Directing Cornell’s Legal Aid Clinic: A Fulfilling and Worthwhile Experience!

Jonathan Feldman December 11, 2013

This fall, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as a visiting clinical professor at Cornell Law School, where I am directing the Cornell Legal Aid Clinic.  I am still working at Empire Justice approximately one day a week, and I will return to full-time status in December.  This has been a great experience for me, but before I elaborate on that, I need to thank everyone at Empire Justice, especially the people with whom I work most closely, for letting me do this.  I know it is not easy to cover the caseload when I am only at Empire Justice one day a week, and I am so grateful for everyone’s flexibility, which has allowed me to teach in the clinic.

Although everyone might not agree, I see this opportunity as a “win-win-win” situation – yes, triple win!  First, it has been great for me on a personal level, as I really enjoy teaching, and this has given me the opportunity to do so.    Second, it has allowed me to spread the word about Empire Justice to a relatively new audience (Cornell and the Ithaca legal community).  I have brought several cases to the clinic from Empire Justice, and by working on the cases, the law students have learned about Empire Justice and the work we do.   Finally, by being exposed to new types of cases and new areas of the law, I have broadened my horizons, which hopefully will make me a better lawyer when I return to Empire Justice.  I have supervised clinic students in an unemployment insurance hearing (which we won!) and in a brief submitted to the Division of Human Rights, both of which were new experiences for me.   I have also been collaborating on many clinic classes with Professor Susan Hazeldean, who directs the LGBT Clinic.  By working closely with her and her clinic students, I have learned much more about legal issues affecting LGBT clients and the LGBT community, which is also an exciting new area for me.

Happily, by all indications, it appears that the law students gained much from their experiences, as well.  First, the students were very grateful for the opportunity to work on real cases.   As one student expressed, “The biggest reason why I wanted to work for the Legal Aid Clinic was because I wanted to stick my hands in the dirt and do some real lawyering instead of just slogging through abstract concepts in a lecture hall.  Wish fulfilled.”   Even more gratifying, the law students gained firsthand knowledge of the issues facing disenfranchised New Yorkers, which resonated on a personal level.   As one student explained, “As a patron of fast food establishments, I never gave much thought to the employees who were making my food and coffee.  In taking our client’s employment discrimination case, however, there was a reminder that the people working behind the counter are people too and not just machines that churn out coffee and a sandwich.  In fact, I no longer go to the fast food restaurant here in Ithaca, knowing that the employees are being poorly treated by their managers and the corporation.”  Because of insights such as these, I know that my Cornell experience will provide many lasting benefits when I return full-time to Empire Justice.