NIU’s Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic honors 10 years of courtroom advocacy for Rockford community

NIU law students stand outside the Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic in Rockford.

NIU law students stand outside the Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic in Rockford.

The NIU College of Law’s Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic has been changing lives for a decade, both for the clients it serves and the students who work there.

The clinic marked its 10th anniversary by hosting an event Wednesday, Nov. 16, that included Mike Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.

Madigan was a protégé of the clinic’s namesake, E.J. “Zeke” Giorgi, the longtime Rock River Valley legislator (1965-1993) who was instrumental in bringing the College of Law to NIU.

Opened in the fall of 2001, the clinic provides third-year law students the opportunity to practice law under the supervision of experienced attorneys, learning lessons that cannot be found in textbooks.

“The experience our students gain working in the Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic is so focused, so intense and so comprehensive that it gets into the DNA of a young lawyer,” says Jennifer Rosato, dean of the NIU College of Law. “They learn not only about the practice of law, but also about empathy and the power of being an advocate. It’s an extraordinary experience.”

Since opening, the clinic has enrolled 274 students who have worked on more than 2,000 cases. Mostly of the work they do is on behalf of the elderly or victims of abuse. One thing all of the clients have in common is that without the clinic they could not afford legal representation.

“People come to us because they have nowhere else to go,” says clinical associate professor Paul Cain, who has overseen students at the clinic for eight years, watching them undergo the transformation from nervous law students to soon-to-be lawyers.

“For all of our students, this is the first time that they have had responsibility for an actual, live client. They handle the case from the initial intake through its resolution. They do all of the paperwork, write all of the motions, and if we go to court, it is the student who addresses the judge and examines the witnesses,” says Cain. “They learn the realities of practicing law as opposed to the academic side. Facts don’t come in neat little packages like they do in casebooks and appellate opinions.”

Photo of a plaque awarded to NIU's Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic for excellence in pro bono and public interest services.Along the way, students also gain the realization that the outcome of a case can have a profound impact on the life of a client.

Sometimes their services can even be life saving, says Karen Gill, vice president of Remedies Renewing Lives, a domestic violence shelter and services program serving Rockford and Belvidere.

“Very often we work with women and children who have major safety issues,” says Gill. “Our organization can secure orders of protection, but the Zeke Giorgi clinic can help them obtain custody orders, or get a marriage dissolved – things that can get these women out from under an abuser’s control. We can only put a Band Aid on the problem, but the Giorgi clinic can stitch it up.”

For their help in such instances, Gill nominated the clinic for the Partner in Peace Award, which the clinic received in 2010.

Helping clients in such situations is not always a simple matter, which is where Cain, and clinical assistant professor Wendy Vaughn, figure into the equation. The two work alongside each of the law students throughout each case, reviewing documents, offering advice, sitting in on interviews and having students rehearse courtroom presentations again and again.

That oversight and the light caseload that students carry (five or six cases a semester, as compared to maybe 200 cases at any given time for a public defender) helps the clinic maintain a very high success rate, Cain says.

Still, even with that that kind of support, it is nerve-racking to stand in front of a judge for the first time, says Sara Cavanagh a 2003 graduate of NIU-Law who vividly remembers that experience when she served at the clinic.

Nerves aside, the experience she gained was invaluable.

“I got to interview clients, write memoranda, appear in court – it taught me the basics of things I still do every day. That real life experience made the clinic my favorite part of law school,” Cavanaugh says.

She also found affirmation that she had chosen the correct career path.

“One of my first cases was drafting a will for a woman with some health issues. It felt like I was actually helping someone – and it reaffirmed for me why I wanted to practice law,” says Cavanagh, who currently works in the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Jennifer L. Rosato

Jennifer L. Rosato

Many students leave the clinic with a similar sentiment, as well as a greater appreciation for the important roles a lawyer can play for a client, Rosato says.

“There is a sense of empowerment that comes from standing up and arguing for a victim and serving as an advocate. It provides a tremendous sense of accomplishment that they carry with them as they start their career.”

It also improves the students’ job prospects.

“Employers look for graduates who have some experience working with complex problems and clients – and the clinic provides that,” Rosato says. “These students leave with vastly improved skills and a sense of what it means to be an ethical professional in the legal community.”

The NIU College of Law offers a number of other opportunities for hands-on learning such as internships and externships, but nothing compares to the comprehensive experience that students get at the Zeke Giorgi clinic.

“Right now this is our only clinic,” says Rosato. “Hopefully it won’t be the last.”

 

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