Clean Slate

Law students help real clients expunge criminal records

By Queen Muse

Illustration of a hand reaching out to another hand that is surrounded by paperwork
Illustration: Mikey Burton

A criminal record can negatively impact everything from housing access to employment opportunities, even if a charge is dropped or an accused person is found not guilty. In Public Interest Lawyering, an elective course offered in the Charles Widger School of Law, second- and third-year Law students get to provide real clients with legal advice on how to have their criminal records expunged, thanks to a fresh take on the course curriculum.

Janine Dunlap Kiah ’07 JD, who returned to Villanova in 2022 as director of Public Service and Pro Bono Initiatives and as an adjunct professor for the Law School, teaches the course. Professor Dunlap Kiah felt it was important to make sure the course delved deeply into the realities of public interest lawyering, a space that she says comes with the reward of helping those who are underserved but can take an emotional toll and is potentially less lucrative to other roles in law.

“Public interest lawyers are the ones on the ground fighting to help people who typically aren't heard. You have to believe it is your calling to do that,” Professor Dunlap Kiah says.

Streamlining the course, Professor Dunlap Kiah focused reading materials on a few key topics, including cultural competency and the lack of diversity in public interest law, and she added a practicum component to the course to help students put their knowledge into action. She worked with the Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia (CLCP), a pro bono partner that hosts training opportunities for legal representatives and expungement clinics for individuals with criminal records who need free legal advice, and arranged for students to receive training on the expungement process. Then, for two days, Professor Dunlap Kiah and her students ventured to CLCP’s offices in Philadelphia and provided free intake services, advice and counseling to individuals with criminal records who were seeking expungements.

Public interest lawyers are the ones on the ground fighting to help people who typically aren't heard. You have to believe it is your calling to do that.

Janine Dunlap Kiah ’07 JD

Her class of nine students assisted 24 clients over the course of two expungement clinics; she participated as well, offering advice to clients alongside her students.

“The impact on my students was beyond what I expected,” says Professor Dunlap Kiah. “All of the things we talked about—cultural competency, building trust with clients, avoiding tunnel vision and listening to their perspective—they got to see it in action, and it helped them to fully understand.”

Based on students’ positive feedback, Professor Dunlap Kiah says she’s working to add more time in CLCP’s expungement clinics for the next cohort in fall 2023. Several students who took the course said the experience made them want to do public interest law or pro bono legal work after graduation.

“I was able to use the skills that I have learned in law school in a real setting helping real people,” says James Austin ’24 JD. “It was transformative for me.”


New Advancement for University Leadership

Villanova University appoints Kevin W. Noller as vice president for University Advancement