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Justin Weinstein-Tull LAW ’08, a second year law student, just came back from his first appearance in court. He was arguing for disability benefits on behalf of his New Haven client.

Weinstein-Tull works for school credit in a law school clinic that places students at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, which represents low-income clients. The clinic is one of four Law School courses in which students work with disadvantaged clients in New Haven, including families in juvenile court cases, Latino immigrants, HIV-positive residents and low-income tenants. The law school has seen significant student interest in community service in recent years, Law School Dean Harold Koh said, and many choose to work in public service after graduation.

Koh said more than half of students perform public service work during the average school year, and three out of four work in a public interest job the summer after their first year. The legal assistance clinic presents a unique opportunity to work on criminal defense alongside dedicated attorneys, he said.

“The clinic is a prime source of training in lawyering and public service for our students,” Koh said. “The NHLAA has a rich history, strong community support, strong ties with [our] law school and outstanding leadership.”

Five full-time attorneys at the clinic office are graduates of Yale Law, and there are number of Yale alumni on its board of directors.

Francis Dineen, the professor of the legal assistance clinic course and one of the founders of clinic, said one of the most unique aspects of the program is the chance for students to do criminal defense work.

“This is one of the few opportunities to work on criminal defense [in the nation], although the Law School is in the process of starting a criminal defense program,” he said.

Dineen said the clinic is one of the few nonprofit agencies that handle criminal defense work. The state sometimes requests the organization’s services for cases in which there is a conflict of interest in the Public Defender’s Office.

Weinstein-Tull said students choose to enroll in public service clinics because they want to help local clients and gain experience rather than take purely academic courses.

“It’s pretty much learn on the job,” he said. “I had no idea what I was doing when I first started.”

Weinstein-Tull is currently working on three different cases under Joanne Gibau, a staff attorney at the clinic. Gibau said students work on a variety of cases covering temporary assistance to needy children, food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment compensation and sometimes even major class action lawsuits. The program is one of the few opportunities for Yale Law students to get courtroom experience, she said, because state administrative hearings do not require the presence of a licensed attorney.

Gibau said the law students are highly motivated and treated as lawyers around the office.

Koh said there has been a strong interest in community service at the school in recent years. He said about 40 percent of recent graduates worked in at least one public service position in the first five years after graduation, excluding clerkships, and over 300 alumni currently participate in the Career Options Assistance Program, a loan repayment program for graduates who go into low-income jobs in the public sector.

Michael Helbing LAW ’08, another student in the legal assistance clinic, said although many Yale Law graduates go on to work for large firms, the percentage is relatively less than at other top schools.

“There are a lot of people interested in doing public interest or government work of some type,” he said.