Ted Mermin on the Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice

Meet the newly opened Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice.

Ted Mermin and Elizabeth Cabraser

It’s not a consumer law clinic per se, but it will support the work of consumer law clinics around the country.

The center will deliver research and analysis to fuel meaningful policy change.

It will produce white papers, file amicus briefs in consumer cases in appellate courts nationwide, provide input to legislatures and regulatory agencies on behalf of low-income consumers, and increase student opportunities to do hands-on consumer policy work.

The center will co-host the nation’s only conference of consumer law clinics and convene the first conference of scholars in the field.

It will also bring together public and private sector practitioners, advocates, academics, and students for speaker series, workshops, and collaborative projects.

Berkeley Law School’s Ted Mermin will serve as the Center’s Interim Executive Director.

Mermin and Bay Area trial attorney Elizabeth Cabraser have played integral roles in building the Berkeley Law School’s consumer law program over the past ten years.

Mermin calls the new center “the capstone of a decade of tremendous growth.”

“Both of us have taught consumer courses at Berkeley Law and have seen first-hand a surging interest among students,” Mermin said. “The curricular offerings have grown, the clinical offerings have grown – and now this endeavor will take the program to another level.”

Part of the center’s mission will be to help define the parameters of consumer law – which can include everything from debt collection abuses and inflated drug prices to false advertising and subprime auto lending – and to identify key issues that demand attention.

“While modern consumer law has been around for more than a century, there’s never been an academic hub at a school like Berkeley Law with the mission of figuring out what it encompasses and what it can accomplish,” Mermin said. “That’s a real void we’re eager to fill.”

The Center is being funded by a $3.5 million donation from Cabraser.

“Elizabeth Cabraser and I had talked about the need for a center of this kind,” Mermin told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “We worked out an outline of what it is the Center should do. As far as I was concerned, we were getting ready to start talking to potential funders. And she and I had a meeting in December 2017 planning some of the operations of this center and how to approach potential funders when she changed the course of the meeting by offering to fund the Center herself. It was a remarkably generous act and that furthers the work that she has done in her career.”

How did the Center come about?

“I started teaching at the law school ten years ago,” Mermin said. “The law school had never had a course in consumer law in their 100 plus year history. I had certainly not had one. I started teaching my first consumer law class ten years ago. My first class had eight or nine students. My second class had nine or ten students. But we grew. The third had seventeen students. And the fourth and beyond were overenrolled. And we had to cap it at twenty students.”

“People discovered that consumer protection law was an area that offered not only a valuable and important perspective on society, on the marketplace, but also for a number of students, it was an interesting career path. Graduates starting right at the beginning have gone on to work at the Federal Trade Commission, at the California Attorney General’s office, in private plaintiffs’ law firms, at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, at the California Department of Business Oversight, at various Attorney Generals offices around the country and at non profits.”

“It was a pre-existing area of practice. It just didn’t have an imprint at the law school. And from the beginning, we started to gather the consumer alumni – alumni of this law school who worked in the field of consumer law. Earlier on, Elizabeth Cabraser was one of the lawyers who came to those gatherings and offered her support and mentorship to students. She has taught a number of courses at the law school. We built a consumer law program. We added additional consumer law courses.”

“We formalized the alumni group. We started a consumer law group – The Consumer Advocacy and Protection Society (CAPS). We brought in speakers. We engage in a number of different areas dedicated to increasing the footprint of consumer law at the law school. Consumer law is not a well established part of the legal academia anywhere. It was an ongoing project over the course of the past decade to increase the prominence of the field at this law school and at law schools nationwide.”

“The East Bay Community Law Center had a couple of brave lawyers who started what they called a general clinic. If low income folks came into the building and had a legal problem, they would either refer them to a clinic that dealt directly with that issue, or if there was no such clinic they were aware of, they would try to help them with their problem whatever it might be. This is a terrifying prospect to most lawyers, including legal services lawyers. They might not know much about the area of law that the person was having a problem with. Nonetheless, they opened the doors to that clinic. And that general clinic remains open. It remains a piece of genius in the legal services world.”

“Early on they realized that something like forty percent of the people coming through the door had been sued over credit card debt. It turned out there was a new species of debt collector called the debt buyer. The debt buyer purchases the debt from banks – usually for three or four cents on the dollar. And they would try and collect it. This raised all kinds of problems for these two lawyers who did not have a civil law background at all. They were criminal defense lawyers and homelessness lawyers.”

“I had just left the Attorney General’s office and was starting the Public Good Center. And one of them came to me and asked if I would be willing to sit in the back room of the clinic just so they could come back with particular questions they might have. And so I did. I sat there during clinic hours twice a week. They would come back. Occasionally a client would stick a head back there and ask – who are they asking? Who is back here? I understand law students going to the back room and asking lawyers. But why are the lawyers going back there? I was the Wizard of Oz back there.”

“After a few months, those two lawyers knew far more than I did about debt collection and so forth. But I refused to leave. I thought it was a terrific project they were involved with. Over the years, we realized that there was enough consumer law work to fill another clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center. They already had immigration law and landlord tenant and other clinics. But this one would focus on consumer law defense. They called it the Consumer Justice Clinic. And it is thriving. It has three full time lawyers in it. And a paralegal. And they are looking to expand further. There is quite a call for that kind of work to be done.”

“Early on in the process of the Consumer Justice Center, we realized that it was one thing to defend these cases one at a time, but there are hundreds of thousands of them being brought in California every year all with the same problems. The debt buyers couldn’t tell someone who the original creditor had been, what the amount was, they couldn’t show how the amount of the debt was calculated. All too often, they were going after people whose names were similar to the person who had borrowed the money in the first place. It didn’t matter to them if the middle initial was different, or if the social security number was different.”

“We realized that there needed to be a more systemic solution to this. We decided that we could go to the California legislature and seek to change the law and provide greater rights to the folks who were being, in some cases harassed, and in all cases contacted by the debt buyers.”

“We had a student do the initial white paper with the Consumers Union on the problem. That student took my course. And for the final project in the course, not only wrote a analysis of the problem, but also a solution and drafted the bill. Three years later, with many other students involved in advocating for the bill, it became the California Fair Debt Buying Practices Act. It was a major piece of debt collection reform legislation. And it’s now a model nationwide.”

“Last year, we brought together the California Low Income Consumer Coalition. Eleven legal services providers and non profits come together and promote positive consumer protection laws in the California legislature and the California Public Utilities Commission. And they work to oppose bills that would harm consumers.”

“The Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice is in many ways an outgrowth of the work that coalition has done. And some of the work that the Public Good Law Center has been engaged in – working in courts, filing amicus briefs in important consumer law and public health law cases around the country, with a particular focus on California, in order to advance the rights of consumers, particularly low income consumers.”

“When the Berkeley Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice came into being in April, it took some of its inspiration from the policy work of CLICC and the work in the courts, particularly amicus work and moving it forward. In addition to those practical and pragmatic goals that will continue to involve students, the Center will also work on the role of consumer law in the academy. Last May, before the Center existed, we convened the first ever conference of law school consumer clinics.”

How many consumer clinics are there at law schools?

“There are about 40.”

How many law schools are there?

“Several hundred. The number of clinics is growing, but it’s still a minority. We were unsure about how many were going to show up. My co-convenor from the University of Minnesota Law School thought there would be about five, and we had 25. It was a very successful event. People were excited about the possibility of talking with their colleagues who were doing the work they did. They had always had to work by analogy with their colleagues from other clinics – an environmental clinic, or an international human rights clinic. But lo and behold, that year they were able to talk with people who were using the same laws they were, who were seeing the same problems they were seeing. It was quite exciting.”

That conference was a conference of consumer law clinics at law schools?

“That’s exactly right. The Center is going to be bringing people together. It is going to be a convenor.”

“It will also be hosting the inaugural conference of scholars of consumer law February 21 and 22, 2019. It will be the first time, to my knowledge, that a group of law school professors will get together in a conference dedicated to scholarship in consumer law. There have been numerous conferences in sub-disciplines of consumers law. There have been regular conferences on teaching consumer law. But there has never been a conference that focuses on scholarship in consumer law.”

“One question that arises immediately is – what is consumer law? And the answer is – that’s part of the issue. Everyone has a separate definition. There are text books that call themselves consumer law text books or something similar. The Center will help to define what consumer law is and to raise the profile of consumer law in the academy and among law students. Students will say – if I care about consumers rights, if I care about economic justice, maybe I ought to go to Berkeley Law because they are committed to it.”

Did you base the Center on some model somewhere in the country, or is it a one of kind first of a kind center?

“It is both. There is one other consumer law institution. It’s at the University of Houston. And it’s run by an energetic professor – Richard Alderman. He founded The People’s Law School. Folks from the community came in on Saturdays and learn relevant bits of law. Apparently, 60,000 people over the years came in to learn the law. Richard appeared on all four networks in Houston. He had a particular vision of a center that was involved and embedded in the community. That’s an inspiration for sure. That center has closed some of its operations just this year. That means that the Berkeley Center is the one full time and operational consumer law center in the nation.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Ted Mermin, see 32 Corporate Crime Reporter 21(12), Monday May 21, 2018, print edition only.]

Copyright © Corporate Crime Reporter
In Print 48 Weeks A Year

Built on Notes Blog Core
Powered by WordPress