Students experience ‘Lawyering in the Time of COVID-19’

In the spring, UW Law launched a new course that explored legal tools with which to break down barriers to justice for communities hit hardest by COVID-19. In the months that followed, students put their skills to work.

As part of the course’s experiential extension, “Lawyering in the Time of COVID-19,” students led projects over the summer in the fields of housing, small business and unemployment — all areas where low-income and communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“We designed the course in a way that would both expose students to the systemic inequities embedded in our legal, political and judicial systems that have contributed to the devastating and disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, and teach students lawyering and advocacy skills they can use to assist clients and legal services providers doing work on the ground,” says Haiyun Damon-Feng, assistant director of the William H. Gates Public Service Law Program. She co-taught the class with program Director Huy Nguyen.

“We sourced projects from local, statewide and national organizations, and the students’ work has been invaluable to increasing capacity and assisting in the legal services community’s COVID-19 response.”

Housing immediately became a major issue as the pandemic spread. To this end, one team of students homed in on the implementation of the Washington state eviction mortarium, which went into effect mid-March.

While designed to provide relief to workers who lost jobs and are no longer able to afford rent, smaller jurisdictions and counties created varying guidelines, processes and regulations that could be confusing even to those with formal legal training.

Working with the Northwest Justice Project (NJP), the team directed its efforts to researching various moratorium laws across Washington, identifying different court hearing procedures, and conducting comparative research on other states’ and large counties’ approaches.

“The students’ work has been invaluable to increasing capacity and assisting in the legal services community’s COVID-19 response.”

Haiyun Damon-Feng

“We found there are definitely steps that could be taken to make the process more uniform and accessible,” says Alec Dugan 2L, who worked on the project. “In our research we presented to NJP, we talked about making procedures clearer, providing alternatives and technology assistance for people who don’t readily have access.”

Another team of students focused on systems in place for those facing eviction and how those cases are handled. These efforts comprised a national survey of current housing courts and programs to see where different jurisdictions were instituting unique approaches leading to lower eviction rates.

Mary Ruffin 3L, a member of the team, found that while there is virtually no data on the effectiveness of many of the programs, lack of accessibility and an unmet need for pro bono representation were almost universal issues.

“There is just such a huge need for pro bono attorneys in the housing area,” Ruffin says. “Even in some of these really innovative programs, having someone available to you who knows the legal system makes such a huge difference in terms of eviction rates.’’

These complex housing issues dovetail directly with job losses, with skyrocketing unemployment rates leading to a massive backlog of disputed claims and hearings.

This led to a number of lawsuits across the country, including one in Washington brought against the state’s Employment Security Department seeking a writ of mandamus to compel the department to change its practices. The matter is pending before the Washington Supreme Court.

Working with the Unemployment Law Project, a party involved in the suit, another team of students collected and compiled witness testimony from people across the state who were affected by the backlog.

“Normally when people have their benefits denied, they're sent to hearings so they can resolve it,” says Alex Arnts 2L, who worked on the project. “There, they’re able to present their issue to the court board, get a yes or no, and start receiving benefits in a timely manner. The main thing we were wanting to tackle here is the issue that they weren't sending out the hearings at all.”

A fourth team of students worked with the YMCA of Greater Seattle, which was implementing a long-term housing program for teens and young adults experiencing homelessness.

In addition to the business’s standard practices, the YMCA was installing additional protocols and procedures to underpin these new efforts. The primary challenges the students addressed were educating employees on handling potential evictions new parameters, and by ensuring these procedures did in fact comply with Washington tenant law.

After an extensive research process, the team helped address these challenges by creating an educational brochure for employees, and by reviewing and providing feedback on the actual lease agreement for the YMCA’s lawyers.

“Our focus was to help develop a long-term strategy for this new housing program when dealing with tenant issues,” said Caroline Sung 2L, one of the project leaders. “This was a really cool opportunity to get involved with the YMCA and its efforts to reshape how we look at homelessness in our community."

Lonnie Rosenwald ‘94, managing attorney and founder of 300degrees, PLLC, worked closely with and advised the students throughout the summer. She says seeing them in action amid such unprecedented conditions was particularly rewarding.

“Not only did they do great work because UW Law students are incredibly gifted and talented, but I was really impressed by the resilience of the students in coping with having to do all this work remotely,” says Rosenwald, who chairs UW Law’s Advancement Committee.

“The legal community needs to constantly remind itself that education is an opportunity that really only comes around once for an individual, and so losing even a certain number of months is really impactful in the life of a student. The community needs to remember that and respond quickly in order to be supportive of students when something like this happens.”