Litigation, Organizing and Systemic Change Clinic

LW.10035 / LW.12146
Professor Sarah E. Burns
Professor Deborah Axt
Professor Andrew Friedman
Open to 2L and 3L students
Maximum of 16 students
Not offered 2015-16
5 credits*
No pre- or co-requisites

In this year of political transition for New York City, this Clinic will consider many interesting questions about the future of New York and, as a result, students will learn much about the dynamics of change.


In this complex world, how can public and private institutions be inspired to recognize and respond to the needs of diverse communities? How do members of communities make their voices effectively heard? Clearly neither elections nor the free market make this happen in the absence of organized and effective communication and leveraging by communities – whether the community be one of individuals, groups or organizations. Increasingly lawyers need a wide range of knowledge and skill to help their clients identify and achieve needed change. This is the learning that the Litigation, Organizing & Systemic Change Clinic presents and explores.

Clinic Partners

This Clinic partners with two outstanding organizations devoted to community building and organizing. The first is Make the Road New York (MRNY), a membership organization of over 15,000 low-income and recent immigrant New Yorkers, and the second is MRNY’s national partner, The Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), which builds organizing power and works to transform the local and state policy landscape through deep, long-term partnerships with leading community-based organizing groups nationwide. Both organizations were founded by NYU Law graduates. The professional leadership of MRNY and CPD are closely involved in teaching and supervision of this Clinic.

Working with this formidable team, NYU Law students will learn how

  • to envision and implement high quality, innovative legal work which supports and sustains a community and its organizing work to realize community members’ aspirations;
  • to promote community self-determination through grassroots organizing, public policy advocacy and strategic litigation.

MRNY and CPD take on some of the most challenging questions of systemic change today. These questions include: How can low-income and working class families win decent treatment in the workplace, obtain suitable living conditions, improve their neighborhoods, and realize their public policy aspirations amid the cacophony of competing interests, many of which are well-funded and powerful? Can communities develop indigenous and local leadership despite obstacles of poverty, unemployment, care-giving and other daily demands? How do communities find and cultivate the leadership and skills to alter the urban landscape? How can lawyers and other professionals provide support, without undermining local and indigenous leadership and decision-making?

Course Description

The Litigation, Organizing and Systemic Change Clinic is designed to train law students to perform a range of professional work in the service of a community and its members. Law students will work with communities to translate the community aspirations into public policy and private sector reforms. Students will be trained in community and worker organizing; non-profit and organizational management; policy and legislative advocacy; and specific kinds of litigation.

Students take a 2 credit clinic seminar focused on organizing, policy advocacy to legislative, administrative and executive actors, and media and public education outreach. This seminar addresses illustrative case studies as well as the specific fieldwork that students are doing during that semester. All training will foster interpersonal and intrapersonal skills – such as how to offer and support leadership and how to give and receive effective and frank feedback – that will enable students to perform at their highest levels in all of the roles they explore.

The clinic seminar includes close attention to the ethical issues implicated in the fieldwork, and engages debate about lawyering in the context of community-building and organizing. Students will delve into the particular skill sets required for high-level professional organizing, policy advocacy and legal work and will explore how institutional values can inform organizational management practices. Throughout the experience, through detailed case studies and on-the-ground fieldwork and observation, students will learn how to integrate the range of distinct skills that they learn, and the range of attorney roles to which they are exposed, into actual dynamic campaigns. Because this clinic engages students with many distinct areas of substantive and procedural law and a rich and diverse range of skill sets, students will interact with a broad range of professionals who provide specialized guidance in the classroom and in the fieldwork settings.

CPD and MRNY sponsor and are involved in many rallies, meetings, symposia, workshops and conferences. They also work in close coalition with other policy-making groups on all their substantive initiatives. Clinic students engage with these efforts.


In clinic fieldwork, students participate in in organizing, litigation, and policy advocacy directed at private parties and at executive, legislative and administrative officials and bodies. Part of many projects will also include media advocacy and other public education in support of CPD’s and MRNY’s work. Students will partner with MRNY and CPD organizers and attorneys on projects that could include: drafting legislative proposals, representing clients at all stages of federal and state court litigation, lobbying elected officials, drafting white papers or reports on emerging issues, developing know-your-rights materials and trainings, and conducting policy and participatory action research. Students will have the opportunity to do sustained fieldwork where they can apply the range of skills taught in the clinic to promote equity and opportunity in New York City, New York State and/or nationally. Depending on student interest, some students may primarily focus on litigation and some primarily on policy work during their fieldwork – though each student will be exposed to and expected to work on some projects outside her/his primary fieldwork assignment. Given the natural and sometimes unpredictable trajectories of policy, legislative and litigation campaigns, the exact details of fieldwork may change somewhat over time. We anticipate, however, that teams will work on the following key issue areas:

Workers’ Rights

  • Community Organizing/Policy Advocacy: CPD’s and MRNY’s worker organizing seeks to enforce existing legal protections as well as win wages, benefits, and working conditions that are better than what the law guarantees. Currently, CPD and MRNY are combating attacks on a recently-won NY state law to combat wage theft by tightening criminal and civil penalties for noncompliance with wage law, increase worker protections against retaliation, and improve mechanisms for collecting judgments. CPD is working to replicate this law throughout the United States, to promote access to paid family and sick leave, to support campaigns to increase state minimum wages, and to expand the use of licensing authority to combat wage theft. CPD and MRNY are also working in partnership with union and community allies to ensure that state investment in “economic development” includes requirements that protect and expand the rights of New York workers.
  • Litigation and Administrative Advocacy: MRNY staff attorneys litigate federal and state cases to recover unpaid wages or win damages for discrimination. Other advocacy includes helping workers file administrative complaints to challenge underpayment of wages or unsafe conditions and access workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance benefits.

New Immigrants' Civil Rights

  • Community Organizing/Policy Advocacy: Through grassroots-led community organizing, MRNY won interpretation and translation services for close to 2 million limited English proficient New Yorkers at New York City schools, hospitals and at all New York State government agencies and chain pharmacies. MRNY and CPD are currently working to monitor and enforce compliance with these new requirements, and to expand them to key private sector actors. CPD is working to win language access services around the country, to promote municipal identification and stored value cards, to help municipalities to push back on the miss-named federal Secure Communities program, and to promote state and municipal funding of deportation defense legal services. Both CPD and MRNY are also engaged in statewide legislative efforts to expand immigrant access to licenses and privileges, as well as community organizing efforts to promote accountable and lawful police and immigration officer conduct, especially with respect to the rights of youth and undocumented immigrant community members. Both organizations have been closely involved in efforts to pass the DREAM Act and obtain immigration reform.
  • Litigation and Administrative Advocacy: To support its organizing, MRNY may initiate litigation or administrative complaints with the New York State Attorney General to enforce City, State, or federal laws prohibiting discrimination and requiring language access.

Tenants’ Rights

  • Community Organizing/Policy Advocacy: CPD and MRNY aid communities in improving community conditions. MRNY’s tenant organizing focuses on preservation of safe, affordable housing through aggressive enforcement of the rent stabilization law, fighting landlord harassment designed to push tenants from their homes, and reform of state and city agencies charged with tenant protection. Past successes include passage of the Safe Housing Act, which requires the City to repair conditions in the 200 worst buildings each year at the landlords’ expense, and the Tenant Protection Act, which permits tenants to sue landlords in Housing Court for harassment. MRNY works in coalition with other City organizations to sustain, improve and enforce meaningful housing law protections for low-income residents in the City. CPD is working on innovative municipal financial sector regulation, as well as using eminent domain to enable municipalities to purchase under water foreclosed properties at market value, and then re-selling them to homeowners.
  • Litigation and Administrative Advocacy: MRNY handles a varied docket of housing cases: eviction prevention, Housing Part (HP) Actions (forcing landlords to repair unsafe and subpar conditions or challenging harassment by landlords), 7A actions (appointing an administrator to collect rent and manage buildings where a landlord has demonstrated serious neglect or abuse), and plenary actions in state court to challenge deceptive business practices by landlords.

Depending on the stage of each campaign, and each piece of litigation, any and all of the above work areas are likely to involve clinical students as full participants in the broad range of roles that MRNY and CPD attorneys and other professionals play.

The fieldwork will be performed will be performed under the supervision of Professors Axt, Burns and Friedman working closely with attorneys, policy experts and senior staff at Make the Road New York and the Center for Popular Democracy, in close collaboration with staff organizers and community members.

Application Procedure

Students who are interested in applying to the Litigation, Organizing and Systemic Change Clinic should submit the standard application, resume and transcript online via CAMS. Applicants should submit as lengthy a response to Question 4 of the standard application as they feel necessary and should ignore the 300 word limit. Students should also indicate whether they have any Spanish language proficiency and how much. If you have any questions regarding the application process, please contact Mr. Ray Ivey at 212-998-6474 or via email. Applicants will be contacted by Mr. Ivey during the application period with instructions concerning a face-to-face meeting required to complete the application process.

Student Contacts

Interested students are encouraged to contact Mr. Ivey with any questions; Mr. Ivey will facilitate communication with faculty. Clinic students from previous years include:

Fall 2012 Spring 2013 Fall 2013
Dennis Ardis
Daniel Barron
Kadeem Cooper
Nicholas Dingeldein
Thomas Gottheil
Rachel Hoerger
Dahsong Kim
Heather Lewis
Raquel Manzanares
Jacob McDonald
Michelle Quiles
Adam Saper
Paula Vera
Michele Yankson
Daniel Barron
Malika Lubell-Doughtie
Sara Maeder
Anne Mathews
Fiona Poon
Joanna Powell
Michelle Quiles
Jayla Randleman
Christopher Spelman
Jordan Chisolm
Sophia Gebreselassie
Luke Herrine
Diane Johnston
Malcolm Kim
Joanna Laine
Meghan Ragany
Jacqueline Seitz
Samuel Steinbock
Jake Walter-Warner

* 5 credits include 3 clinical credits for fieldwork and 2 academic seminar credits.