Ariel Clemmer headshot

Designing pro bono initiatives to access legal services

May 3, 2023

In order to provide pro bono legal services to underserved communities and develop innovative solutions to systemic social injustices, the Western New England School of Law in Springfield, Massachusetts, launched its Center for Social Justice in spring 2019. Ariel Rothstein Clemmer, ’05, who became the center’s inaugural director a year later, leads its efforts to do just that.

But it has been challenging at times.

“My first week on the job in March 2020 everything shuttered due to the pandemic,” Clemmer said. “Courthouses closed their front doors to the public. In response, we designed innovative technology projects to help people navigate the court systems virtually.”

One such project is the center’s free legal kiosk initiative. Introduced in October 2022, it combats the effects of the digital divide on access to legal services.

“The digital divide in Springfield, as in most of the country, unsurprisingly falls along racial and socio-economic lines,” the University of Richmond alumna said. “Seventy percent of our clients are low-income women-identifying heads of households. They don’t necessarily have computers, Wi-Fi broadband access, or the technological know-how to navigate the legal system.

So we set up 11 computer stations in Springfield—five in public libraries, six in social service organizations. People use these stations to attend court hearings, find a free lawyer, look up self-help legal information, and meet with pro-bono attorneys virtually.”

Recently, the center expanded the kiosk initiative using a bus donated by MassMutual—dubbed the “Justice Bus”—to transport kiosk technology and volunteers to community events, Clemmer said. Eventually, she hopes to scale the kiosk initiative statewide.

Other Center for Social Justice projects include a consumer debt initiative that the director estimates has saved borrowers over $500,000 in the last two years, an initiative that helps people change their name or gender identifiers on state and federal documents, and a criminal record sealing and expungement initiative.

Clemmer said she explored her interest in social justice issues as a University of Richmond undergraduate majoring in leadership studies and American studies. Following graduation, a two-year stint as a Teach for America instructor in New York City’s Spanish Harlem gave her an up-close look at social inequities. The experience affirmed her desire to pursue a public interest law career, she said.

Since graduating cum laude from Harvard Law School in 2010, she has worked as a public defender, an associate in several law firms, and the pro bono director of the Hampden County Bar Association in Springfield. Throughout her career, she has received awards for her pro bono work, including the 2020 Excellence in the Law Award in the pro bono category from Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

“What I do now as director of the Center for Social Justice is a wonderful culmination of the many projects I’ve undertaken since graduating from law school,” Clemmer said. “The common thread has been following my passion for helping people.”

Clemmer also teaches two courses—Access to Justice and Law and Social Change—as an adjunct at Western New England School of Law. “Both courses unpack the systems of oppression that have created and are perpetuated in our legal system,” she said.

“Through my work at the center and by teaching, I hope to inspire law students to bring the lessons and values of public interest lawyering to whatever careers they pursue.”