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

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Corporate Crime Reporter 

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.”

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