Faculty Spotlight

Leading The Justice Center into the Future: Q&A with Director Sarah Rogerson

Sarah Rogerson

By Lauren Mineau
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Professor Sarah Rogerson is taking over as director of The Justice Center at Albany Law School at a crucial time. More and more, students are seeking meaningful opportunities to make a difference. Looking ahead, the law school’s clinical, pro bono, and field placement programs will be instrumental in training the next generation of legal professionals.

Rogerson plans for The Justice Center to continue offering tremendous real-world experience while also teaching students to be compassionate—as people and as lawyers. That’s in addition to developing in students the techniques to stay mentally strong, avoiding burnout and “compassion fatigue.”

Here’s how she plans to tackle it all.

Adjusting to remote work happened very suddenly at the start of the pandemic. Now that some time has passed, how will The Justice Center plan to use and develop more technology going forward?

The reason why this law school is so great is that we can be nimble in terms of the technology. So, we've discovered technology that we didn't know that we had access to that protects [client] confidentiality and private information but still allows students to do work from home.

We’re testing [a new program] right now that will allow students to essentially bring their clinic desktop to their home so they’ll be able to have access to their computer as if they were on campus.

And that's really important for lots of reasons, especially confidentiality. In the clinic, we keep clients’ sensitive information separate from the rest of the law school.

As society figures out how the modern law firm operates, which likely includes this remote style of work, do you see more of that in the curriculum going forward—particularly teaching skills to be a good lawyer both online and in-person?

We’re touching on everything from professionalism—for example, how you present yourself online and remotely—to confidentiality, things are at the core of law practice that we try to teach in the clinic. We’re in the process right now of changing up our entire clinic office procedure manual. But basically, the nuts and bolts of the practice remain, just adapted for remote practice.

COVID-19 has changed a lot of [procedures], in terms of security protocols and things that you have to be mindful of. For example, in the immigration law clinic, we often have the added complication of needing translation services, which means an additional secure line needs to be added for client meetings. Also, immigration courts keep changing their practice advisories due to COVID, including motion practice for telephon appearances – that has been particularly tricky. However, we have some experience with remote representation before COVID, particularly in rural areas, so that helps.

Ultimately, I don't think anyone knows what the long-term impact will be. But necessity is the mother of invention. So, because we have to do things differently, we will learn how to do things differently in ways that actually make our practice better. And, in the meantime, we just have to be constantly vigilant and thinking about how it changes the practice of law. It will hit students as early as the first year because there are ethical considerations around test-taking. When finals were completely online at the end of the spring semester, we had to think about honor codes and different ways to navigate the ethics of online test-taking. But on the whole, I think it's really more opportunity than anything else.

Practicing law is ultimately an interactive human enterprise.  I would hate to see us be so enamored of technology that it creates a disconnected practice. So, we have to find ways in our clinical practice to build community despite a lack of [physical] connection.

What are some ways you see that happening?

Something as simple as letting that [client] know that you're in a room, part of your apartment or house, where no one else can hear. Letting somebody know what the environment is like that you're in, because they can't experience it when they're not with you. So that's just one of the little things like that can make a big difference.

Another piece of it is remembering to ask the client if they're in a secure location. Those are the types of things that we're going to be working on and just in terms of the practice and learning how to build relationships and ensure security when you're not able to be physically present.

With three crucial, societal issues at play right now—racial justice, economic instability and housing issues, and the public health issues surrounding COVID-19—how do you expect the profession to mold and adapt to each of them?

There's a big push towards educating students about movement lawyering. That will require us as an academy to accomplish more than just [learning by] textbooks and really dig into the norms and values around what it means to represent a movement.

We have students—in the wake of George Floyd’s killing—who are in the streets as protesters themselves. We had students who were signing up to be neutral legal observers to make sure that the other protesters’ rights were respected, to monitor and document interactions with law enforcement, and we have students working behind the scenes to help community organizations identify their priorities.

We have students who are dedicating their personal and professional time to justice work. Our challenge is to rethink the pedagogy around what it means to represent an idea, or a group with an idea, as opposed to an individual civil right. The students recently asked for the clinic to explore the creation of a standalone racial justice clinic and we are taking that call very seriously.

I think part of being a responsive institution also means an inward-looking focus to make sure that we're modeling justice in our programming. What do our policies look like inside the Justice Center? What are we showing the students in terms of the future of the profession and who we choose to represent? We have students and alumni who are working in the legislature to pass packages and reforms that will ultimately, hopefully, change the state of things on these issues.

But we also follow our students’ lead a lot of times. It's often the students who are working on a pro bono project or in a field placement that notice something that doesn't seem right to them. Then that leads to a project and then that project leads to a new program.

Some of the more impactful things that we've done as an institution have been student-led, and students showing their passion, demonstrating it through the choices that they make in their education.

How can students make a difference now?

When John Lewis and his fellow civil rights leaders were imprisoned, it was lawyers who came to help them. It was lawyers who fought to get them out. And I think the students are hearing that lawyers can and do serve an important role.

And we have to teach them.

It's about making those choices about what level of engagement you're going to engage in, and whether you're participating in something as a personal matter, a professional one, or both.

I think we're experiencing a revolution in terms of what's acceptable in the workplace, especially if you're going to be working in the public interest or public service, where you're expected to have an opinion. We always tell [students] to be careful about what they're saying. But you don't have to hide the things that you care about. You do need to be strategic in how best to affect them.

You have done a tremendous amount of work as director of the Immigration Law Clinic. Are there any of the other clinics or subject areas that you're looking forward to spending a little more time with now that you're leading The Justice Center?

I’ve been in the clinical program for nine years here and we do talk to each other about what types of cases we are working on. I think as a group, we know who we are. So, the trick is to find out what the highest and best use of our gifts and talents are going forward.

We’re seeing a couple of things.

A strong push from students for racial justice to feature more prominently in the work that we do. I think every single clinic touches on it and each of us teaches multicultural lawyering.

But we're now exploring what it means to be an anti-racist lawyer. We’re looking to open up additional opportunities for students to participate and move the needle on racial justice. We’ve started a program where field supervisors are asked to complete mandatory training on implicit bias and racial justice, to make sure that when we're sending our students out into the field that they're also being sent to supervisors who have some fluency.

Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, we saw that some hospitals were in real trouble. So not only individual health issues in terms of navigating the healthcare system—which traditionally has been the work of our health clinic—but there's a racial justice component to health outcomes. We’re looking at how these various lenses can come together in each of the clinics so that we're not thinking of each clinic as, “Oh, that's the Health Law Clinic and that's the immigration clinic and that's the family clinic.” Every single clinic that you take, you will get some exposure to racial justice issues.

We have to make sure that we are drawing on current events and paying attention to the lens through which we're teaching these subjects. Immigration has always had an explicitly racial component because the origins of our immigration laws are explicitly racist. That's something that I've taught for a long time. There are also opportunities related to criminal defense that we are exploring, independent of a standalone racial justice clinic.

We haven't had a criminal defense clinic in quite some time. We used to have a general litigation clinic that would work on housing issues, which is also going to be a big area—people are hard hit. Lately, our Community Economic Development Clinic has been working on housing issues, including affordable housing. Moving forward, our trick will be to see the opportunities and where we can be most helpful, remembering that we're attached to a larger institution and strategic planning process.

There are some areas where our legal service providers should do the bulk of the work where there's high volume practice, because it isn’t appropriate for us to bury students in cases when they’re learning technical skills, establishing a professional identity and exploring building habits of resiliency in their practice to avoid burnout.

So where do we fit? How can we help without duplicating services that are already offered?

Involvement with a clinic opens so many doors for Albany Law School students—as well as the hundreds of clients they help. But what does The Justice Center do for you—what does it provide you?

I came to clinical teaching before I even knew that it was something that I wanted to do with my career as a law student. And the first case that I ever handled, ever, in my career, was an asylum case from the Republic of Congo, which to this day remains one of the most impactful cases I have ever worked on. So very early on, I personally experienced the challenging and fulfilling impact of clinical legal education.

It took a bit of a winding road for me to understand that teaching was what I was supposed to do with my life. I worked in the private sector, I worked in a nonprofit setting, and what I discovered on my professional path was the power of being part of a community that can collaborate. The way that we do [things at] the clinic isn't just me, or whoever leads it, and it's not just the faculty, but it's organic. It's a group of people who are dedicated to change and it includes non-clinical faculty as well. We have other faculty throughout the law school who are passionate about these issues.

The reason why I love this work is that I'm able to constantly build teams that ultimately do good work in the world. I think most people who go to law school, want to go to law school because they want to make a difference in the world. Most people want to change the outcomes for people and do it in a positive way. In the clinic, the very process of learning the law has an immediate impact on the world around you and your community, your own backyard.

To connect all of those dots—students, clinical faculty, non-clinical faculty, community groups, and alumni—all together and get groups focused on a common cause or area where they want to make an impact that's real and tangible, I think that that's what gets me excited about doing this particular job.

In the clinic, we're helping to lift up the community that we belong to and that's what appeals to me.

As a law professor, I also have the privilege of taking time away from the work and lawyering to think about lawyering as a concept, to think about justice as a concept, and to contribute to the scholarly conversation about what we're all doing together. It’s a very powerful and fulfilling mission to be a part of, and it’s a sobering challenge to be lead our team forward in this particularly difficult and uncertain moment as a profession and as a country.

Sarah Rogerson