Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

Addressing Intersectionality in the Lives of Women in Poverty: Incorporating Core Components of a Social Work Program into Legal Education

Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

Addressing Intersectionality in the Lives of Women in Poverty: Incorporating Core Components of a Social Work Program into Legal Education

Article excerpt


Although many lawyers dedicate their careers to serving those in poverty, the traditional model of legal education-legal analysis developed through a discussion of cases using the Socratic method-does not prioritize preparing law students for the complexities of understanding the needs of, and effectively representing, women in poverty. Clinical courses and specialized classes expose students to some of the tools necessary for practicing law for marginalized members of society including, but not limited to, women in poverty. However, the study of law is quite different from the study of social work because the typical social work curriculum specifically focuses on training students to meet the needs of marginalized and subordinated members of society. While the needs of these populations are peripheral in the law school setting, they are at the center of social work education. For those in the Legal Academy who are committed to educating law students to meet the needs of women in poverty, incorporating some aspects of the social work model of education- particularly as it is applied in some progressive institutions-may expand law students' skills in order to more effectively engage in this work.

Although social workers and attorneys tend to focus on different aspects of social problems, we frequently serve the same populations. Women in poverty face a wide range of overlapping psychological, social, and legal issues that simultaneously create, reinforce, and stem from conditions of poverty. Many of the skills that are necessary for successful social work practice are also critical in legal practice, although these skills are often under-emphasized in legal education. Effective legal practitioners should develop the tools to analyze the complex ways in which factors relating to poverty and inequality overlap in their client's lives.

Accordingly, this Article focuses on techniques used in social work education that may augment legal education to prepare law students to better serve women in poverty. In order to ground the theoretical discussion in a real world context, the Article focuses on a case study examining the experiences of battered women sentenced to prison for killing abusive partners. Part I of this Article presents a general overview of some of the most salient critiques of public interest lawyering and legal education in order to present some of the gaps in legal education that social work techniques may help to fill in.1 Part II situates this discussion within the theoretical framework of therapeutic jurisprudence, which advocates the use of some aspects of social work, psychology, and other disciplines in legal education and practice.2 It then explores some specific components of social work education that have great potential to enhance the services law students and attorneys provide to women in poverty.

Part III discusses a case study that exemplifies how the skills and values detailed in Part II can be incorporated in the classroom.3 The case study focuses on the experiences of women in California who had been victims of domestic violence, killed their abusive partners, and were convicted of homicide before courts allowed evidence of battering and its effects (otherwise known as "Battered Woman Syndrome"). Specifically, this part highlights how those directly impacted by the policy partnered with lawyers and other advocates to change the law to be more responsive to these women's needs. The Conclusion wraps up with a discussion of the importance of expanding law students' professional skills to incorporate skills based in social work, particularly in light of ABA standards requiring law schools to equip law students with professional skills.4


While acknowledging the transformational work that many public interest attorneys engage in, critical legal scholars have explored a variety of problems in the practice of public interest and civil rights law. …

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