Contributed by the Office of Communications at Saint Louis University School of Law
The Jesuit mission of being men and women for and with others can be found throughout the curriculum and student activities at Saint Louis University School of Law, but it is felt most directly in the SLU LAW Legal Clinics. The four separate Legal Clinics serve as a pro bono, full-service law firm where students work directly with clients who could not otherwise afford legal representation in civil litigation, criminal defense, entrepreneurship and community development, and human rights.
After the 2014 death of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests in Ferguson, MO, the clinics sought to systemically reform the municipal court system in the St. Louis region, which had become ripe with corruption and predatory practices preying on the region’s poorest residents, by representing the protesters. They faced backlash from some lawyers and judges who worked within that system, but remained steadfast in their decision to work for racial justice.
Jessica L. Ciccone, director of communications at SLU LAW, recently sat down with two of the clinics’ professors and the dean emeritus of SLU LAW, who served at a time when living the mission of the law school was not always done easy. They reflected on their work and explained how they apply the Jesuit mission to the classroom and the courtroom.
John Ammann, McDonnell Professor of Justice in American Society, served as a director of the litigation clinic, where he focused on issues of unemployment, geriatric parole, Medicaid access, clemency and municipal court reform. After nearly three decades in the Legal Clinics, with two spent as director, he retired in Summer 2019, but continues to work on cases with students.
Brendan Roediger, director of the litigation clinic, focuses his practice on landlord tenant issues, civil rights and municipal court reform. He was recently profiled by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for his legal efforts in the protest movement in Ferguson and beyond.
Michael Wolff, dean and professor emeritus, served as dean of SLU LAW from 2012 – 2017. During that time, the national spotlight helped to create a movement for racial and social justice in the city of St. Louis and beyond. Wolff is also the former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and began his career as a legal services lawyer in Saint Paul, Denver and Rapid City, South Dakota.
On Practicing the Mission in the SLU LAW Legal Clinics:
John Ammann: Generally speaking, we represent the poor and the disadvantaged, and my view is that we win the minute we accept that person as a client. If we represent the poor and the disadvantaged, whatever the outcome, we have won because we have shown someone God’s love and care through our actions for even a brief time. So I think it is a victory whatever the court result is.
Brendan Roediger: When I was a new lawyer, and I was trying to be a “do-gooder lawyer,” I thought that I needed to find the type of law that allowed you to do good, and be a social justice and public interest lawyer. And I met this lawyer who I looked up to, who had done a lot of important civil rights work and he said, ‘It has nothing to do with what you do, it is who you do it for.’ Any area of law, just do it for the right people. To me, the mission for the law school is to serve the poor; it is that simple.
Michael Wolff: When you represent a particular client or group of clients, you are unsettling some other people. Because obviously you don’t get to do social justice for free. It is going to cost somebody something, usually somebody who has done wrong to our clients or some institution or some government who has disadvantaged the clients. And so in that sense, you are pushing back against very established, economically comfortable people and institutions.
A Jesuit law school is uniquely positioned to withstand that kind of pressure.
On Living the Mission When It’s Not Easy:
Ammann: We have taken some extreme criticism over the years. We took criticism over our representation of people against municipalities like Ferguson. And if you worried about that [kind of] stuff, you could never get anything done.
Roediger: Mike Wolff made an important intervention when things were really difficult, [when] some people who represent certain systems — municipal courts and other systems — felt under attack. Mike entered at this really important moment, and in part he entered because he was getting calls from people saying ‘Hey, get these people under control.’ Mike said ‘No, these are clients. Our clinic professors and students are representing actual human beings who have a desired outcome, and those human beings are poor and fit within our mission. They are going to advocate for them.’ And I think as much as it was the right intervention for all sorts of tactical reasons, it was also a very good reminder to me.
Wolff: That mission is also consistent with the ethical rules for lawyers. Prominently, a lawyer does not let an outside party control the advocacy that a lawyer does on behalf of his client. Every lawyer has been taught that, some of them have forgotten. And they sometimes need to be reminded.
On Teaching the Mission:
Wolff: Being a lawyer is sometimes hard and sometimes it’s lonely. If [students] are engaged, even for a brief time in law school, on behalf of some cause that really has implications…you become sensitized to it, and so you remember that.
Ammann: I like to say that I am the highest paid chauffeur in the city of St. Louis because my job is over when I drive the students to the women’s prison — that is all I have to do. I arrange the visit, we drive the four hours to meet with our clients who are there, and God does the rest. The students come out, they are hugging the women, and the women are in tears and the students are in tears. They have made that human connection. And the students come away from meeting women who have been convicted and say, ‘Why is this woman in lockup?’ All that I really have to do is put the students in the right place: prisons, homeless shelters, courtrooms. To put them where they can find God’s presence.
Roediger: I think students come to the clinic excited to change the world. And I think they imagine that law is one of the ways that [they] can do that. But I think the most meaningful moments are not the first time a student is in front of a judge or the first time that a student is doing something “important,” but walking into a courtroom and seeing sixteen black men shackled together. For the first time, it dawns on students that this is the system that they are entering. The practice of law in the United States means proximity to this sort of oppression and that we bear some responsibility.