By Olivia Klein
“It was one of the best, if not the best, parts of my law school experience.”
Jason Salgado, JD ‘21, smiles as he reflects on his multiple semesters as a student in the Employment Law Clinic. “It was great to be on the ground and help out with employment law work practically, while also still having the chance to be in the classroom to learn the more theoretical side of things.”
Salgado captures the essence of the Employment Law Clinic, an externship clinic that places students with a wide variety of organizations practicing employment law in the Greater Boston Area. The experiential learning happening at organizations spanning government agencies, direct legal services, local firms, and legal advocacy nonprofits is paired with a weekly classroom seminar, led by director Steve Churchill, in which students have an opportunity to practice advocacy skills and enforcement strategies.
From September 2019 to January 2021, Salgado worked with Lichten & Liss-Riordan, a local labor, employment, and class action specialist law firm. “I did a lot of briefing, legal research and writing, which was just what I was looking for. The firm does a lot of cutting-edge work, especially in class action cases and gig economy cases, which I was really interested in. I wanted to bring that experience back to Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) to help clients who may not be a part of the class actions or are underserved in other ways,” Salgado reflects.
Prior to law school, Salgado worked with GBLS as an AmeriCorps member. “It was an incredible experience and really shaped my path in law school, solidifying my interest in wanting to do public interest work and legal services work. Part of what drew me to HLS was the clinical program itself, getting to have the practical experiences.” Upon his graduation from HLS in 2021, a serendipitous opening in the Employment Law Unit at GBLS gave Salgado the chance to return, now with a trove of knowledge from his work in the clinic.
“I constantly use what I learned at the firm,” he says. One major project he worked on as a student involved a class action suit related to the gig economy, arguing that Uber and Lyft drivers are misclassified as independent contractors. His work at GBLS may seem disparate, but Salgado has found connections. “The misclassification issue also shuts workers out of access to unemployment insurance, which will be a really big problem now that the pandemic-related federal programs have expired. I use the experience from my clinic work to bring that knowledge into the unemployment insurance realm and help workers that might not be able to join class actions.”
In his years working with students like Salgado, clinic director Steve Churchill, JD ’93, has seen them drawn to both the hands-on opportunity to provide legal assistance on cases that greatly impact clients’ everyday lives and to the food for thought working in this area offers. “People’s jobs are so important in terms of what’s going on in their lives. Helping people with their employment problems is very rewarding,” he says. “At the same time, employment law is a very intellectually stimulating area. Every year, there are multiple cases in the Supreme Court. There are many issues that are unresolved, there’s constant tension between employees and employers in terms of how the law is developing. Finding that intellectual component along with the personal reward of helping people is a potent combination.”
The proximity to issues that have such great influence on individuals’ lives was a relevant factor for Abdel Rodriguez, JD ‘23, when choosing to join the clinic. “People deserve to be paid, so I think it’s very good work,” he says. “My parents and I immigrated, so there’s the connection of helping immigrant workers like my parents. They’ve faced issues, because that’s what happens when you’re in a new country. There was a personal component there, but I also just felt that the clinic is doing good work.”
This fall, Rodriguez worked with Justice at Work, a Boston-based legal nonprofit that supports organizations of workers in low-paying jobs, through direct legal assistance and by training and counseling workers on how to be their own best advocates. “One thing I like about the legal profession is that ability to delve into issues and learn new things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to learn.”
Rodriguez has also enjoyed being exposed to broader issues in the field of employment law through interactions with the other attorneys at his office, something students at every placement echoed. “Going to the office and hearing about the work they’re doing and what they’re thinking about, not just the particular work of the organization but employment law in Massachusetts generally, has been really nice.”
Students in the clinic also gain perspective on immediate and systemic issues in employment law from in their weekly seminar, led by Churchill. Since every student is placed with a different organization in many sectors of the field, discussions are fruitful. “I would always have so much food for thought that I’d have to write it down ahead of time,” says Yoon Kyung (Eunnie) Lee, JD ‘20. “There were many issues we’d discuss that were very pertinent to current political issues, and every time there would be different opinions, which is always true in law school classes. Here I met friends and colleagues who are passionate about different issues in labor and employment law who I otherwise would not have met had it not been for this clinic. And the discussions often went deep into the actual matters every person was experiencing in their own jobs.”
Churchill has directed the clinic since 2004, while continuing to work as an attorney at Fair Work, P.C., in Boston, one of the top employee-side law firms in Massachusetts. Students appreciate Steve’s perspective as not only an educator, but as a practicing attorney in the field. “The course was amazing,” says Jeewon Lee, JD ‘22. “Steve Churchill is so knowledgeable in the employment law field. He would make presentations and discuss landmark cases in the field, and he was also very real. He would speak to us about a lot of practical advice. Because he’s a practicing lawyer, it was really helpful to not only hear the theory of employment law, but also to hear about his experiences.”
Jeewon Lee was placed at the local plaintiff’s law firm Gordon Law Group during the Spring 2021 semester. She enrolled in the clinic looking to work on issues that impact people in their daily lives. “In employment law, there were so many issues that interested me personally, the huge one being discrimination based on gender, race, and national origin. I am an Asian woman and I’m also a foreign student, so I very much know what it feels like not to be American. Serving clients facing employment discrimination was my biggest interest and why I wanted to do the clinic.”
Working on the plaintiff’s side of cases at the firm gave Jeewon the opportunity to see what life as a practicing lawyer will be like. “What I really appreciated was how candid the attorneys were about their work and how we should approach cases. They very much treated me like part of the team and not just a student intern; they really did integrate me into their cases and would give me feedback on the work I did.” Jeewon’s team relied on her to research precedents in the First Circuit and Massachusetts District Courts to help build their cases.
Immersing herself in the sometimes messy, occasionally disorganized world of real-life lawyering offered Jeewon valuable lessons: “I developed the skill of being internally organized when it comes to approaching cases – that’s something I really learned on the job and will take with me when I graduate. I also learned more about how to work better in a team. I think working with lawyers who all have their own other clients and cases is a separate skill set than working with students in classes. Learning how to communicate with a team and improvising when needed, jumping in where help is needed – those soft skills are things that I will definitely take with me in the real world after graduation.” Eunnie Lee, JD ‘20, is now an associate at the Bay Area office of Latham & Watkins on the Privacy Litigation Team, and her post-HLS path has been greatly impacted by the clinic experience. “The Employment Clinic gave me confidence to pursue litigation. At the clinic, I had the self-affirmation of, ‘Oh, I enjoy this. I can do this. This can be a career.’” she says.
During the Spring 2020 semester, Eunnie worked at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor on projects including employment pension-related litigation, OSHA and workplace safety litigation, and the transportation regulatory side of occupational safety. She quickly found a lot of variety in her work on the government side of employment law. “I got involved deeply in factual research and factual investigations. For example, I worked with inspectors who go on-site and take pictures and transcripts of people who’ve witnessed a certain incident or situation. We also had days when fact witnesses would come into the department office and share their stories in person. Intake moments like these were different from standard legal research or factual investigation that relies a lot on written or online resources. Those factual investigations were critical skills that I gained in the clinic.”
“Throughout my life and in my previous career as an engineer, I’ve been interested in the nitty gritty facts,” she says. “In law, what drew me were the factual details, like what actually happens in people’s jobs and what actually happens when there are especially new technologies. In my current job, there is always research into both fact and law. Now I’ll raise my hand to take on more of the factual roles, such as interviewing witnesses and clients and counseling them, and these are really the parts of my work I genuinely enjoy and want to do more of. Learning that in the clinic played a big part in developing my early career.”
In addition to gaining insight into legal skills at work, clinic students also have the opportunity to work on cases that reflect what they are seeing in the news. For Salgado, working at his firm during the summer of 2020 allowed him to see national racial justice conversations manifest in his legal work. “Whole Foods workers were protesting,” he explains. “The store was disciplining them and not allowing them to wear Black Lives Matter masks at work. I got to work on their case from the start, from workers on the ground organizing to the various cases and class actions that came out of it.”
The coronavirus pandemic has also created issues in employment law that have come into play at certain clinical placements. Jeewon Lee watched discrimination cases become muddied by the impacts of the pandemic in her work: “We had one case where a layoff was involved, and the big issue that came up was whether someone was laid off because of the pandemic or because of a discrimination factor. In this case, the factors were age and gender.”
Salgado found a silver lining to working in the field during such a tumultuous national moment. “You’re responding right away to the crisis and how it’s affecting workers,” he says. “There was a lot of uncertainty at that time, especially about what the federal government would step in to do. Being able to work on those cutting-edge, front-line issues was great. You felt like you were contributing at a time that was really difficult and uncertain for a lot of people.”
The value of the practical clinical experience cannot be overstated for these students; as Rodriguez says, “The classroom is one thing – you learn the doctrine there. But once you go and do the work, you have to be constantly learning new things for what you’re doing in the moment. The class can’t teach you everything that you need to know. I enjoy that, and I enjoy the opportunity to delve into issues that are relevant now and going to make a difference to people now.”
The Employment Law Clinic offers just that.