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Windfall Aids Law Students' Introduction To Courtroom

Clinical Program Benefits From 1996 Cable Lawsuit

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page C05

Like a good defense attorney, Semaj Johnson was poking holes in the credibility of the witness on the stand, questioning Racquel C. Callender's qualifications and challenging her credibility. It was up to the opposing attorney, Miesha Darrough, to restore some of her witness's luster.

Yet, when the judge asked whether she wanted to reexamine her witness, Darrough declined.

Law students Katie Richardson, front, Vincent Frakes, Semaj Johnson and Racquel C. Callender watch classmates enact courtroom scenes in a training session in D.C. Superior Court as part of D.C. Law Students in Court. (Photos Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)

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Suddenly, a voice shouted from the jury box, "Why not?"

It wasn't an impertinent juror but an incredulous instructor, and the interruption did not come in an actual case but in a class, which was why Darrough and her fellow law students could chuckle over the missed opportunity and chalk it up as a lesson learned.

For the dozen or so students assembled in D.C. Superior Court for the early evening session, though, the lessons can't come soon enough. They are participating in D.C. Law Students in Court, a clinical program for third-year students at Washington law schools, and all of them, as the program's name suggests, are in court, advocating on behalf of real people with real legal problems.

Judges and others around D.C. Superior Court said the program and others like it are invaluable. For many people who end up in court facing eviction in landlord-tenant cases or judgments in other civil matters, such students and the handful of professionals who supervise them often are the only legal counsel available.

Unlike some other programs at such individual schools as Georgetown and George Washington universities, Law Students in Court has no big institution to fall back on for support. It long ago lost its steady supply of city funding. Year after year, on a budget of less than $1 million, the program has struggled to stay afloat, to keep its law students in court and its clients out of court.

A endowment of more than $2 million that all but landed in their laps last month promises to ease that struggle just a bit.

The money was not a bailout from a generous philanthropist, but from Comcast as part of the resolution of a long-running lawsuit against the cable company for overcharging customers who were late paying their bills.

The class-action suit, filed in 1996 as Robert H. Bassin & Sherl Weems v. District Cablevision, won damages totaling about $15 million. But when customer claims for compensation were complete, almost $10 million was left over. Under the law, the money could not go back to Comcast, District Cablevision's corporate successor, so it was left to the court to determine how it could be used.

Philip Friedman, the lawyer who had filed the suit, suggested that the money go to organizations that advocate for consumers, and he began looking for the right ones. He settled on D.C. Law Students in Court, Legal Counsel for the Elderly and the clinical programs at Georgetown and GWU.

"This was a case about protecting the interests of consumers, so I said the money should go to organizations that protect the interests of D.C. consumers," Friedman said.

The judge agreed with Friedman's recommendations, and each of the organizations was given almost $2.4 million.

Each can spend a small chunk of the money to deal with immediate needs, Friedman said. But the rest of the money, he said, must be placed in an endowment that he hopes will provide a steady source of income for programs that too often are easy targets for budget cuts.

For D.C. Law Students in Court, which draws from such schools as Howard, Catholic University and Georgetown, the money is a milestone, said Ann Marie Hay, the executive director.

Only recently has the organization started to regain its financial footing, and this endowment should finally give it a measure of "financial stability," she said.

For the law students, who receive credit for the program, the money is a welcome assurance that they will be back week after week, seeing how what they learn in class stacks up against what happens in court.

"In school," said Johnson, in his third year at Howard, "you learn the rules and regulations; but in court, unexpected things happen."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company