A new take on activism

Courtesy of School of Law Media Relations

Caroline Bettinger-López knew she was interested in human rights after a particular experience while she was growing up.

“I was on Miami Beach one day and I saw a boatload of people arrive and hit the shores and go running into the shadows of South Beach yelling ‘Miami Miami’ and seeing the headlines in the newspaper the next day, realizing those people have very different legal fates,” Bettinger-López said.

Bettinger-López is now teaching in the University of Miami School of Law, where she is an associate professor of clinical legal education and director of the Human Rights Clinic. This is her first semester at UM, and in the spring, she will be teaching in the new Human Rights Clinic, which launches in January.

“Clinical education in general in law schools gives students an opportunity to get real practical, hands-on experience as lawyers or as lawyers-in-training,” she said.

The UM clinic will focus primarily on human rights issues in both the United States and Latin America. The clinic will also support social and economic justice campaigns and human rights advocacy in South Florida.

“This clinic will give students the opportunity to have experiences in the human rights field,” Bettinger-López said. “They’ll be able to work directly with clients who have suffered from human rights violations; they’ll be able to go out in the field and document violations, developing skills that will make them better lawyers in the future.”

Miraisy Rodriguez, a second-year law student from Cuba, said she was very excited when she heard about the new Human Rights Clinic at UM. She will be one of the interns working in the clinic.

“The clinic gives me the opportunity to learn what it means to work in human rights as an attorney, more than as a lay advocate,” Rodriguez said. “It will also allow me to decide if specializing in human rights is what I really want to do with my legal career and life.”

The UM clinic has already chosen its nine interns for the Spring 2011 semester. The intern group is made up of between six to eight second-year law students and third-year law students and one or two Master of Laws students.

Bettinger-López said the UM clinic is an example of an increasing demand for clinical education in law schools nationwide.

“Clinical education is being increasingly embraced as a model for practical, hands-on learning,” she said.

Dean of the School of Law Patricia D. White is trying to increase the school’s clinical offerings overall.

“Human rights seemed the perfect next clinic for Miami,” Bettinger-López said.

The interest in human rights law is growing around the country. Florida International University in West Miami-Dade  has the Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic. Other law schools in Florida that offer clinics in different fields of study include Florida State University College of Law, Florida A&M University College of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law, Levin College of Law at the University of Florida and Shephard Broad Law Center at Nova Southeastern University.

“We’ll be working with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic on the Jessica Gonzales case, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on migrant farm worker advocacy and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and their local Haitian affiliate for our work in Haiti,” Bettinger-López said.

To get clients and establish partnerships, they will draw from a pool of contacts and networks that Bettinger-López is a part of, including the Bringing Human Rights Home Legal Network and a Latin American Clinicians’ listserv. The interns will also work with personal connections that Bettinger-López has with human rights lawyers and advocates worldwide.

Monika Siweic, a third-year law student from Coral Springs, Fla., said she hopes to better understand the intricacies of dealing with human rights law, both on a technical, legal level and on an emotional level.

“I am thankful for this opportunity and I hope to not only further my career but further the prestige of the school of law here at the University of Miami,” she said.

For more information about Bettinger-López and the Human Rights Clinic, please visit law.miami.edu.

Maleana Davis may be contacted at mdavis@themiamihurricane.com.