Memphis law students help shape city's blight fight

Through the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic, local law students are able to gain real-world experience while helping the city tackle the problem of blighted properties. 
Education comes in many forms, but sometimes the best is through experience.

Traditionally, law school education has leaned heavily on classroom learning. Any practical training students gained came through internships and externships. But even in those times, it’s rare to get much exposure to clients or a courtroom.

A shift is underway and it’s taking root at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law with the creation of clinics through its experiential learning program. The clinics focus on everything from representing children and elder law matters to a mediation clinic that trains students to sit as mediators. A number of clinics in a variety of practices give students real exposure to a number of practice areas.

And with the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic, students are helping the city take care of blight issues that plague the community.

“We bring and prosecute civil lawsuits that are filed pursuant to Tennessee’s neighborhood preservation act,” said Daniel Schaffzin, Assistant Professor of Law and the Director of Experiential Learning at the U of M law school. “It allows for the city or other interested parties to bring litigation against vacant owners. These are not homes where people are living or buildings where people work."

No matter with what clinic the students are involved, it gives them a real opportunity to interact with clients in a courtroom setting. All clinics at the law school are overseen by licensed attorneys, but the students are responsible for the work.

“We basically run a law office out of the law school,” Schaffzin said. “It was in the last 10 to 15 years a paradigm shift has occurred where the focus has moved in the way of experiential coursework on the foundation of doctrinal work. As you go through three years of law school if you choose to focus more on transactional work you can take courses on tax and corporations, for example. There has always been a separation between the doctrinal, traditional legal classroom work and the skills experiential work. Now, think of it like a residency.”

Schaffzin believes the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic is doing work that will make a real long-term difference in the city.
The clinic launched in January and is operated under Schaffzin and Steve Barlow, a part-time city attorney who has been at the head of the blight fight for years. While most litigation clinics give students the opportunity to represent clients who can’t afford representation, the neighborhood preservation clinic represents the City of Memphis.

And the students stay busy, involved in more than 200 cases just last year.

Generally, the process begins when the city files a lawsuit. The students then step in to investigate the file.

“From the time the case is referred our students are involved in every aspect of a suit,” Schaffzin said. “They investigate the property, not just the condition but who owns it.”

And that ownership can be one of the biggest problems, Schaffzin said. Many of these vacant buildings that have been declared public nuisances have owners who live out of state and sometimes even out of the country.

Student investigations often uncover owners doing nothing more than just holding on to properties.

Beyond property investigations, students prepare the civil lawsuits and are in court from the time the initial case is made in Environmental Court.

“Many of our cases bring about good outcomes where we’re able to work with a property owner to get it cleaned up and habitable,” Schaffzin said. “But there are a lot of situations where litigation doesn’t bring about any change.”

That sometimes results in the eventual demolition of the property.

Barlow said he was worried at first that the clinic would take a lot of time. But it works well for the students and helps the city.
“The measure of relief it gives the city attorney’s office is important,” he said. “I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do more or fewer cases with the help of students. But we can do exponentially more because all the students learn. We can handle 40 cases with eight students. We can get so much more done.”

Barlow said there now is an increase in capacity the clinic has given the city attorney’s office, allowing them to file more cases. There are 400 neighborhood preservation act cases pending, with the students touching almost all of them.

“That’s not an insignificant number,” Schaffzin said. “It’s worked out that the student not only becomes proficient quickly, they capture this expertise. It’s a different kind of investment. You can see it. They’re not just caretakers. They’re involved very deeply in the strategic decisions. What they do in court is not a dry run with them and then the real attorneys get up. They are doing it.”

He said these cases can be painted as the city just wanting to take ownership of blighted properties.

“These cases don’t involve the city ever taking over ownership of properties,” he said. “It will hopefully result in the abatement of a nuisance. But even if a case goes forward the city doesn’t keep the property.

“A best-case scenario is a defendant walks away and they have a rehabbed property. And the city has helped improve a neighborhood. The morale that comes with living on a street without a nuisance structure. Think about what it’s like to be a child walking by a nuisance structure on the way to school every day.”

The clinic is unique not just in the way it provides real-world education for the students, but how it is an example of the education system representing a government entity to clean up the community. Schaffzin said he is unaware of any other law school representing a city to do this kind of blight-removal work.

The city’s litigation program of taking a property owner to a civil courtroom setting in front of a special environmental judge is unique in its own right. It’s just part of the overall blight fight in Memphis.

“We’ve been working for five years on an array of programs that have to do with code enforcement reform,” Barlow said. “There is a lot of activity and private partnerships that includes Realtors, homebuilders, chambers; we really do have a shared vision of a better Memphis that eliminates neglected and derelict real estate.”

Watching the clinic in action is meaningful to Schaffzin.

“There is something really satisfying about educating students who grew up here as well as other communities where they’ve never encountered blighted properties,” he said. “It creates an environment where the work becomes really important to the students doing it. They become invested in the community.

“It’s amazing to have students from Memphis working on these cases and it’s equally amazing to have students from other corners of the state learning about Memphis and contributing to the community and learning about the world here. … This instills more than learning about being a good lawyer. It’s cultivating a different kind of commitment.”

Mitch Raines is a third-year law student from the Chattanooga area. He has interned with the city of Memphis and did an externship with Memphis Area Legal Services. Those experiences were important, but this clinic has given him invaluable hands-on experience while opening his eyes to real needs in the community.

Raines said he is interested in environmental law, which is what ultimately made this clinic stand out.

“The most surprising factor just from doing the neighborhood preservation clinic is the nature and extent of blight in Memphis and how detrimental of a problem it is for a city,” he said. “You see an abandoned house anywhere you go in the nation and don’t think about it. But after doing the clinic you understand that house has such a negative impact on the community and neighborhood it sits in. Now I see a blighted house I think of the different avenues that can be taken to rehab the property and bring positive impact on the community.”

It’s changing communities as well as students, Schaffzin said.

“I love the work we’re doing,” he said. “We’re able to counter blight and improve neighborhoods. But it’s so much more than that for the students. To think and act like lawyers, how to talk to clients, how to manage time, how to build relationships. The skills that don’t often get the major press and attention in semester-long courses, but the skills you have to have no matter what kind of lawyer you are.”

And, of course, the program touches the greater community.

“There is a powerful coalition from private, public and nonprofits that works well together,” Barlow said. “We have a huge challenge. We’re not going to become completely free of blighted properties in five years but with smart strategies and collaboration we can make a difference and turn around neighborhoods and improve property values.”
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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.