News and Events
School of Law Students Give Hope to the Homeless
Growing up in Long Beach, California, where her father was an associate pastor, Pepperdine School of Law alumna Brittany Stringfellow-Otey was accustomed to seeing poverty and homelessness. “A lot of the homeless people around the area of our church were befriended by my dad and they loved to see his kids and would always give us hugs,” recalls Stringfellow-Otey.
A petite blond, Professor Otey, as she is known to her students, holds a full-time faculty position at Pepperdine’s School of Law as an assistant professor. She currently serves as director of the Pepperdine University Legal Aid Clinic at the Union Rescue Mission (URM) in Los Angeles, a non-profit organization helping the poor and homeless. “It’s funny when you look back on your life and you see your road has probably been paved toward a certain work.”
Professor Otey always felt called to help the poor but was not sure how that would play out in the real world. She received her bachelor of arts from Santa Barbara’s Westmont College in 1997 and enrolled in Pepperdine’s School of Law the following year. “I was looking for a law school where there was an emphasis on ethics and an emphasis on service. During my first year at Pepperdine, I volunteered at the Legal Aid Clinic and a light went on -- this is why I want to learn the law so I can help people who are helpless in the face of the law.”
After graduating in 2001, she took a few pro bono cases with the Legal Aid Clinic while she was in private practice. She was hired by Pepperdine in March 2003 to lead the clinic. “When Pepperdine asked me to head the Legal Aid Clinic, I felt like I had my dream moment,” she says. “This is my favorite idea for a job.”
The Pepperdine Legal Aid Clinic opened in 1999 under the guidance of fellow School of Law alumna Jill (Jones) Cucullu, who was the 1998 class valedictorian. Like other graduates who answer a call to serve the less privileged, Cucullu passed up many lucrative opportunities with the nation’s top law firms. She chose instead to head Pepperdine’s law clinic and led the program with distinction during its formative years.
With support from law clerks and volunteer attorneys, Pepperdine’s Legal Aid Clinic helps homeless men and women resolve legal issues from citations and warrants to obtaining housing and government benefits. Starting this year, Pepperdine is also running a family law clinic at the URM dealing with child custody, child support, adoption and guardianship matters.
In addition to the legal aid clinic at the rescue mission, Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology manages a mental health clinic and USC and UCLA run a dental clinic and health center, respectively. “All the resources are right in the building so we don’t have to go through any bureaucracy and we just work together to help people move on,” says Professor Otey.
The Union Rescue Mission also provides the needy with life management classes, educational and vocational training, recovery programs, family and parenting classes, and recreational programs, as well as shelter, meals and clothing. Several on-site chaplains provide guidance for spiritual crises. “You help someone with legal issues but there’s a lot more to deal with after that,” Otey says. “If I didn’t work in a context like this, I would feel very hopeless.”
Pepperdine law students normally participate at the Legal Aid Clinic as a second or third year elective course. Students work in the clinic once a week as part of the requirement. Those who have completed a civil procedure and evidence course can become certified law clerks and represent clients in court. Otherwise, students do intake with clients, hear their stories and consult with their professor on issue resolution. In some cases, students are in court by the end of the semester. Nearly 175 client appointments are made each month.
“When I was looking at different schools, I saw that Pepperdine had this opportunity, and I was very impressed by it,” says Erin McElroy, a second year law student who has worked with other non-profits serving the underprivileged. “I was excited to be back in a situation where I was helping people and getting in touch with the real world so I didn’t lose perspective in the midst of academia.”
The URM is located in downtown Los Angeles, in the heart of Skid Row, providing students with a first-hand look at the day-to-day struggles of the homeless and underprivileged. Many students experience culture shock as they adapt to their new surroundings.
“When students first come here they’re a little bit shocked by it,” says Professor Otey with a laugh. She explains that while some clients are further into rehabilitation and take better care of themselves, others come directly off the street. “I just throw students into the fire and they immediately meet with clients who are initially wary of trusting the students. To watch the student-client relationships form is my favorite part.”
In November, the URM and Legal Aid Clinic celebrated the fourth anniversary of the Los Angeles Homeless Court, which is a partnership between Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm, the L.A. Public Defender, the Los Angeles City Attorney and the Los Angeles Superior Court. Homeless Court takes place once a month and dismisses tickets and warrants of homeless people who are participating in rehabilitation programs and who are making good faith efforts to get off the streets. For many of these people, outstanding warrants or tickets preventing them from moving on.
“The idea of Homeless Court was to create an alternative court so that people could get the little stuff off their records in order to make a fresh start,” says Professor Otey. “So it’s things like public intoxication, littering, sleeping on the sidewalk and jay walking. Usually, these tickets aren’t a big deal but if you miss your first court appointment, a warrant goes out for your arrest and it could be between $5 and $25,000. If you get picked up again, you’re in real trouble.”
McElroy believes Homeless Court is the best experience one can have with the California court system as a volunteer. “The judges are socially minded and give their time to Homeless Court because they believe it’s important for people not to be held back by minor tickets,” she says. “For some of us, as law students, Homeless Court is our first court experience and the first time we’re in front of a judge.”
Because of its hands-on experience, the class has increased in popularity with law students, with full classes each semester. “We can only enroll 13 or 14 students because that’s the maximum capacity for the facility we have,” says Otey. “It’s getting much more popular but we just don’t have the space down at the clinic. Last year, I was sitting out in the lobby for most of the days with my laptop so students could use my office.”
“We’re lucky because Professor Otey is so devoted to the program,” says McElroy, who hopes to continue volunteering at the URM when the semester ends. “It’s fantastic to have someone who is so involved. Students are only there once or twice a week but this is her life and she’s the one who keeps things going.”
Professor Otey’s long-term goal is for every law student to be touched by poverty or somehow connected to the poor. She is proud that every semester, at least one student enrolls in the class a second time. “Even if students go to a corporate firm or private practice, they will always have that memory of the poor in their mind and use their resources to help,” she says.
Some of the clinic’s former students work for public interest firms like the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. One is going to work for the International Justice Mission doing poverty work in India and others have gone into private practice. “My hope,” says Otey, “is that people will know that a Pepperdine graduate is someone who has compassion for the poor.”