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The Consumer Law Litigation Clinic takes aim at bad business.

Last July, the students working in the UW’s Consumer Law Litigation Clinic taught a lesson of their own to Tremont Financial LLC. In a Dane County court, the students forced the Internet payday lender to pay $60,000 and to cease lending in Wisconsin.

It may not have been the biggest legal victory in the state’s history, but it was the biggest in the students’ careers so far —and will, they hope, send a message to predatory companies that someone is looking out for Wisconsin consumers.

The Consumer Law Litigation Clinic helps train future attorneys by involving them in aiding some of Madison’s poorest citizens. “It’s one of the great learning experiences at the school,” says director Sarah Orr ’87, JD’93. “It gives them a chance to do research, improve their writing skills, talk to folks, and resolve legal issues.”

The clinic has been part of the UW Law School since 1991, when it was established to provide legal services to lower income clients. Typically, fifteen students take part in it each year, meeting with clients, assessing their legal difficulties, and advocating on their behalf. But though students enroll in the program for a year, its cases often take much longer.

The Tremont case, for instance, began in 2007, when the clinic was staffed by an entirely different set of law students. They found some 137 people who felt they’d been wronged by Tremont, and then they convinced the clinic’s faculty and staff that the lender had violated Wisconsin’s consumer act in the terms of the loans it had offered. The students filed a complaint in court, and ultimately negotiated a settlement with Tremont.

According to Orr, that’s typical of the clinic’s work. “We probably settle more than half our cases prior to litigation,” she says. “But then that’s something important that the students and their clients also learn. Negotiating is often the best thing for everyone.”

Published in the Spring 2009 issue

Tags: Humanities, Public service, Students, Teaching and learning

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