Legal education has hit a sweet spot when it comes to the field of public service. A growing number of law school students are interested in careers that tackle issues of human rights, immigration, war crimes and more. Indeed, some legal scholars have hailed this group of law students as “Generation G” for their generosity and involvement in this area of the law.
At the same time, the nation’s top law schools have developed comprehensive public service offices to provide the best access to the faculty, clinics, externships and programs available to students today. As a result, there are more opportunities for students to study the law they love, experience real cases out in the field, find a job they are passionate about and have the resources to pay the bills at the end of every month.
Using data collected by “The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools,” The National Jurist selected four schools for its Public Service honor roll: Boston University School of Law, Brooklyn Law School, Cornell Law School and the University of Maryland School of Law.
The law schools vary from student enrollment to tuition. But they all had things in common, including:
• Strong support from the law school’s administration, faculty and staff – financially and emotionally
• An office or administrator solely devoted to the subject, giving students access to alumni, working professionals and others in their field of interest
• A large and vast array of projects, all designed to accommodate a law student’s normally hectic workload
• A social network for students interested in public service ranging from student organizations to lectures to events focused on the issues surrounding this career
• Orientation programs, welcome receptions and recognition awards for the public service work among students, faculty and graduates
Lee Miller said she chose Brooklyn Law because of the public interest programs the law school offers. The 1L received the prestigious Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship, and is studying for a joint degree in law and urban planning.
“This has been the perfect law school for me,” said Miller, who said Brooklyn’s faculty have shared her enthusiasm for New York’s waterways and its economic development, two areas Miller previously worked in before deciding to attend law school.
By definition, public service or public interest law is understood as providing legal representation to individuals, groups or interests that historically have been under-represented in the United States or global legal systems.
Launched in 2006, “The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools” has served as a free interactive online resource of public service opportunities, curricula and financial programs at more than 150 law schools in the United States.
Equal Justice Works, a Washington, D.C., non-profit organization, created the guide because its editors “believe there is a void in existing commercial law school resource guides and rankings,” according to its Web site.
It provides side-by-side comparisons of financial aid and affordability factors, faculty engagement, student leadership, the range of clinical, externship and pro bono opportunities and curricular and co-curricular offerings in specific issue areas.
Law-school administrators say they believe today’s students studying public service law are particularly generous with their time and expertise for a variety of reasons. It may be because their parents were involved in social issues. The students may have volunteered extensively throughout high school and undergraduate work. Some students also have held full-time jobs before attending law school, so they understand the impact of the work they feel called to do.
“If you present opportunities, students are very interested in public service. It’s a case of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” said Maura Kelly, assistant dean for career development and public service at Boston University School of Law. Maryland Dean Phoebe Haddon added: “It sounds clichéd, but lives are transformed through public service.”
Here is a look at the five honor roll members:
Boston University School of Law
Kelly arrived at Boston University School of Law in 2005, following a career in educational law and a stint as assistant director of public service advising at Harvard Law School. Her assignment at BU was to help expand the law school’s public service programs, including starting a pro bono program.
One of the choices BU made was to make pro bono work voluntary. The program has thrived because its students embrace a spirit of generosity, Kelly said. Also, Dean Maureen O’Rourke is fully behind it and promotes it at the school’s career events.
“We really support our students to become the lawyers they intended to be when they came to the law school,” Kelly said. Students who take the “Pro Bono Pledge” and complete at least 35 hours are recognized on their transcripts, highlighted at the law school’s graduation ceremony, and the Dean gives each student a certificate at a celebratory event.
Four alumni also are celebrated each year for their service with annual awards given at Public Interest Orientation, the Pro Bono Kickoff, the D.C. Public Service Reception and the End of the Year Pro Bono Celebration. The Public Interest Project or “PIP,” a student organization, also gives alumni awards for commitment to public service.
The law school’s fall Public Interest Orientation session features an alumni speaker, whose career path personifies one of the many paths for Boston law graduates. Events like these are key to the public service department’s outreach. Of the more than 50 campus events the office schedules, half were focused on public service or public interest issues.
Plus, there is the Public Interest Scholarship program, designed to provide financial support to students who have demonstrated a commitment and desire to work in public interest law. Its scholars receive almost full tuition, special mentoring from the law school’s faculty and regular one-on-one meetings with Kelly and other career advisors to help develop their career plans.
Kelly is particularly proud of the law school’s spring break pro bono trips. The law school provides much of the funding for the trips, which vary in location from New Orleans, L
a., to Texas, Michigan, Cambodia and Thailand.
Brooklyn Law School
Brooklyn Law School began enlarging its public service initiatives more than 20 years ago, one of the first law schools to do so. Officials say this makes their program one of the most engaging, well-defined and broadly based in the nation.
It includes 40 specialized courses, fellowships and clinical opportunities, nine in-house clinics, three large externship programs, two specialty externships and six clinics that partner with outside organizations.
One key program is the law school’s Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship, which fosters a close-knit public interest community on campus with monthly forums and yearly symposia. Its core component is a 10-week paid summer internship for fellows in the United States or abroad.
The Sparer Faculty Committee mentors the fellows through their law school years and beyond. Among others, it includes Sparer’s director, Elizabeth M. Schneider, an expert in gender law and domestic violence, and Susan N. Herman, the president of the national American Civil Liberties Union.
The law school underwrites about 400 students each year who want to work for the summer at public interest organizations. Another source of support is the student-run Brooklyn Law School Public Interest fellowship, which holds fundraising events, including auctions and races in Prospect Park.
Plus, two new international public service fellowship programs were launched in 2007: The International Human Rights Fellowship, funded by the Law School, and the International Law Society Global Justice Fellowship, supported through the fundraising efforts of the student-run International Law Society. Fellows worked in many countries such as Switzerland to address bio-weapons prevention, in Cambodia on accountability for Khmer Rouge atrocities and in South Africa to help asylum seekers and refugees.
Many student organizations are dedicated to public service. For example, the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office Student Action Group advises consumer debtors who are representing themselves in civil court. It has become a model for other law schools and a Bronx legal aid office.
The Brooklyn Law School Loan Repayment Assistance Program, developed in 1990, has provided more than $2.4 million in loan forgiveness to support graduates who choose to work in public interest organizations.
“It can help change the quality of someone’s life,” said Elizabeth Kane, director of the law school’s public service programs.
Cornell Law School
Cornell Law School’s commitment to helping its public service career-minded students make their dreams a reality is the cornerstone of its initiatives, said Karen Comstock, assistant dean for Public Service.
To that end, in the beginning of the 2009-2010 academic year, Dean Stewart Schwab reiterated the law school’s financial commitment to one of its most popular offerings — the summer Public Interest Fellowship program.
Comstock’s office anticipates the demand will double in summer 2010 for what is known as PIF, as it guarantees a stipend to all first and second year students who take unpaid internships with government agencies and non-profit organizations. Normally, fundraising can cover most of the program’s cost. However, the current economy had the program on the ropes.
Because relevant summer work is crucial to securing permanent post-graduate positions, the Dean’s support is another sign of Cornell’s belief that public service is worth its weight.
“We want students to know we value this career choice,” Comstock said. The career’s relatively low pay plus substantial school loans can be a significant barrier to public service work. These are often interesting, exciting jobs, but public sector employers do not have the means to offer large, competitive entry-level salaries. Cornell’s goal is to make public service a viable career choice.
One of Comstock’s newest projects is the Public Service eNewsletter, which was launched in December. This periodic email report keeps all of the law school’s key players, including its involved alumni, aware of what’s happening in the public service arena.
Keeping alumni up-to-date on Cornell’s programs is key to developing strong mentor opportunities and finding top-notch speakers for campus events, Comstock said. Alumni also serve as role models, especially those who receive the law school’s Exemplary Alumni Public Service Awards.
Now in its fifth year, Cornell’s Public Service Awards and Celebration, held in New York, acknowledges the achievements of alumni who excel in government service, poverty law, domestic and international human rights and public policy. Third year law student winners of the Freeman Award for Civil-Human Rights, the Stanley E. Gould Prize for Public Interest Law and the Seymour Herzog Memorial Prize are also recognized at this event.
University of Maryland School of Law
The commitment to public interest at the University of Maryland School of Lawincludes a unique requirement, establishing “experiential education” in providing legal services to individuals otherwise lacking access to justice as a key part of the law school’s curriculum, said Dean Phoebe Haddon.
The requirement results in about 250 students in 25 clinics contributing more than 110,000 hours of free legal service annually, making the Clinical Law Program one of the largest public interest firms in Maryland.
“Maryland has a well-established culture of service,” Haddon said. “Many students choose to come here because of our access to justice focus. … We believe students need to be mindful of the disparities out there (and) give them a real sense of the community.”
This spring, the law school will offer a new International and Comparative Law Clinic allowing students to develop experience in global issues while helping strengthen legal systems and to increase access to justice in developing nations. The 13 pioneering students will work in either Namibia, China or Mexico, communicating with their professors and taking classes through video-conferencing and online.
“This new clinic will expand law-related skills of citizens globally as well as provide unique opportunities for our students and faculty to collaborate and interact with lawyers from an international perspective,” Haddon said.
Maryland also has created some unique public service offerings as part of the curriculum. Consider the case of Prof. Brenda Bratton Blom, director of the Clinical Law Program, who helped establish the Legal Grind last year.
The Legal Grind is a weekly session where, for just $10, Maryland Law students work alongside pro bono lawyers from Civil Justice Inc. to provide Baltimore residents legal representation with a cup of coffee and consultation in “a convenient, affordable, informal way,” the law school’s Web site said.
Then there is the Maryland Public Interest Law Project, which provides stipends to Maryland students who take unpaid summer positions with public service agencies. Last year, the Project funded 27 grants for students who worked at Maryland Legal Aid, the Public Justice Center, public defenders’ of
fices in Baltimore, Washington and New Orleans and the ACLU of Maryland, among others.
Ultimately, what makes Generation G so powerful is the students who created it, law school officials said.
“What makes (public service programs) ultimately so fantastic is the students themselves,” Comstock said. “They are inspirational.”
Kelly agreed. “They have dreams of making a difference,” she said.
This guest post is authored by Karen Dybis and was originally published in the February 2010 issue of The National Jurist magazine. You can click here for the February 2010 digital edition of the magazine or visit The National Jurist website for more great content about law school.