Christine N. Cimini
When you lawyer on behalf of disadvantaged groups, you have to think big, be creative and innovative, and use all the tools in your box.”
Director of the Semester in Practice and Externship Programs, Visiting Professor of Law
During her first year as a law student, Christine Cimini volunteered to make dinner weekly for a man dying of AIDS because "I realized I wasn't going to make it through law school unless I found something that recommitted me." As she anguished over whether to stay, she recalls, "he said, 'You've got to be kidding me! Look how fortunate you are, and how much you can do for people like me.'
"It renewed in me a dedication to the reason I wanted to go to law school in the first place-to make a difference in the world," she says today.
He was among the key mentors, teachers, and friends who have shaped Cimini's life: "They believed in me, and I feel responsible for paying back what has been given to me," she says.
As a lawyer, Cimini has fought on behalf of indigent, ill, and battered clients. As a director of clinical programs, she has guided students through initiatives that changed Colorado laws to protect day laborers, stemmed predatory lending, and stiffened habitable housing laws.
Mentoring is front and center for her now at Vermont Law School, where she directs the Semester in Practice and Externships Programs. She recruits seasoned lawyers in government, nonprofits, corporations, and private firms to supply guidance to students seeking a full-time, semester-long immersion experience. Matching each student with the right mentor is critical, she says, and the benefits go both ways: "Students are afforded wonderful learning opportunities while mentors get the energy, enthusiasm, and hard work of students."
Cimini's earliest influence was her close-knit Italian family in Connecticut, many of them teachers. "A core value of my upbringing was public service-to this day, my dad does more volunteering than anyone I know," she says. A strong athlete, Cimini competed in the Junior Olympics, and "went to college to play basketball," she says. While in college she competed in two sports, soccer and basketball. Her soccer coach at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Gladstone Hutchinson, became "an incredible influence in helping me think through how I could have a positive impact in the world." Two decades later, she still talks frequently with him; he is now his country's top economic policy-maker as director-general of the Planning Institute of Jamaica.
In 1992, after getting her JD from the University of Connecticut School of Law, Cimini lived in a social-justice community house in Hartford, Connecticut, where she represented HIV and AIDS patients in Legal Services. "When you're a new lawyer working with clients who are dying it is hard to figure out the contours of the lawyer's role." she says. She then landed a Cover Fellowship in Public Interest Law at the Yale Law School, where she administered the poverty/HIV legal clinic and worked under another key mentor, Professor Kathleen A. Sullivan. "She was the consummate never-give-up fighter on behalf of the disadvantaged, and it was inspiring to watch her work," recalls Cimini. "She spent countless hours observing me and giving me feedback, and the fact that she considered me worth her time gave me a lot of confidence."
To gain more legal experience, Cimini handled welfare, housing, and domestic violence cases at Legal Aid Services in Portland, Oregon, then worked on civil rights and constitutional cases at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. She joined Denver University's Sturm College of Law in 1999 as a clinical professor and launched an innovative hybrid community-based civil litigation clinic that addressed pressing but unserved needs, such as predatory lending in minority neighborhoods (winner of the Clinical Legal Education Association Award for Excellence in 2002) and the plight of day laborers. The laborers were often stiffed by employers after a hard day of work, and Cimini's students drafted and lobbied for a state law making nonpayment of wages a crime, then enlisted the police in enforcing it. "We learned that when you lawyer on behalf of disadvantaged groups, you have to think big, be creative and innovative, and use all the tools in your box," she says. She was appointed director of clinical programs in 2005, overseeing six clinics and an externship program that places 400 students a year; in 2010 she was named the Ronald V. Yegge Clinical Director, an endowed chair.
Still, she was drawn away from Denver to VLS because of its strong commitment to experiential learning and because "VLS is a unique place that really feeds my public interest roots and motivations. This student body is unlike any other I've seen. Its commitment to public service is palpable, and that's very compelling."
Her partner, Jessica West, a top-rated lawyer in Colorado who has vast experience in complex civil and criminal litigation as well as death penalty work, will be teaching administrative law, criminal law, and evidence at VLS next year. They live in Norwich with their two daughters-Anaya, 8, and Chloe, 6-who are thrilled to have, right out of their front door, 10 acres to explore and a pond to splash in and skate on. Cimini compares it to their cityscape in Denver and says: "It's delightful to be connected to the outdoor world in way that is immediate and tangible and invigorating!"