Yale Law Students Decide the Cases in the Arbitration Project Clinic

<p>Lindsay Brewer&nbsp;'17 JD/MEM and Jeremy&nbsp;Aron-Dine ’18, both student co-directors for the Arbitration Project clinic at Yale Law School.&nbsp;</p>

When students from the Arbitration Project clinic step into a conference room in Hartford for a hearing, they are not representing a client on one side of the table. Instead, the students hear arguments from both sides, and unlike any other clinic at the Law School, they actually decide the case.

“We are deciding the cases as fair and balanced arbitrators,” explained Jeremy Aron-Dine ’18, one of two student co-directors for the clinic. “It’s different than a lot of legal work in that your job in the room is to get the right answer. It’s a different sort of goal.”

The Arbitration Project began several years ago as an extracurricular activity available to law students, and just this year became an official clinic. The clinic works through a partnership with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection (DCP), which provides Connecticut residents with an avenue to resolve disputes over defective cars or problematic home repairs.

“The arbitration project is the only clinic I know where law students get experience adjudicating actual disputes,” said Professor Ian Ayres ’86, an expert in contract law who leads the clinic. “For students looking to break into alternative dispute resolution, it allows them to serve as neutral third parties.”

During a hearing, student have the option to serve as hearing officers assisting in the case or as part of a three-student panel of arbitrators issuing a final ruling. The panel listens to both sides —often a consumer versus a car manufacturer or home contractor — and asks a series of fact-finding questions. Once the hearing ends, the panel looks at the relevant documentation, researches questions of law, and issues an opinion within a matter of days. Each semester, students are responsible for awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. When decisions are issued by arbitrators, it is final and can only be reversed if a party takes the case to court, which students said is very rare.  

Currently, the clinic is mainly responsible for handling the New Car Lemon Law Program and the Lottery Delinquency Assessments Program for the DCP. With the lemon law program, students have the power to award consumers a brand-new car if they prove the burden of their case. With the lottery delinquency hearings, students hear cases involving convenience stores that sell winning lottery tickets and have not remitted the state’s portion of winnings back. In prior years, students handled cases involving home repairs as well.

Lindsay Brewer '17 JD/MEM, another co-director who has been involved in the clinic for three years, said serving as an arbitrator is a unique experience that enables students to decide complex and challenging questions of law.

“When we go into a hearing, we are dealing with the cases that are often the most difficult to resolve because they are issues that have not been able to be settled beforehand,” explained Brewer.

“It is an incredible opportunity for us to be able to work on cases that are real and have significance in people’s lives.”

Brewer noted that whether the case involves allegations of faulty vehicles, shoddy home repairs, or a convenience store that has failed to return lottery winnings, the parties involved have gone through many steps in the process before they arrive at the hearing.

“We focus our program on making sure that all parties in the room are heard,” said Brewer. “We also take pains to make sure that we understand all the facts of the situation and are able to apply the facts to the substantive law.”

The collaboration between the Law School and DCP began in 2011 when officials reached out to area law schools to create a program that would benefit DCP and the public by increasing the resources available to enforce the State’s consumer protection laws.

“Initially, we did not have a specific arrangement or program in mind, but valued the collaboration and input from those law schools we were working with,” said Michelle Seagull, Deputy Commissioner at the DCP.

 “We also saw this as an opportunity for law students to get significant, real-life experience with the administrative law process.”

Soon after the DCP initially reached out, Dean Robert C. Post ’77 connected officials with Professor Ayres. Together, they developed a model for the program and created training documents used each year to prepare students to handle the arbitration hearings. Yale Law School is the only school working with the DCP on this program.

The collaboration enables DCP’s legal division to handle an increased workload within its existing resources, which Seagull said means they are able to help more consumers in the State. 

“We have had an incredibly positive experience working with Professor Ayres and his students,” said Seagull. “They have provided us with well-thought-out decisions and have prompted us to take a fresh look at how we interpret our laws and regulations and how we administer the Lemon Law program, all to the benefit of DCP and consumers.”

Due to the success of the partnership, Seagull said DCP is looking for opportunities to expand the program, which they believe is a unique model not used anywhere else in the state.  

Currently, Yale students and DCP officials are thinking about how to create a hearing structure to deal with disputes arising over assistive technologies that people with disabilities use, such as wheelchairs, hearing aids, and speak-to-text software. This new program would use the principles of the New Car Lemon Law Program, but related to a different type of product.

“This is a situation where the substantive law exists and has been around, but there hasn’t been a procedure within the DCP to actually deal with it,” said Aron-Dine.

For Aron-Dine and Brewer, working in the clinic has provided the opportunity to engage in an area of law that interests them, obtain valuable experience, and help others in the process.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to get that real-world experience,” said Aron-Dine. “You have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, and with that comes the opportunity to do a lot of good.”

Brewer said the clinic is also a great way to give people a positive experience with the legal system.

“I find it really rewarding that with the arbitration process, we are producing resolutions at a much lower cost than if the parties had gone to court,” explained Brewer. “It is a much less time-intensive option for consumers to seek redress. I hope our participation in the program gives them a positive interaction with the legal system that is expeditious and comes out with the right result. That’s our goal.”