July 12, 2013
The following blog post, "Two Trials and a Graduation" by Chas Hamilton '13 was originally published on the blog of the Harvard Law School Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs.
During a two-week period that spanned from late May to early June, I tried two cases before twelve-member juries in the Boston Housing Court. In between those two seminal events I was able to squeeze in one more: graduation on May 30 from law school.
I want to share these jury trial experiences in order to provide an account of the importance of clinical education to the overall law school experience. As a student-attorney in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), I have had the privilege of serving socio-economically disadvantaged individuals and families in communities across Boston in a multitude of ways ranging from canvassing foreclosed properties and informing residents of their legal rights, to representing tenants in court when their landlords have attempted to evict them. As with many other forms of litigation, the vast majority of eviction cases in Boston Housing Court do not go to trial. The much more frequent occurrence is for the case to settle at some point between the landlord’s commencement of the eviction and the court scheduling the case for trial. In certain instances settlement in this window of time will be impossible, and the case will be scheduled and prepared for a trial.
The two jury trials were scheduled two weeks apart, the first on May 20-21 (the May Trial), and the second on June 3-5 (the June Trial). As a general legal services provider in the greater Boston-area, the members of HLAB accept cases through a multi-stage intake process in which the facts and circumstances of potential clients and their cases are considered. Both cases were accepted for representation through this intake process.
The May Trial involved a bedbug infestation in our client’s (Client A) apartment that she became aware of in the 2012 summer. The landlord, a property management corporation, brought an eviction action against Client A after she elected to withhold her monthly rent in light of the infestation, which at that point had lasted two months. By the date of trial Client A no longer wanted to live in her apartment—the infestation had had such a detrimental psychological impact on her that she could barely bring herself to sleep in the apartment that for years she had called home. Because Client A was not interested in returning to the apartment, the remaining question was whether she would have to repay her months of withheld rent—which by the time of trial had grown to 10 months—or whether the landlord would be required to compensate her for its failure to timely address the bedbug infestation. After a day and a half of trial we were able to reach a settlement awarding Client A nearly $5,000.
The June Trial also concerned the conditions in our client’s (Client B) apartment, though the circumstances were a bit different. We began representing Client B in late 2010 when her landlord began the eviction process. Early on in the relationship it became clear that Client B suffered as a result of serious bad conditions in her apartment including rodent infestation, poor ventilation, the occasional absence of water, and a persistent gas leak. However, before the case was completed, Client B moved out of the apartment. Even though the question of who deserved possession of the apartment had become moot as a result of Client B’s move, there still remained a question of whether her landlord owed Client B any money damages for the significant conditions of disrepair in her home during the course of her 14-year tenancy. The trial was scheduled for June 3 and 4, but the proceeding required a third day in order to accommodate the testimony of all the witnesses, including an inspector from Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, as well as a private housing inspector, each of whom had an opportunity to inspect our client’s home. After three days of trial the 12-member jury returned a judgment in favor of our client for almost $9,000, nearly ten times what she currently pays in monthly rent.
While each of these trials was exciting and represented a milestone in my nascent legal career, it was far from my intention to try two cases in such a short time period, not to mention with graduation in the middle. Over the past two years I have learned that this is the nature of litigation—your case that has been ambling through the court’s scheduling calendar is suddenly marked up for the first available date, which might only be weeks away. I was reminded of this possibility when on May 2 I entered Boston Housing Court prepared to argue a relatively simple opposition motion and the judge decided, based on an unexpected vacancy in the court’s calendar, that the case would be scheduled for a two-day jury trial on May 20-21. At the time, I was prepared for the June jury trial, which had been scheduled almost two months prior. In an instant I was faced with the reality that the month of May had become a lot busier.
There was a lot of preparation required for both cases. In each case I was joined by tremendously talented and hardworking co-counsel and supervised by phenomenal clinical instructors. In the May Trial, I was joined by Dave Barber, a fellow 3L and HLAB student-attorney in the Housing Practice, and clinical instructor Liz Nessen, with whom I had worked extensively over the past two years. In the June Trial, I worked with Matt Nickell, a 2L and also an HLAB student-attorney in the Housing Practice, along with clinical instructor Lee Goldstein. In addition to these individuals there were numerous others who helped in a myriad of ways, from conducting additional research, to preparing exhibits for trial, to providing feedback on opening and closing remarks. There were many long days and late nights that were consumed by case strategy, witness preparation, and the more mundane, but very necessary organization of trial folders containing all documents we believed would be relevant at trial.
While the trials themselves were exciting, I found the preparation beforehand more thought provoking. For example, “time” was an important factor in both cases. For the May Trial, the major question was the amount of time that the bedbug infestation was allowed to exist in our client’s apartment. For the June Trial, the major questions were the amount of time that bad conditions existed in our client’s apartment, as well as when the landlord became aware of these bad conditions. In each of these cases it was important for me to find a way to illustrate the determinative chronology first for my own understanding of the case, but later to determine the most effective way of communicating it to the jury.
In September I will begin work in the Litigation Department at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP. In the immediate future, I hope that I will have an opportunity to make use of my trial experience at Paul, Weiss. The nature and scope of trials in a large law firm that specializes in litigation will undoubtedly be quite different from the experiences I had in Boston’s Housing Court, but they are similar in their fundamental characteristics: developing a theory of a case and understanding your strengths and weaknesses; marshalling the rules of evidence for documents and testimony that you want to introduce, as well as those you want to exclude; being able to tell your client’s story. These are the aspects of trial that I have come to enjoy most, and I hope that I can continue to develop proficiency in these areas while at Paul, Weiss.
Considering the longer term, HLAB has given me insight into the way that individual legal services and social policy can be joined to profoundly impact a community. This model, which combines individual client interaction with a broader vision for change, is one that I hope to make use of, wherever I find myself in the future.