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USD legal clinics combine learning with community service

Being an integral part of the legal community is nothing new to the University of San Diego Legal Clinics.

In 1971, law students initiated a volunteer project to assist jail inmates needing legal services. San Diego-area attorneys supervised the students on a pro bono basis. This first clinic thrived, and provided the impetus to expand.

Moving beyond service to jail inmates, the USD Legal Clinics over time became a multifaceted program dedicated to the delivery of free legal services to San Diego residents in need.

The clinics' "umbrella" of client-based services includes 11 discrete areas of legal practice: civil, criminal appeals, entrepreneurship, environmental, immigration, jail clinic, land use, mental health, small claims, special education and tax.

Just as importantly, the clinics offer a superior learning experience, where upper division students work on actual legal cases under the supervision of an attorney practicing in the field.

The clinics combine the best of the University of San Diego School of Law: a strong academic grounding combined with practical legal experience for law students who are then more ready to take on the rigors of legal practice after law school.

Today's clinics are headquartered at the far west end of the USD campus, in an office building with easy client access from Linda Vista Road.

The following four examples illustrate how the USD Legal Clinics help train future lawyers while providing valuable services to the community.

For further information about the clinics, call (619) 260-7664.

Entrepreneurship Clinic

USD's Entrepreneurship Clinic opened its doors just three years ago. The clinic provides pro bono legal services to low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs who want to start or expand their small businesses.

Donna Matias, Esq. (right), director of the Entrepreneurship Clinic, observes a USD law student advising a client.

Legal clinic students aid clients in determining the appropriate business "entity" and assist with entity formation; advise on necessary permits and licenses; draft and review contracts; advise on trademark and copyright protection or employment matters; or form tax-exempt organizations.

Over the last several years, small business clinics have begun to be seen at law schools all over the country.

Donna Matias Esq., director of the entrepreneurship clinic, modeled USD's Entrepreneurship Clinic on one that she helped create in 1998 at the University of Chicago Law School.

"Historically, law school clinics focused on assisting clients in an adversarial setting," Matias explained. "By contrast, the Entrepreneurship Clinic taps into a demand by small businesses for non-litigation assistance that they could not otherwise afford. Our work has played an important role in helping clients run more successful businesses and, ultimately we hope, become economically self-sufficient."

Special Education Clinic

Thousands of children are born with disabilities each year in San Diego County alone. Many of these children require specialized education and related services as they begin and continue through school.

But parents of these children frequently face unnecessary burdens in accessing an appropriate education in the public schools, despite federal and state law requirements.

"Helping parents understand their child's rights under the law is one of our primary objectives," said Margaret Dalton Esq., supervising attorney. "We advocate first, and litigate only when necessary. These cases differ for the most part from other areas of civil law, because the parties still need to work together for years ahead. Our most successful cases ensure that the child receives his or her entitlements under the law, while parents maintain an effective relationship with the school."

In the Special Education Clinic, law students interview and counsel clients; analyze legal issues; draft legal pleadings; and represent clients in formal mediation and other venues. In just over one year of operation, the Special Education Clinic has assisted more than 150 families with their special education legal issues.

Immigration Clinic

As a law school operating so close to the border, immigration law is a natural for the Legal Clinics.

Back in the early 1980s, that's what law student Jan Bejar and others believed. Now, 20 years later, Bejar is the supervising attorney of USD's Immigration Clinic. A certified specialist in immigration and nationality law, Bejar supervises law students offering free legal assistance to immigrants whose home countries range from nearby Mexico to around the globe in war-torn Liberia.

The Immigration Clinic serves low-income families with a range of immigration and naturalization issues.

A recent case illustrates what this clinic can provide to a client. A young man from Somalia sought out the Immigration Clinic to assist him in seeking asylum in the United States. In court, the young man described how an opposing political party had publicly murdered his father. He then related the tragic evening his mother was attacked, while the family watched their home being burned to the ground.

Throughout his court appearance, he had the legal guidance and personal support that the clinic offers. The court granted asylum, and the young man has started a new life in the Midwest.

Tax Clinic

Perhaps no area of the law is more confusing to the layperson than tax. Problems can arise sometimes years after the fact, leaving taxpayers confused and frightened.

The Tax Clinic gives USD law students, pictured in class, opportunities to help low-income taxpayers resolve their tax disputes with the IRS.

Funded by a grant from the federal government, the Tax Clinic provides an important service to lower-income taxpayers, working to resolve their tax problems with the Internal Revenue Service.

"In many instances, we have been able to assist taxpayers settle their balance-due amounts to the IRS by making a small settlement payment under the IRS offer-in-compromise program," said Tax Clinic Director Richard Carpenter Esq. "In other instances, we have been able to help taxpayers cut through IRS red tape to obtain their refunds via the Earned Income Tax Credit program."

The Earned Income Tax Credit program is one example of the variety of IRS tax issues that substantially affect the "working poor."

One of the Tax Clinic's most remarkable recent success stories involved Maria, a mother of five who immigrated to the United States from Mexico and was earning minimum wage at a local laundry company. Her husband -- who had owned a trucking business -- had left her five years ago. Based on the couple's 1994 and 1995 tax returns, however, the IRS claimed she owed more than $500,000, including penalties and interest in connection with that business, in which she had no involvement. The Tax Clinic filed an "innocent spouse" relief claim on her behalf, which was granted -- clearing her of the entire balance.

Without financial ability to hire an attorney, these taxpayers face great odds in receiving the relief that the law offers. The Tax Clinic successfully bridges this gap.

Dalton is the administrative director of the University of San Diego Legal Clinics.

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