At 25, Poverty Law is More Popular Than Ever with Today’s Social Justice Conscious Students
There is a waiting list to enroll in Minnesota Law’s Poverty Law class, currently celebrating its 25th year at the Law School. The fact that students are still literally lining up for the long-offered course is a testament to the staying power of interest in learning about the many legal and social areas that course covers.
Throughout its quarter century run, the class has been taught by the same two adjunct professors—Monica Bogucki and Larry McDonough. But this year, the class’s silver anniversary, will be Bogucki’s last. She plans to retire at the end of the semester.
Reflecting on the popularity of the class, McDonough said that students are hungry for social justice content. They get it through the class’s curriculum, which approaches the social topics with a legal perspective.
Bogucki and McDonough were both legal aid lawyers when they proposed the class 25 years ago. Since then, they have shared their collective years of experience with generations of appreciative students.
One of those students was Julia Zwak ’15. “I came to law school knowing I wanted to work in civil legal services, and this class helped me to gain exposure to different areas of law in this sector,” she recalled. “I now practice as a housing staff attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in Minneapolis, building on knowledge I gained in Poverty Law, as well as the Housing Law Clinic.” McDonough also founded the Housing Law Clinic 25 years ago when he was a visiting clinical professor.
Zwak also said that practicing lawyers she encountered through the class, including Bogucki and McDonough, offered her “invaluable career advice” in thinking about and charting her own professional path.
Learning and Doing
While Poverty Law is a course, not a clinic, it does provide opportunities for experiential learning through simulations in class. The course is comprised of two semester-long components. Students may opt to take both semesters of the course for six credits of Poverty Law, or a single semester for three credits.
One semester features government benefits programs and landlord-tenant law. The other semester focuses on civil juvenile and public and subsidized housing law. The topics have evolved over the years based on the feedback of students and practitioners.
The goal of the course is to provide content not otherwise available and to educate students so they can enter a public service job with their eyes open, according to McDonough. “We want to reduce stress in the transition to practice,” he said.
Bogucki, who has a background in social work, said that she presents fact scenarios to her students and asks them to figure out what to do for the client. When students come back to her and say they can’t, she tells them to go back to work and figure it out–the same thing they’ll have to do when they are dealing with real-life scenarios.
The course illustrates the “intellectual challenges of poverty,” such as myriad government rules and eligibility requirements, Bogucki said.
The professors want students to learn the network of needs of actual clients and to learn how to meet those needs. “[The class] expands the definition of lawyering,” McDonough said.
Preparing for Practice
Alumni of the class who pursed public-service career are grateful for the preparation for real-world practice that the class gave them.
Rebecca Hare '20, an attorney with Central Minnesota Legal Services, said, “The courses focused both on understanding the full context of our clients' lives in interacting with the legal system and on developing the legal knowledge to transition directly into practice.”
The expansive definition of lawyering also appealed to Max Tsai '21, an attorney with the Housing Justice Center in St. Paul.
“Their class was designed to be practical–and the course is very effective in preparing public interest attorneys for the day-to-day of the work,” Tsai said. “But also, they taught the importance of having a holistic practice of the law. They emphasized the importance of considering the whole person and the importance of being mindful of the fact that people often have a lot going on besides their legal issue. In their teaching, they modeled how to treat clients with dignity, compassion, and kindness in addition to teaching us the practical skills we needed to better serve them.”
Next fall, Meghan Scully, a staff attorney at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, will co-teach the class with McDonough. But Bogucki, who has put her heart and soul into the course for 25 years, will be missed.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” she said.
Barbara L Jones is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota