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Pro Bono Clinics Offer MC Law Students Experiential Legal Training, Community Service Opportunities

Shirley Terry Kennedy, director of child advocacy and director of the Family and Children’s Law Center at the Mississippi College School of Law, said students can get a taste of what it's like to practice law by participating in the school's pro bono clinics.
Shirley Terry Kennedy, director of child advocacy and director of the Family and Children’s Law Center at the Mississippi College School of Law, said students can get a taste of what it's like to practice law by participating in the school's pro bono clinics.

When contemplating questions of children’s well-being, the nature of their childhood, and the rest of their lives, Megan Rogers-Hasie discovered there are no clear-cut answers.

While serving as a paralegal for more than two years, the Kansas City, Missouri, native developed a passion for family law and children’s advocacy. When she attended the Mississippi College School of Law, under the state’s Limited Practice Rule, she had an opportunity to work on actual cases in the school’s pro bono Adoption Clinic and Guardian ad Litem Clinic.

As a law student attorney, she finalized adoptions, worked with Child Protective Services, investigated cases of custody modification and child endangerment, and even served as lead attorney at a trial for termination of parental rights.

“Both clinics put me in the role of a managing attorney on my cases,” said Rogers-Hasie, who graduated from MC Law cum laude in 2020. “I was responsible for client contact and preparing and filing petitions, motions, and proposed orders. I had direct communication with judges and attorneys.

“The Adoption Clinic was meaningful because we were able to get children adopted out of Child Protective Services’ custody and into their forever homes. The GAL Clinic was an adventure with constant twists and turns – it was my first experience with real litigation.”

That experience helped prepare her to provide compassionate representation for criminal defense clients during the pre-indictment, trial, and post-conviction stages of the criminal justice process. An associate attorney for Carmody, Stewart & Mixon in Flowood, she is the firm’s only attorney that handles family law cases.

“The firm has a primarily criminal defense practice,” she said. “When I joined, I started our family law division. I regularly take GAL appointments across five counties – that’s something I may not have gotten into if not for my time in the MC Law pro bono clinics.

“The courtroom experience, learning how to draft a petition and a proposed order, putting civil procedure lessons into practice, such as noticing a hearing date, understanding the cardinal rule of always being kind to the court staff – the clinics provide you with real-life experience that you don’t get in the classroom or from working as a clerk in a firm or agency. I was better prepared because of my time in the clinics.”

Countless indigent and low-income residents throughout central Mississippi have benefited from the free legal services provided by students in MC Law’s pro bono clinics. Litigation can be expensive, and Rogers-Hasie said a lot of those who need representation in court aren’t necessarily there for financial reasons.

“It’s good that the community can count on the law school to provide legal services that are otherwise cost-prohibitive,” she said.

Professors Shirley Terry Kennedy and Crystal Welch are the driving forces behind the pro bono clinics at the MC School of Law. Kennedy's formal title may be director of child advocacy and director of the Family and Children’s Law Center. Kennedy started MC Law's Child Advocacy enterprise 23 years ago, and there is no greater advocate for student participation in the MC Law pro bono clinics.

“The advantage of doing a clinic is you’re working with real people, and it’s the real practice of law,” Kennedy said. “Law students see all the pleadings that are filed. They get to understand what the status of the case is. They serve as the investigative arm for the judge. They develop evidence about what’s in the best interests of the child. They have a courtroom experience. The law student testifies, and they get grilled by an attorney and by the judge.

“Students get a taste of the practice to determine what they like and what they don’t. What a wonderful thing for a student to jump in and find out before choosing their practice.”

Kennedy runs the Guardian ad Litem Clinic, teaches courses in juvenile law and in the child advocacy clinics, and serves as the faculty advisor for the Family Law Society and the Certificate Program in Family and Juvenile Law. Her areas of expertise include child advocacy, adoption law, guardians ad litem, and juvenile law.

A graduate of MC Law with high honors, Kennedy was hired in 2000 to develop the school’s child advocacy program.

“Clinical education was a fairly new idea at the time,” she said. MC Law conducts an externship program that offers students valuable experience in the State Attorney General or District Attorney’s Office.

The first pro bono clinic she started was the Youth Court Clinic. Kennedy sent students to assist youth court judges with juvenile, juvenile delinquency, and abuse-and-neglect cases brought by Child Protective Services. The MC Law students’ impeccable work drew the attention of chancery court judges who recognized a need for assistance with private-sector child custody cases. Soon, Kennedy launched the Guardian ad Litem Clinic.

“Our statutes in Mississippi provide that anytime there is an allegation of abuse or neglect, the child gets a guardian ad litem – an attorney to represent the best interests of the child and make recommendations to the court,” Kennedy said. “Chancery courts are where the cases of custody are when CPS is not involved, but competing parties are vying for custody.

“Neither the county nor the state pays for that attorney, so the parents have to provide them. The judges were looking for pro bono representation for the children.”

Under the Law School Limited Practice Rule, law students can represent clients or children in cases as long as they’re under the supervision of a clinical professor. They assist the clinical professor and work under the clinical professor’s bar number, but the clinical professor has to accompany the students to all court appearances. Students are prohibited from being paid for their work, but they can receive academic credit.

“It’s a win-win arrangement,” Kennedy said. “The law students get substantive legal experience in the areas of law that the clinic participates in – the clients or children who can’t afford an attorney win. And the courts win, because they get some needed legal work. In fact, there are not enough pro bono attorneys to take all of these cases.

“It’s a great resource for the community and for the courts in our area.”

The next pro bono clinic Kennedy developed at MC Law – the Adoption Legal Clinic – was particularly meaningful to the clinical professor. She and her husband are the adoptive parents of two children. Through the adoption process, Kennedy discovered her affinity for child advocacy in the law.

“When I graduated from MC Law School, I was doing municipal finance for local firm Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes,” she said. “I never thought I was going to practice family law at all. But God had a different plan for me.

“I became interested in that area of the law, and the law school was looking to develop a child advocacy program. Timing is everything.”

MC Law partners with Child Protective Services to help complete adoptions for foster care children that have been placed in their respective homes. It’s important that CPS stay current on its cases because the state of Mississippi receives federal matching funds for the number of adoptions that are completed each year.

“This was an opportunity for the law school to step in and assist the state and help maximize the number of adoptions,” Kennedy said. “The students learn how to do adoption work, and it helps many of those parents with their first legal experience.

“We’ve had a successful, wonderful relationship with Child Protective Services over the years.”

Crystal Welch, associate clinical professor at MC Law, now serves as director of the Adoption Legal Clinic.

Although the pro bono clinics proved successful, only some law students are interested in practicing family law. So, Kennedy began to search for other clinical opportunities for law students that would meet Mississippi Bar Association guidelines.

MC Law added a Veterans Legal Aid Clinic to assist veterans in the Tri-County area. Students help veterans with housing matters, social security questions, medical needs, and other challenges. The clinic is led by Joel Jones, adjunct clinical supervising attorney and military veteran.

“There’s a different set of laws for veterans, and you have to know military law to help them,” Kennedy said. “The veterans receive free legal advice, and the students learn how to practice in that area of the law.”

Seeking to offer students experience in the general practice of law, MC Law added a pro bono clinic at the Madison County Courthouse in Canton. MC Law students take a wide range of pro bono cases there, such as motions for summary judgment, land disputes, and estate challenges.

“These are first-time clients who can’t afford an attorney and are trying to represent themselves,” Kennedy said. “The students help smooth out the process by providing legal representation that helps make things easier for the judge, the court, and the client.”

A successful outreach program with First Baptist Church in Jackson led to MC Law’s sixth pro bono clinic, the Mission First Legal Aid Clinic. Directed by Seth Shannon, an adjunct professor at the law school, the clinic offers an opportunity for students to provide representation for individuals who are working, but don’t have enough money to afford an attorney.

Much of the work involves family law, including guardianship issues, private adoptions, custody cases, and housing challenges. “It’s a real service to an area of our community that can’t afford legal representation,” Kennedy said.

She said the success of its clinics has led MC Law to launch another pro bono offering next spring. Branching into the Mississippi Delta, the transactional clinic will provide opportunities for MC Law students to help rightful landowners in the region secure property titles for their families.

“This is land that has been passed down from generation to generation, but since their ancestors died, there have been title issues,” Kennedy said. “Students will also help these individuals write wills so they can pass their property on to succeeding generations.

“I am excited for this clinic, because a lot of law students don’t want to litigate – they want to do transactional work. This will give them training in property law, and they will learn how to do estate planning for these individuals.”

Since their inception at MC Law, the pro bono clinics have become an integral part of the school’s curriculum. In recent years, the American Bar Association has mandated that law schools provide a minimum of six academic credit hours in experiential learning to be eligible for full accreditation. The clinics MC Law offers help the school meet this requirement.

“The Bar Association is putting an emphasis, not just on book learning, but on practical legal education,” Kennedy said. “Experiential learning requires students to practice law in some manner. The Bar wants law students to graduate having had practical experience.

“It’s a real coup that legal education has gone in this direction. I’m excited that we’ve been able to develop all these different clinical experiences for the students, and I think they like it, too. We can teach them things in books all day, but until they go out there and try to practice law themselves, they can’t fully understand the practice of law.”

That was Rogers-Hasie’s experience. She relished the opportunity to practice her craft while in law school at MC, and she values those who have participated in pro bono clinics as students.

“When I talk with law clerks and students about their coursework, I advise them to enroll in a clinic,” she said. “When looking for a clerk to hire, I put more stock into a clinic enrollment. It’s one of the best opportunities available in law school, and I think MC Law does an incredible job of providing those opportunities for students.

“It prepares them for practice in a practical way.”

Not only does pro bono experience make MC Law graduates more marketable, but the clinics help them fulfill their Christian mission, Kennedy said.

“We’re training lawyers to give back, and they are becoming better prepared to practice law than ever before,” she said. “Part of the legal education that Mississippi College gives its students is a sense of responsibility to the community. We have many alums who contribute a lot of pro bono hours every year.

“It’s rewarding to provide legal assistance to those in need.”

For more information about the pro bono clinics at Mississippi College, click here.