Short abstracts of the presentations were submitted by many of the speakers in advance of the conference. The titles of those that were submitted are underlined; to view those abstracts, click on the title.

Title: Breaking Barriers: Collaboration, Cross-Specialization, And Interdisciplinary Practice As Social Justice Pedagogy

Lead Presenter: Elizabeth MacDowell



Session Abstract: This session will explore how breaking down barriers between practice areas and working across disciplines with community partners can inform a transformative social justice pedagogy and better address poor people’s problems. The session will draw on my experience developing a clinic that explores the nexus between family and mass criminalization and incarceration. While the context of mass criminalization and incarceration is a uniquely American problem, the ways that multiple systems of oppression tend to intersect in the lives of poor people is, unfortunately, not unique to the United States. The Family Justice Clinic (FJC) focuses on the family-related legal problems of incarcerated parents and their family members, as well as individuals whose families are impacted by the immigration and social welfare systems. By focusing on problems affecting poor people at the intersection of multiple state systems, this clinic breaks down barriers between practice areas and specializations usually conceptualized, taught, and practiced as separate – in particular, civil and criminal law. Additionally, this effort benefits from a multidisciplinary approach that draws on the expertise of other disciplines, including social work. As part of this work, my students and I have embarked on a multi-pronged collaboration with the local Public Defender’s Office. Clinic students and faculty have conducted trainings for attorneys and social workers, and prepared educational materials for criminal defendants about common family law issues, like avoiding mounting child support debt while incarcerated and avoiding termination of parental rights. In addition, clinic students are “embedded” within a team of criminal defense attorneys and social workers in order to identify and address family-related impacts of criminal charges. This collaboration raises a number of challenges to conventional legal education, which tends to “silo” legal subjects into specialized courses rather than exploring the ways in which they overlap in poor people’s lives, teaches law students to value legal expertise over other disciplinary approaches, and to emphasize individual rather than collaborative work. It also underscores for students the ways in which the law works differently for poor people than for the not-poor, and the relative uselessness (at least in this context) of their conventional legal education. In so doing, it also creates challenges for teaching and practice, and for students’ expectations, that this session will explore. In particular, this cross-specialization and multidisciplinary approach requires students to learn to apply a far-reaching body of law in a short time in order to address questions potentially relating to family, housing, employment, and other collateral impacts on the family arising in a criminal case. In addition to other practice-related skills, they must also learn to work with social workers, a professional group with different skills and professional duties than lawyers, and to work collaboratively in contexts that are new, and sometimes unclear or undefined. Additionally, it is important to convey to students the historical and political context for this work (e.g., the policies and politics behind the particular legal context in which these cases arise, and the conditions of structural inequality underlying that system), and to offer students avenues for engaging in policy change as they develop awareness of systemic problems. This undertaking can be daunting. In this sense, the collaborative nature of the model presents both opportunities and challenges to sustainability. The goal of this session is to create a forum for participants working in clinics engaged in community collaboration, cross-specialization and multidisciplinary practice, or interested in developing such a program or in related curricular design, to share ideas, experiences, practices, and resources; problem-solve obstacles; create context for a more comparative perspective and approach; and create a network of potential future collaborators.

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See full list of abstracts here.