Final Thoughts on What We Have Learned in the Clinic

​​My name is Alex Sparhawk, a second-year student at DePaul University College of Law.  During my time with the Housing and Community Development Clinic, I had the fortunate opportunity to be partnered with Allen Thomas, also a second-year law student.  This last year we worked with the Institute for Housing Studies and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus conducting legal research on different policy related projects.  As our year with the clinic comes to a close, Allen and I had a conversation about our clinic experiences.  My comments are in regular font below; Allen’s are in italics.

So to get the ball rolling . . . . What expectations did you have before entering into the clinic, and do you think those expectations were met? 

My expectations were general ones such as getting experience in an area like municipal and state law relating to housing and housing issues, so working with the Institute for Housing Studies and Metropolitan Mayors Caucus has been great.  I think the experience I’ve been most surprised by, though, is how working for our client evolved as we went along and, by the end of the year, came together to be something bigger.  The smaller pieces we worked on initially, like a short memo detailing the differences between home rule and non-home rule municipalities, became a piece of a much larger project of researching the authority of those two different municipalities when they enter into an Intergovernmental Agreement for joint enforcement of a rental registration ordinance.  At the time we worked on those initial memos, I didn’t perceive a connection between them, but in the second semester of the clinic, those separate pieces – home rule, liens, an overview of rental registration ordinances, a look at landlord licensing – have really come together to be a part of something bigger.  That part of our clinic work I have found to be very exciting and to be a great experience that I wasn’t expecting when we first started.

How about for you?  Has the work we’ve done matched your initial expectations?  Any experiences that you weren’t expecting?

I would have to say I had similar expectations coming into the clinic.  For a while now I have known my legal interests lie in real property related matters and I hoped the clinic could offer actual working experience in the field.  To be fair, I thought the primary work load would involve landlord-tenant issues.  But, I think our assignments involving policy-related legal research have been a rewarding experience.  Individually, the work product we produced last semester seemed disjointed and unrelated.  Ultimately, however, the pieces fit together in a much larger scheme.  I really valued the opportunity to work with IHS and MMC on a project that has potential to affect thousands of people in the Chicago-land area and it was an experience beyond my expectations. 

One of my favorite moments was being called a “colleague” by the lead attorney charged with drafting the intergovernmental agreement you had mentioned earlier.  Having the opportunity to sit down and knowledgably discuss a challenging legal issue with a practicing attorney was definitely something I did not expect coming into the clinic.  I think the meeting we had with Attorney Denzin went very well and was a rewarding experience. 

What has been your favorite experience?  Do you feel that your experiences working at the clinic has helped develop any particular skill sets?

Concerning improving skills, I’ve definitely improved at statutory interpretation.  In a classroom environment, especially in the first year of law school, the case book really guides a student through the statutes. Here’s a statute, here’s a great case for illustrating how courts apply the statute, and then here’s some notes fleshing out what other courts have done and why they did it. It’s all nicely organized and makes perfect sense. Very clean.  But going to the statute as it appears in the statutory code, then finding cases (or legislative history or advisory opinions from the attorney general or whatever else is out there) that help illustrate the statute, and finally applying it to the question the client has asked is a whole different animal, especially when there isn’t a case on point and the question has never been addressed before.  And I really think I’ve gotten better at that part of legal research.  Although I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with the ambiguity that sort of research can ultimately result in, I’ve at least come to accept the possibility of a less-than-absolute answer.

My favorite professional experience was the same as yours.  Not only the potential impact of the work being done on rental registration, but at the beginning of this semester when the pieces we had worked on in the previous semester fell into place as a part of a larger whole.  It was a great moment when I finally understood the big picture and everything just made sense.  I have to also mention that the weekly status meetings with you, me, and Professor Lawton had some of my personal highlights from the clinic.  Maybe my favorite was the meeting when, as soon as we started mooting an upcoming meeting with the client, I could not clearly state the phrase “necessarily implied by or incidental to.”  I had been saying this phrase for months without a problem and then, out of nowhere, I couldn’t say it for the life of me.  That meeting is closely followed by the ten-minute explanation of “ parcels of land” when nothing I said seemed to make it clear that there were two separate and distinct parcels of land – “one for the bridge and one to maintain the conservation area” -- and it really would’ve helped had I maybe said “two parcels of land.”  Also, worthy of mention was the status meeting when, before the meeting, you and I were focused on following the agenda (at least, I was focused on following the agenda), and as soon as the meeting started, you jumped right to the third item on the agenda.

Maybe those are “had to be there moments,” but they still make me laugh.  Any moments not related to work for clients that stand out for you?

Our weekly team meetings have been particularly enjoyable, and there were definitely a few “had to be there” moments.  The meetings were useful for ironing out our legal viewpoints on the particular issues we were researching, and provided a great opportunity to get to know one another better.  Sometimes our discussions stick to the legal issues, others were about job prospects, and a few times we took the opportunity to gripe on how cold this winter has been.

Or how early the meetings were.... 

Class time is something else I really enjoyed because as a group we hit it off very well.  We are a diverse group of individuals from different backgrounds and with different perspectives.  That has led to some interesting discussions and viewpoints.  I appreciated that everyone actively participates in class discussion and the energy of the group has been very positive.  We have developed to be more than classmates and have grown to be friends.  I think because Prof. Lawton encourages participation and the structure of the class being small in size has helped in that regard.

Overall, I would recommend this course to any student interested in transactional legal work especially those interested in real property and community development related issues.  It’s a much different law school experience than your typical course.  The clinic is a sort of hybrid course that includes a lecture aspect and work experience aspect.  It provides an opportunity to directly interact with clients and apply the law to their particular set of circumstances.  I have been very pleased with this experience and the opportunities created by it.

I would definitely recommend the clinic to another student.  I thought it was a great experience, and looking back, it was a good decision on my part to enroll in the clinic.  Not only did I enjoy the classroom portion of the clinic and working with the client, but it’s so much fun writing cover letters when I can actually write about relevant work experience.