Associates in the Trenches
Founder of high school legal clinic empowers students facing tough issues
Posted Apr 1, 2007 6:40 AM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward
From her office in a converted supply closet at North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School in Chicago, lawyer Sarah Biehl hears it all.
A recurring question among her young clients is how to “divorce” their parents. While few students actually meet the legal standards, Biehl still handles their requests with the same level of concern that she gives to those with more serious problems. Those problems might include teenage parents who want to seek child support or public benefits, teens whose families are facing eviction, or those who are in abusive relationships and need help filing restraining orders.
It’s all part of what this 2003 law grad does as the founder and sole staffer of North Lawndale’s drop-in legal clinic. Located in a neighborhood with a long history of poverty and racial tension, the school has a mission of helping students get the academic and personal skills they need to earn a college degree.
Biehl also goes to court with students facing criminal charges if they lack parental support. And she’s done preventive work with the teenagers through classroom lectures.
“Every single student here, or a family member, has had some sort of situation with the police,” Biehl says. “I try to explain to them what the law is and how it works--and give them choices.”
Which is why, for example, she tries to educate students about their right to refuse police searches. A common response, she says, is that the police will do it anyway. She then explains how denying consent will help if charges are brought. “I tell them that they can’t change corrupt police, and they can’t change the fact they live in a bad neighborhood, but they do have choices.”
Biehl’s clinic is open half days on Wednesdays and Thursdays and all day Friday, and students can make appointments to see her (although they generally don’t keep them, she notes). Most visits take place on a walk-in basis, and guidance counselors also bring her students. “They’ll drop them off and say, ‘Here is Ms. Biehl; talk to her,’ ” she says.
From Thought to Action
Biehl’s services are free to students; her salary is paid by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, where she is a staff lawyer representing battered women.
When the North Lawndale program started in 2004, a fellowship from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom allowed her to work at the clinic full time. That funding ended in 2006. In the future, she hopes to secure another grant to keep the clinic open all week, and she’d also like to organize a program where North Lawndale students make presentations about basic legal rights to other kids in underserved neighborhoods on Chicago’s West Side.
Biehl became inspired to work with teenagers while at Ohio State University’s Michael E. Moritz College of Law in Columbus. During her 3L year, she interned at a legal aid office in Chicago, where she represented kids in expulsion hearings.
“I realized that a lot of them had adult legal issues, and a lot of that contributed to the downward spiral that led to them being expelled,” she says. So she came up with the concept of an in-school legal clinic.
Biehl approached the Chicago Public Schools about it, but no one returned her calls. She then began contacting charter schools, and North Lawndale expressed an interest in the clinic. She met with students to gauge their interest, and “they all said yes,” she recalls.
During a recent classroom lecture, Biehl says, a student again brought up the issue of legal emancipation from her parents. But before Biehl could begin, a student she had previously advised on the topic jumped in and told the girl that she couldn’t do it, ticking off a list of reasons why.
Watching students share knowledge like that, Biehl says, is one of the most rewarding aspects of her work.
“Legal education is akin to preventive medicine,” she says. “You need to know that you have rights before you can assert them.”