Colorado Law Offers Fresh Opportunities for Real-World Experience

Students will explore employment law and indigenous rights through new clinic and service projects

This fall, the University of Colorado Law School will be offering new opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience with clinics and public service work on employment law, Colorado’s new “ban the box” legislation and a project that straddles the intersection of indigenous rights, policy and business.

The law school’s Civil Practice Clinic has taken on a new employment law focus under the direction of Associate Clinical Professor Zach Mountin. The clinic is designed for 2L and 3L students to hone their litigation skills and practice strategizing and planning cases. Mountin said employment law is a useful avenue for teaching students about the civil litigation process because the subject matter is familiar and approachable, and the disputes students will be handling can typically be resolved within a matter of months, rather than years.

“It allows students to experience the whole litigation process from start to end within the course of the clinic year, as opposed to coming into the midst of an ongoing multi-year litigation,” Mountin said.

Students will be able to try their hand at everything from alternative dispute resolution to formal adjudication. One area the clinic will focus on is wage and hour claims, and students will file complaints with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and various courts. 

The clinic will also take on cases related to due process hearings for state and federal employees at risk of losing their jobs or being suspended. Additionally, students will participate in employment discrimination mediation before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Colorado Civil Rights Division.

The Civil Practice Clinic is a long-running clinic formerly run by clinical professor emeritus Norman Aaronson, who recently retired after four decades on faculty at the law school. The opening gave Mountin the opportunity to take the clinic in a new direction to focus on what he said is one of the fastest growing fields of litigation while responding to student demand.

“We have really good doctrinal classes in employment and labor law, but there wasn’t an offering in the clinics that really mirrored that,” said Mountin, who handled a lot of employment law cases as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Mountin will also be leading a new public service project on the “Colorado Chance to Compete Act,” which takes effect Sept. 1 and prohibits employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history on an initial application. Colorado was the 13th state to adopt a “ban the box” law for private employers.

As part of the Ban the Box public service project, CU Law students will identify and research violations, draft complaints and help ensure compliance and early awareness of the new law among employers.

CU’s service projects require much less of a time commitment than full-year clinics, and students can sign on to provide just a few hours of research on a complaint as their schedules allow, according to Mountin. Participation is open to all law students.

“It’s a chance for them to see things in action. Especially students that are in their first year, it’s sometimes difficult for them to see the real-world implications of what they’re learning,” Mountin said.

The Colorado Center on Law and Policy and the workers’ rights organization Towards Justice will work with the students as part of the Ban the Box project to help identify violations and formulate a strategy to ensure employer compliance. Towards Justice will also act as a partner and refer cases for the employment law clinic, Mountin said.

Another service project, the First Peoples Project led by Associate Clinical Professor Carla Fredericks, is designed to expose students to the policy and human rights work being done by First Peoples Worldwide, a partnership between the law school and the business school. First Peoples Worldwide provides research, advising and policy advocacy on how business and investment affect indigenous rights.

First Peoples Worldwide is currently consulting on a new version of the Equator Principles — a framework for banks and other financial institutions on managing environmental and social risk. Through the service project, students will be involved in researching policy standards and writing legal memos about the principles as they relate to indigenous rights.

Recent events like the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy have underscored the need for businesses to consult with indigenous peoples on projects and take human rights risks seriously, according to Fredericks. The 2016 protests and divestment campaign over the Dakota Access Pipeline brought billion-dollar losses and reputational harm to the banks invested in the project.

Even students without a strong background or interest in indigenous issues can benefit from participating in the project, thanks to its interdisciplinary and business focus.

“It’s a really good place to get their feet wet in the world of finance, and there aren’t many opportunities to do that in law school,” Fredericks said. 

For students struggling to balance their passion for human rights and public interest work with more lucrative opportunities in industry, the project offers other lessons.

“At the end of the day, students come in and they sort of have a binary view of the world. They think it’s either you’re really in it for the money, or you’re in it for the good,” Fredericks said.

“And I think that the reality is that lawyers work in the in-between space very often, and this project will really assist students in being able to see a little bit beyond what their expectations are […] and what their role can be.

 — Jessica Folker

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