: “You can’t truly comprehend the power you have in this service profession unless you understand the stakes. And you can’t understand the stakes until a legal problem has a face. It can be—it should be—enriching, gut-wrenching and motivating,” she said.  

And her mentee echoes her: Legal training, Ezouhri says, “needs to be raw and real.”   

Zalenski will now return to the Army in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, with his first posting in Tacoma, Washington. Ezouhri has accepted a federal public defender position in Austin, Texas.   

Even with his previous military training, Zalenski admits that he was, at first, a little intimidated at the hearing in federal district court. But as his argument proceeded, he realized that his excellent training had armed him well. “I was glad not to be treated with kid gloves,” he said, “either in the clinic or in court.” 


2. Law and Policy in Action Clinic: “Guts and resilience” 

3L Amber Crow (19BA) paid a visit to the Iowa Legislature in February 2022, and though the result was not what she had hoped for, the lessons learned were invaluable. 

She was there to advocate on behalf of residents of mobile home parks who own their manufactured homes but rent the land on which they sit. Under then-existing law, landlords could raise their rent or end their lease for any reason or no reason on short notice, often forcing families to move at great expense or abandon their home.  

That issue, and other inequitable aspects of Iowa’s mobile home law, has been an ongoing project of the Law and Policy in Action Clinic, which works with grassroots organizations, nonprofits and others to solve problems that cannot be addressed through litigation. 

Under the direction of Clinical Professor Len Sandler, the students learn, and use, varied skills such as engaging with the public and private sector, distilling complex issues into materials tailored to specific audiences, running workshops, creating alliances, and building trust—things that “can’t be done well at a distance,” Sandler said. They’re best done face to face, over coffee or meals, in community meeting halls, the state Capitol, houses of worship or people’s homes—and not via Zoom, which Sandler believes can be a deterrent to honest and candid conversation. 

The work of each of the LPA clinics is never limited to one academic semester or year. It’s a collaboration, with many students working on one or two projects over time. Crow says she benefited from groundwork done by her student predecessors, including Zack Martin (20JD), who surveyed mobile home laws of the 50 states.  

When she went to Des Moines, she was prepared to tell a compelling story of how the manufactured housing market and Iowa law are unfairly skewed to favor out-of-state equity and real estate investors. Homeowners are held hostage by laws that allow park owners to raise rents or end a lease with only 60 days’ notice. The clinic advocated for a mandatory one-year lease or a law that would allow homeowners to live in the community until the landlord had specific good-cause grounds to end the lease. Crow and her colleagues also sought to give mobile homeowners the same rights as renters of apartments, houses or mobile homes.  

However, her efforts to bolster the law were unsuccessful. The bill that was enacted only extended the notice period from 60 to 90 days and added a few other protections. Bills proposed by the advocacy network were killed by the industry lobby, which has powerful sway in the Legislature. It was a valuable lesson learned and knowledge gained through firsthand experience. As Sandler observed, litigation has rules for all parties to follow, unlike advocacy of this kind, in which “uncertainty is part and parcel of what we do.”  

This was not the first time clinic students had pushed for reforms in mobile home and affordable housing laws and policies. Their efforts date back to 2011. And they devote significant time and resources to each initiative. Sandler’s experience told him, he says, that if there is no traction on a subject after three legislative sessions, “we find other issues to address.” So that’s what the LPA students will do now, even though they will continue to assist the residents’ network on an issue-by-issue basis. 

Though clinical work doesn’t always result in wins, it still benefits the students and their clients. From her experience, Crow learned “guts and resilience” and, as she put it, “skills you don’t get from a book.” For his part, Martin said, “there’s a reason that lawyers are called ‘counselors at law.’ ” Now that he’s in practice, he uses the counseling skills he honed in the clinic, he said, “every single day.” 


3. Community Empowerment Law Project: “Fresh and unique perspectives” 

Clinical Professor Daria Fisher Page created the Community Empowerment Law Project when she came to the law school in 2017. She believes that “it is important that lawyers not move through the world always thinking they know what’s best.” So a guiding principle of her clinic is that there is value in finding out what people want or don’t want by going into the community and spending real time there.  

CELP works with and represents nonprofits and other agencies on a variety of social justice programs. A recent collaborator was True Second Chances, a coalition seeking to reform the prisoner commutation process in Iowa. It advocated for legislation that would have allowed decisions of the Iowa Board of Parole to be binding on a majority vote (instead of, as now, requiring unanimity) and would have made certain other salutary changes in the law.  

The legislation failed to pass, but the clinic members, including Vera Barkosky and Adam Garcia (22JD), continued to press for the changes. They used the knowledge base they had built to draft two petitions for administrative rule-making at the Board of Parole; those petitions are, as of this writing, pending. 

Barkosky is not a law student but a junior at the University of Iowa (and student body vice president). CELP allows participation by a few undergraduates each spring semester. Often clinic students are learning about subject matter with which they’re unfamiliar, and Fisher Page thinks it’s useful for law students to work with nonlawyers, to be nimble in their thinking and plans of action. 

Barkosky was glad to have an inside look at the clinic, and the law school experience as a whole. She particularly admired the “bullpen”—the well-designed office space dedicated to the clinic program, where she spent 15 to 20 hours a week. 

She was a welcomed and valued member of the team, said Garcia. “She had never taken Criminal Law and didn’t know legal jargon, and her brain was not molded by law school,” he said. (She is, however, contemplating attending law school someday.) “She brought a fresh and unique perspective to the project.” 

Garcia participated in both CELP and the Civil and Employment Litigation Clinic, so he was able to interact with, as he put it, “an array of client perspectives.” The value of the dual-clinic experience, for him, was “to figure out different ways to counsel clients in different circumstances.”  


4. Immigration Law Clinic: “How to be a lawyer, how to be yourself” 

Barbi Rodriguez (22JD) was a nontraditional law student, entering law school after a 10-year career devoted to international women’s rights and empowerment issues. At Iowa Law, she sought out clinic-related endeavors because she was eager for direct involvement with clients. 

The Immigration Law Clinic was right up her alley. The daughter of immigrants herself, Rodriguez has long had an interest in the field, though it can be “super-confusing,” she said, even to American lawyers. Imagine, then, how opaque it appears to Afghan nationals, evacuated to the United States at the end of American involvement in the war there.  

Assisting these evacuees with resettlement and immigration law services has been a focus of the Immigration Law Clinic since they began arriving in great numbers in August 2021.  

Working alongside Rodriguez on the project was 3L Emily Bushman (20BBA). Bushman said she has always had a passion for human rights work and policy and feels strongly that “the need to protect human rights exists no matter what administration is in office.”  

Clinic students helped conduct workshops on American immigration law and held one-on-one sessions to address individual situations. Many of the evacuees had worked for the American government, but there were language barriers nevertheless. It helped that Catholic Charities of Cedar Rapids (with whom the students coordinated their work) provided excellent interpreters, Bushman said.   

The Immigration Law Clinic is directed by Clinical Professor Bram Elias, and both Rodriguez and Bushman used the same words to describe him: “the best.” Elias attended the counseling sessions, Rodriguez said, but made clear to all that he was not the “go-to guy”—she was.  

Bushman particularly valued the substantial counseling skills she had to learn through the work, especially with clients who were often confused and frustrated. That training increased her knowledge of “how to be a lawyer, how to be yourself” in ways that a classroom lecture can’t. 

Often the Afghans that Rodriguez and Bushman represented were men only, but families were present as well. The children taught Rodriguez a couple of words in the two main languages of Afghanistan: Pashto (“manana”) and Dari (“tashakur”).  


5. Civil and Employment Litigation Clinic: “Good things you can do as a lawyer” 

The ability to take pleasure in the success of others does not come naturally to all people, much less all lawyers. But Iowa Law’s clinical professors possess it, according to John S. Allen, the Herschel G. Langdon Clinical Professor of Law. 

“Nothing pleases me more,” he said, “than when a student makes a presentation in court and leaves me thinking, wow, I couldn’t have done any better than that.”  

Allen directs the Civil and Employment Litigation Clinic, where students represent clients before courts and administrative agencies in a broad range of civil matters with a focus on advocacy for workers in employment matters, including race and gender discrimination, wage theft, and unemployment insurance claims. Those opportunities were constrained in 2020; with COVID raging, jury trials were continued indefinitely, by order of the Iowa Supreme Court.  

Finally, in February 2021, trials were allowed to resume, including one in Linn County in which the plaintiff was represented by Jacob Bennington (21JD) and Joseph Clarke (18BA, 21JD). 

The client, a recently retired postal worker, had bought a house, the first she had ever owned. Later, an electrical fire caused significant damage. The reconstruction and repairs, she alleged, were shoddy and took too long, and she sued the contractor. 

The trial presented many logistical challenges. Among others, distance requirements meant that jurors were seated all around the courtroom, some in the jury box, a few in the public gallery and others wherever they could find a seat 6 feet away from anyone else.  

But the courtroom configurations didn’t faze Bennington and Clarke. In fact, Bennington said, they were able to take advantage of the situation. With jurors and judge at every corner of the compass, “it let us move around and use the energy in the room.” 

And it worked: The jury awarded the plaintiff everything she had sought. She was delighted with the result and proud of having been the students’ first-ever client.  

Bennington was also on the Iowa Law Trial Advocacy team but gave up his place to litigate the Linn County matter. He’s still not sure if he wants to pursue a career as a litigator, but he’s glad to have had the experience in law school.  

“There are lots of good things you can do as a lawyer,” Bennington mused, “and I’d like to try some others, as well.”  


6. Estate Planning Clinic: “Creativity that you can cultivate but not teach” 

During the pandemic, Zoom proved to be a marvelous technological innovation for business meetings, job interviews and family catch-ups. 

For lawyering purposes, though, remote communication has been problematic. Confidentiality, privacy, attorney-client privilege, candor and security are obvious concerns. And there are other, more basic worries, especially when the client is unfamiliar with technology or not fluent in English. How can you be sure the client understands you? Or vice versa?  

Elizabeth Estey (18BA, 22JD) saw those potential difficulties as a challenge, as a way to “develop my client  
interaction skills.” She worked in the Estate Planning Clinic under the guidance of Professor Len Sandler. It’s an area of the law she enjoys because she can bring peace of mind to her clients, even while they’re contemplating their own mortality (even via Zoom), though, she said, “I had to get pretty good at reading body language.”  

For a time during 2020, the inside of the Boyd Law Building was “like the middle of the desert,” Sandler recalled. There were few people allowed in the law school because of COVID. Classrooms had buckets of sanitizer; hallways had designated pathways, directions and signage; and the university distributed masks, shields and sanitizer to faculty and staff. For the safety of students, faculty and clients, the clinicians adhered strictly to COVID-prevention protocols.  

But Iowa law requires certain in-person formalities, and the students were nothing if not resourceful. They interviewed clients by remote video or phone and corresponded and shared documents by mail, email and fax. After confirming the clients’ wishes and instructions, they conducted document review and will-signing ceremonies in the building’s atrium, alfresco at picnic tables outside the Boyd Law Building and in the parking lot. Some consultations were held on a drive-by basis, with clients in the car, one student on either side and Clinic Administrator Mishelle Eckland as notary. Improvisation is key to serving clients whose ages range from their 20s to late 90s. “It’s the kind of creativity that you can cultivate but not teach,” Sandler said.  

Estey (along with other clinic students) worked for a client couple whose estate planning was complicated, with many moving parts; last-minute changes; and issues of citizenship, custody, guardianship and international law. The clients’ primary goal was to care for each other and provide for their childrens’ future, finances, custody and well-being.  

Estey and her co-counsel helped them understand the options available to help them prepare for absence, injury, disability and death. She prepared wills with trust provisions; medical, financial, and end-of-life directives; beneficiary forms; and other transactions.  

“Finally, we produced a set of documents and transactions that effectuated everything the clients wanted,” she recalled. “It was a very satisfying feeling.”