BY HUGO TORRES
Two Harvard Law students are about to embark on a legal experience that many lawyers wait years to have a shot at: a civil jury trial. Laura Ferry and Susan Rohol, both 3Ls, have been busy preparing for the upcoming trial, which begins today. As members of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Ferry and Rohol were assigned a case that began as a simple eviction action. However, things quickly changed. “Before he [the client] moved out, we filed a number of counterclaims relating to the horrific conditions he was living in,” says Ferry, “After he moved out, we transferred his counterclaims for damages to the civil docket – and requested a jury trial.” After a series of delays and continuances, the four to five day trial is set to begin in the Jury of Six Session at the Cambridge District Court in order to determine whether the plaintiff is owed damages for living under such conditions, assuming it does not settle before trial.
“We originally took on this case because our client was in such a miserable living situation and had clearly been exploited by his landlord,” says Rohol. The client lived in an overcrowded apartment where housing violations were abundant: roach infestation, debris in the backyard, asbestos in the basement, and lack of heat and hot water during winter were among the terrible circumstances the client had to endure.
The case is a unique one for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, which traditionally handles cases for indigent clients involving government benefits, housing issues, and family law. Although the Bureau’s student-attorneys have handled many housing and eviction cases before, jury trials seeking damages are rare. To prepare for the trial, Ferry and Rohol have had to document the housing violations, prepare witnesses, draft jury instructions, and chart a trial strategy with their supervising attorney, Lee Goldstein.
Authorized under Massachusetts law to practice law so long as they are supervised by a licensed attorney, Bureau members must nonetheless juggle their work responsibilities with their lives as students. Since jury trials are time consuming even for experienced attorneys, Ferry and Rohol received help from other Bureau members. “The Bureau has also been an amazing environment to be in while preparing for something of this magnitude,” says Ferry, “Everyone is so supportive and so helpful.” Ferry and Rohol note that other Bureau members who have helped on the case include Amy Lawler, a 2L who assisted in preparing jury instructions and voir dire; Tim Syrett, 3L, who helped draft a pre-trial motion and a memo of law; James Gignac, 3L, who helped prepare charts and diagrams; and Kristen Nelson, 3L, who volunteered to drive Ferry and Rohol to the Bureau and to court with their large quantity of exhibits and documents.
“The really incredible thing about this experience is that we have had true ownership of the case since we took over,” says Rohol. Rohol is pleased to have the opportunity: “Only at the Bureau would you be able to have so much control over the direction you want the case to go in,” notes Rohol, “and only at the Bureau would you have an opportunity to work in such close contact with your client and with the many expert witnesses being called in this case.”