Rachel López has a penchant for studying crimes that go beyond one victim and perpetrator. Instead, she explores patterns of injustice that impact whole communities — communities that identify by their race or class, religion or political beliefs.
Her research, first as a Fulbright Scholar in Guatemala and Spain and then as a Schell Fellow at Yale Law School, examines how nations move forward to rebuild society after civil strife or armed conflict — for example in South Africa under apartheid or in Guatemala during its lengthy civil war. She has also represented survivors of state-sanctioned atrocities during trials in domestic and international courts.
López's work to support communities in their struggles for justice made her the ideal candidate when the Thomas R. Kline School of Law needed a professor to establish and direct its community lawyering initiative. It includes a full-year, 12-credit course selected by law students who want to provide free legal services to community members living in underserved neighborhoods around Drexel University.
Now endowed by two attorney-philanthropists, the Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic is housed at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, where it benefits greatly from the mutually beneficial and trusting relationships established with the neighborhoods north and west of campus.
"The Stern Community Lawyering Clinic provides a more holistic approach to lawyering," López explains. "We teach students about the power of forming coalitions and building consensus among stakeholders to bring about change. Ultimately, we want our work to help the community build capacity so that people become their own best advocates."
A key part of this approach includes giving priority to cases that involve systemic issues that impact many people. Water was just such an issue in Philadelphia.
“We want our work to help the community build capacity so that people become their own best advocates.”
The students working under López noticed a pattern among clients coming to the Stern Community Lawyering Clinic for help because they had not been able to get water in their homes for years. It wasn't a matter of money. The shut-offs persisted only because residents did not have the legal documents that the utility company demanded to prove their home ownership.
Cases of "tangled titles" are common in communities where homes are passed down among family members without formal sales agreements and deed transfers.
"There is nothing more powerful than the family legacies that are wrapped up in homes," López asserts. "Yet these are complex, messy legal cases that many attorneys don't want to touch."
When the Stern Community Lawyering Clinic students discovered that one-in-five Philadelphians have had their water shut off in the last five years, they developed a Right to Water campaign. Partnering with community members and other stakeholders, they succeeded in compelling the city's water department to change outdated policies. The impact of their work attracted media coverage ranging from the local NBC affiliate to Circle of Blue, a global coalition of journalists and scientists who cover water issues.
"Not only does this kind of ‘justice lawyering' make the community stronger and more stable," López explains, "But our students learn to think more holistically about legal challenges — while also building basic skills such as drafting documents, arguing in court and managing cases.
"Andy and Gwen's generous endowment will allow us to realize the Stern Community Lawyering Clinic's full potential," says López. "I'm especially excited about how this deepens our ability to innovate and focus even more on solving systemic problems with impact-litigation."
Under López's direction, the Stern Community Lawyering Clinic broadens the unparalleled legal education offered at the Kline School of Law. It also strengthens the relationship Drexel has with the community, reinforcing President Fry's vision of building the most civically engaged university in the country.