When third-year law student May Crockett ’17 entered the VanSickle Family Law Clinic program, she expected “to gain practical lawyering experience.” What she never anticipated was the life-altering impact her work would have – on her clients and her future.
The high point of her two semesters with the clinic in SMU’s Dedman School of Law was handling an adoption from the beginning to a happy ending. The action protected children from a perilous situation, driving home the magnitude of Crockett’s role as a legal advocate and emotional anchor.
“I didn’t realize I would become an integral part of my clients’ lives. Whether it is finalizing an adoption or helping them through a difficult divorce, my clients rely on me heavily,” Crockett says. “Without the clinic, these clients would have no one to turn to.”
SMU’s community clinics open doors to legal services for low-income North Texas residents unable to afford representation. One of the newest among 10 clinical programs and projects offered by the Dedman School of Law, the VanSickle Family Law Clinic launched in January 2016 under the direction of Chante Prox. Prior to joining SMU, Prox was managing attorney and mediator with Barnes Prox Law, PLLC.
“Having built my own practice, I was excited to take that experience and apply it to the challenge of shaping a clinical program from scratch,” she says.
Helping families heal lies at the heart of the clinic’s mission – and is a cause Prox has embraced throughout her career. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work and started out as a caseworker with Texas Child Protective Services (CPS). What she saw there was a revelation for someone who grew up in a stable home.
“Our family wasn’t perfect – no family is – but my parents always made sure I felt safe, secure and loved,” she remembers. “They were my first role models. Thanks to their example, I knew what it takes for a family to be strong and healthy.”
In contrast, many of her cases at CPS involved children whose parents were debilitated by drug abuse and whose grandparents were raising them. Prox later became a champion for those “second-time parents” while serving as a legislative aide for Texas State Senator Royce West. She recommended the “Grandparents Bill” West sponsored to provide financial assistance to grandparents raising their grandchildren to keep them out of the foster care system and preserve their family ties. Tenets of the bill have been adopted in federal kinship care legislation.
In a prophetic twist in Prox’s life, divorce pushed her to take a leap she had been considering for years, and she enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin School of Law. When she moved out of the classroom and into the courtroom as a student attorney, it reinforced her passion for the legal profession and family law. She has been an enthusiastic booster of clinical programs ever since.
Prox says it takes a special breed of attorney – part therapist, part legal ninja – to handle the emotional highs and lows involved with family law proceedings. Things get personal as attorneys navigate the choppy legal waters surrounding some of life’s most stressful changes.
“You are often more than a lawyer assessing and advising clients on their legal rights,” she explains. “Clients frequently come in with a lot of baggage and issues. Acting as an effective advocate for them requires listening, understanding and patience. It’s an area of law that you really have an affinity for or you don’t.”
Student attorneys see the full spectrum of the field when they work in the VanSickle Family Law Clinic, which functions much like a family law firm. The clinic handles divorce, child custody, visitation, paternity, child and spousal support, and adoption proceedings. Cases can include enforcement actions and modifications of previously issued court orders.
Each semester the case selection process starts with a call for applications, which is posted on the clinic’s website. In spring 2016, 150 Dallas-area residents contacted the clinic to inquire about services, and 12 applicants were accepted, with two cases assigned to each of six student attorneys.
While Prox is the attorney of record and sees the proceedings through to their conclusion, students are in the driver’s seat during their clinic commitment. They interview and counsel clients, conduct factual investigations and legal research, prepare court documents and negotiations – including property settlement and custody agreements for divorce actions – and represent clients in court.
Prox serves as a sounding board during weekly one-on-one meetings with students. She also accompanies them to major settlement negotiations and all appearances in the 17 different courts in Dallas County that handle family law issues.
Students embrace the high ethical and professional standards set by the clinic and emphasized by the director. “I’ve been so impressed with the students as they take ownership of their cases, apply my teaching and demonstrate exemplary lawyering,” Prox says. “Their professionalism in dealing with clients is particularly meaningful because our low-income clients often don’t expect to be treated with respect.”
In addition to the cases assigned through the clinic, student attorneys work with the courts and community legal clinics to provide some assistance to pro se litigants – individuals representing themselves in court. Through this work, they help keep minor policy and procedure issues from clogging courts already swamped with cases.
“Pro se litigants are offered advice on such things as how to dress and given information about where to file and how to conduct themselves in court,” Prox explains. “They won’t be as frustrated if they know what’s going on and what is expected of them in court.”
“Chiefs” serve as her proxies for addressing students’ day-to-day questions and concerns. In the fall, third-year students Crockett and Ashley Jones ’17 filled the roles. Both were in the first class to participate in the clinic and have completed family law internships.
After receiving her Juris Doctor (JD) in May, Crockett will join a family law firm in Houston. She’s looking forward to lending a legal hand in the Gulf Coast city.
“I will definitely continue doing pro bono work,” she says. “Almost half of the cases that come into the Houston Volunteer Lawyers, the pro bono legal aid arm of the Houston Bar Association, are family law related, so my clinic work has been great preparation.”
Jones also will earn her JD in May and praises the clinical program for adding an unmatched dimension to classroom training.
“The clinic offers a very special social component that is vital to being a successful attorney,” she says. “From day one, you are given real clients, with real problems, who depend on you to help them. No other internship or law school experience has provided me with this level of real-world client contact and responsibility.”
Giving families in distress a fresh start is the ultimate reward of family law practice, she says.
“I had the opportunity to finalize a client’s divorce in court. She was my first client, and I really got to know her and her story,” Jones recalls. “When we were walking out of the courtroom, she had the biggest smile on her face, and she kept thanking me. I realized that as a student attorney, I’m not just getting amazing experience that will prepare me for the rest of my career, but I’m also affecting and changing lives.”