The Way We Were: Spotlight on Allen Gruber

In honor of our 40th anniversary celebration, USD Legal Clinics is pleased to present “The Way We Were,” a blog segment featuring the profile and perspective of the pioneers that conceptualized, implemented and carried forward the early years of the Legal Clinics.  This week’s segment highlights Professor Allen Gruber.

Professor Allen Gruber

“Terry Player gave me my first introduction to USD’s Legal Clinics; we go way back,” begins Professor Allen Gruber. “I knew her first as her supervisor at Legal Aid in San Diego; several years later she began teaching clinical courses at USD. At some point in the clinical program, professors went overseas in the summer to teach on foreign soil, but with live client cases continuing on, you couldn’t just drop a case.” So, when professors began leaving to teach abroad in the summer, Gruber began teaching at USD in 1990 and has been with the law school ever since.

Gruber has taught the Civil Clinic as an adjunct faculty member every summer since 1990 and began teaching year round several years later. “Professor Allen Snyder and Professor Terry Player switch off every two years and will continue to do so, so I guess you can say I’m the stabilizing force,” laughs Gruber.

“And Terry sure was right about the clinics being crowded when we first started – no question about it,” he adds. “So when we came down here to the current space in 1998, it was a major improvement. And when Margaret Dalton took over directing the clinics in 2004, she really changed the nature and face of the clinics so students feel like they’re working in a law office.” Previously, the bullpen had no privacy and is now structured with cubicles, and the clinics have 10 offices and two conference rooms that also serve as classrooms.

One of Gruber’s many contributions to the growth of the Legal Clinics is the development of the Landlord-Tenant clinic which began operating in 2008. “I had a student who needed extra credit and I asked him to do a research project at the downtown courthouse to see the number of landlord-tenant cases in which unrepresented tenants prevailed,” explains Gruber. The student looked into approximately 500 cases and found out that none had won. With that in mind, Gruber planned on using the statistic to try to obtain a grant for a clinic that would represent tenants.

“However, the money for the clinic actually came as the result of settlement funds from a class action case. An alumnus and long-time supporter of USD’s School of Law, Michael Thorsnes, knew the attorneys handling the case and convinced them to include USD Legal Clinics as part of the lawsuit’s Cy Pres award, allowing the law school to set up the Landlord-Tenant Clinic.

“The real impetus for the Landlord-Tenant Clinic came from all the calls we were getting in the Civil Clinic relating to landlord-tenant law,” explains Gruber. “If we wanted, those cases could and would consume most of the cases in the Civil Clinic, but that’s not really fair to the students in the Civil Clinic who want a broader experience. So now, if students want to focus on landlord-tenant law they can, and we can help more people.”

The Landlord-Tenant Clinic works with many cases related to the current housing crisis, particularly bank foreclosures in which banks sue mortgagees to evict them. Tenants are often caught in the middle. Other issues include habitability, retaliatory evictions, and more traditional non-payment of rent. “In most cases, people are just having a difficult time,” states Gruber. “And when I went to law school I felt practicing law should be about helping people who can’t help themselves. I left Legal Aid because I felt I wanted to grow and move into private practice, so working at the Legal Clinics gives me an opportunity to continue in that vein of helping people.

In addition to his work for the Legal Clinics and in private practice, Gruber has served as a judge pro tem and as an arbitrator for the Superior Court. For the past 25 years, he has served as a member of the American Arbitration Association’s National Panel of Commercial Arbitrators. In addition to arbitrating commercial and real estate disputes, he serves as a mediator in those areas, having been approved as a panel member for the San Diego Superior Court, the American Arbitration Association, and the San Diego Real Estate Mediation Center. At the Legal Clinics, he oversees all civil and landlord-tenant matters at both clinics for live clients, supervising second and third year law students in litigation from the beginning of a case through trial.

Gruber truly enjoys teaching and watching students develop as practitioners, which is at the heart of the role of the Legal Clinics. “One of the biggest challenges in being an attorney is working with people: people that have different agendas, people that come from different walks of life, not to mention all the procedural nuances in handling a case. Being a trial lawyer is like conducting an orchestra,” describes Gruber. “You’re given a set of facts but not much control over them. For students that want to go that route, there is no better way of getting that experience than a clinical education.”

From Gruber’s perspective, the main goal of the Legal Clinics is to ensure that students understand what it is to be a lawyer and how to deal with the pressures associated with handling cases. “You’d be surprised how often ethical questions come up in every case,” adds Gruber. “Students are dumbfounded as to the frequency with which these issues arise and how difficult they are to resolve. The clinical experience allows them to deal with real life ethical conundrums, with supervision and a safety net that they would never get otherwise.”

Gruber so believes in the importance of a clinical experience that he thinks the third year of law school should be nothing but clinical work. “Doctors go through a rigorous residency program before they’re allowed to practice medicine and the same should be true of lawyers,” explains Gruber. “As attorneys we are dealing with people’s lives in a very profound way, not to mention their money. Most students who start out without clinical experience and hang their own shingle will admit they don’t know what they’re doing. I believe it’s our responsibility not only to not foist upon the public people who don’t have any experience, but also to turn out excellent attorneys. I don’t see how it’s possible to do that without a clinical education.”

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