Among the many factors that drew me to Stanford Law School, the clinic program was particularly impressive, notably because of how students have the opportunity to dedicate themselves full time to their clients. When it came time at the end of my 1L year to apply to clinics, I didn’t hesitate. I chose to apply to the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, as I had experience in human rights issues and the clinic provided an incredible opportunity to work closely with a client who had suffered from human rights abuses abroad and now sought safety in the United States.
When I began full-time clinic in the spring of 2016, my clinic partner, Reid Gardner, JD ’17, and I were assigned a client, “E” (name abbreviated for confidentiality). Like myself, E was new to the clinic, but she was already in proceedings that would remove her from the United States. In her home country, E had witnessed a brutal murder committed by a powerful gang and a corrupt police of officer. As a known witness, she was targeted and severely harmed. She bravely pursued justice even while knowing she could never be safe again in her home country. E came to the United States to escape the threats in her home country and was seeking asylum, a legal status that would allow her to stay if she proved, through court appearances and extensive documentation, fear of persecution in her home country.
When we first met E, she was nervous about sharing her story, so much that we were not being told critical information we needed to best develop her case. With these concerns in mind, we spent hours carefully developing detailed outlines to guide our meetings with E. With our supervising attorney, Lisa Weissman-Ward, we considered what to discuss with E in each meeting, based on the level of rapport we had established; how to frame our questions; and what types of questions might help us get the information we needed. We also applied lessons we had learned in our regular clinic classes led by the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, Jayashri Srikantiah, particularly our class that focused on working with trauma survivors.
During weekly case rounds with the attorneys and other students in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, we shared our concerns that we were not getting the information we needed and brainstormed tactics that could help E become more open. We discussed a range of issues that might be making her uncomfortable, beyond the sensitive nature of the information, ranging from our own mannerisms and way of speaking to the temperature of the room and the arrangement of where we sat. Decisions that might have seemed unintentional to E were meticulously assessed. The preparation that went into each week’s meeting paid off. E began to open up. She told us about incidents she had experienced that she had not told anyone before.
However, asylum cases are not resolved in the span of a single quarter. After working full time with E over that quarter, I knew that I needed to enroll in the clinic as an advanced student so that I could see her case through to the end. E was elated that I would continue to represent her on her legal journey. She showed me that she trusted me as her attorney, and that trust was essential to successful representation.
Working with E through the final hearing was an incredible learning experience, one I never imagined I would have as a law student. I handled every aspect of the case from the first meeting through the final hearing.
Over the fall quarter, we focused on finalizing her declaration. The declaration was the linchpin of her case. It was her narrative and included a detailed depiction of the harm she had suffered and demonstrated the courage and strength she possessed. As we reviewed parts of her story in more detail, we became even closer. We communicated every couple of days, often to simply check in on other parts of her life. While our meetings were never light, we always found breaks to laugh, about mistranslations or cultural differences. The meetings ended with a hug and a heartfelt thank you from E, which inspired me to continue my work each week.
In addition to meeting with E and drafting her declaration, I worked on many other court documents, according to a detailed timeline I developed with Lisa at the start of the fall quarter. Before starting on each piece of the case, I would meet with Lisa for guidance and to discuss our legal strategy, and I would look to practice manuals and documents from previous clinic cases as examples.
I wrote a pre-hearing brief with our best legal arguments, interviewed multiple corroborative witnesses, gathered evidence to support her case, and compiled research on country conditions. We also obtained two expert witness statements. After many drafts, the final evidentiary packet led with the court totaled more than 700 pages.
In the winter quarter leading up to the hearing, I focused on preparing E and another key fact witness for testimony through informal meetings and formal moots with Lisa and other clinic students. After each practice, I carefully re-considered how best to phrase my questions to elicit testimony that would be most relevant and persuasive to the court, and I practiced developing re-direct questions for different scenarios. I wrote an opening statement and a closing statement. I even had the opportunity to negotiate with opposing counsel, who ultimately agreed to stipulate to certain key legal issues.
The day before the hearing, while I reviewed my closing statement and practiced my questions for direct and re-direct testimony with Lisa, I was nervous but confident that I was prepared and had done my “homework” to represent E to the best of my ability. I had come to know her and her story, and I knew the record better than anyone could. I also had the opportunity in my first clinic quarter to lead E’s master calendar hearing, in which this final hearing was scheduled, so I was familiar with the judge and the basic questions and protocols in the court. Despite her very understandable nerves, E put faith in me—and I was grateful.
All the time and work was more than worth it, when the judge told E at the end of the hearing that he was granting her asylum. I won’t forget the moment when we looked at each other, holding back tears, and shared a mutual feeling of “we did it!” I felt so proud of her. I was relieved and overjoyed that she could stay safely in the United States and also have a chance to finally begin moving past the traumatic events that she had suffered in her home country.
Working with E and obtaining asylum for her was one of the most rewarding and inspiring experiences of my life, and I feel privileged to have represented her. As for E, I know that she feels that some of the main burdens in her life have been lifted off her shoulders. The day after the hearing, she wrote to me asking for the pictures we had taken following our win. She explained, “I want the pictures so that I can look at them and remember the best day of my life in the United States.”
The best day of her life was one of my proudest moments. I will carry that memory with me as I move into the full-time legal profession this fall, when I start as an associate at Crowell & Moring in Los Angeles.