Civil Litigation Center
At Northwestern University School of Law's Civil Litigation Center, part of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, students litigate a wide variety of civil cases. The emphasis of this Center is poverty law cases in which students advocate for clients at court in trials or in motions. Students take depositions, draft written discovery, prepare and argue motions and try cases. They regularly interview clients at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago's Loop office and make presentations at case acceptance meetings. Weekly class sessions focus on developing students' pre-trial litigation skills - interviewing, counseling, case planning, negotiation, discovery, and motion practice - brainstorming alternative strategies for litigating cases and exploring various social and legal issues affecting the poor.
Cases handled by students and faculty in the Center encompass a wide variety of legal subjects, but in recent years have concentrated on the defense of public housing tenants from eviction, advocacy for students denied appropriate educational services, representation of victims of predatory lending and consumer fraud and representation of journalists seeking government documents under the Freedom of Information Act. In the past, the program has focused on the areas of prisoners' rights, the protection of clients from abusive divorce attorneys, and the representation of victims of domestic violence.
The Civil Litigation Center frequently collaborates with other Bluhm Clinic Centers, including the Center for Criminal Defense in cases where tenants are faced with eviction for alleged criminal activity, and the Children and Family Justice Center in cases when K-12 students are being denied special education services.
"Students in this Center gain experience working in the area of poverty law; they take leadership at the very beginning," says Civil Litigation Center director John Elson. "They become confident in their interviewing and basic litigation skills and gain sensitivity and appreciation for what it is like to be a poor person facing devastating legal problems."
Through the Center's weekly class sessions and hands-on client representation, students become versed in developing "theories of the case" or how to develop factual and legal strategies that will achieve their clients' goals. Most often, implementation of the students' case theories results from their interviewing clients, drafting interrogatories and document production requests, taking depositions, drafting and arguing motions and on occasion trying the full case to a jury or judge. "I think it especially important for my students to take depositions," adds Elson. "It's an experience they are not likely to gain in their first few years of law practice, and it is far better for them to try out their fledgling skills and make beginners' mistakes here in a clinical setting under close faculty supervision than when they are proving themselves at a law firm."