The seeds of good pro bono work can be planted early. This is the premise that our law firm affirmed when we created two pro bono partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania Law School. These partnerships pair law students and lawyers in an effort to assist indigent clients who cannot afford to represent themselves. The programs have proven successful, creating an innovative approach to the expansion of legal services while at the same time teaching law students important real-world legal skills that will prepare them to be effective counselors and advocates.
Our first partnership began in 2006 and resulted in the creation of a landlord-tenant program, which is an effort to address the staggering number of pro se tenants in the Philadelphia Municipal Court by providing representation to at-risk tenants in eviction proceedings. The program started as a three-way collaboration involving Penn Law students, Dechert attorneys and Community Legal Services, and has since expanded to involve other firms and referring agencies. The model has been to have CLS perform weekly intakes at regularly scheduled clinics and then refer the tenant clients to the lawyer and student volunteers. Dechert’s case manager then coordinates between our attorneys and the law students by assigning cases to attorney-student teams, working closely with Penn Law’s student-led housing board. The students are encouraged to take on as much responsibility as they reasonably can, including handling the fact-gathering, negotiations and, in some cases, presenting the case before a municipal court judge. The judges and opposing counsel have been impressed with the students’ performance in this program. Since its inception, the program has provided representation to about 500 tenants.
One typical recent case under this program involved a client whose landlord had failed to pay the water bills, which resulted in the water being shut off by the Philadelphia Water Department. The landlord then turned on the water illegally, only to later turn it off (again illegally) in retaliation for the tenant’s withholding rent based on the many habitability problems with the house. The landlord then sued her for nonpayment of rent and our lawyer/students/paralegal team stepped in.
The students researched certain legal issues surrounding the illegal water shutoff and the legal consequences of the landlord’s retaliatory behavior, and they also put together a quantitative assessment of the rent abatement that should result from the habitability problems. They also compiled an analysis of water bills paid by the tenant as compared to the amount that she should have paid under the lease. Based on this factual and legal analysis, we were able to negotiate a settlement agreement that resulted in no money judgment being entered for the withheld rent, thus preserving the client’s credit, the client being reimbursed for her overpayment of water bills, and the client having a month in which to find a more suitable house. In addition, the landlord-tenant complaint was withdrawn.
Our second partnership began in 2009 and resulted in the creation of a Federal Appellate Litigation Externship. Through this method of hands-on learning, our attorneys have guided Penn Law students on handling a slate of appellate matters in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Our attorneys serve as pro bono counsel to a variety of indigent clients, including civil rights plaintiffs, students and prisoners, in both individual and class actions. Working with a Dechert lawyer, the law students assist in interviewing the client and in researching and writing appellate briefs. Throughout the semester, the students also attend a series of Dechert-led seminars on appellate advocacy and practice. In a number of the appeals, the law students themselves have had the opportunity to give oral argument to the 3rd Circuit.
For even the most seasoned advocate to argue before a panel of federal court of appeals judges, it takes clear thinking, thorough preparation on the merits, practice and poise. We work with the students to prepare the main points of the arguments, to anticipate questions that the judges might ask and to help them practice arguing to moot panels with Dechert’s appellate advocates serving as “judges.” After the students put in so much effort preparing, our attorneys find it very satisfying to see the students deliver in court. The joint efforts of our lawyers and Penn Law students have won praise from the 3rd Circuit. In one instance, a third-year law student who argued in support of the appellant was commended in the court’s opinion for his advocacy.
The appellate litigation externship offers a unique opportunity for students to participate in federal litigation that benefits an underserved population. It also challenges the Dechert team to provide the students with our best training for their future law careers. A few things that we have learned from these partnerships:
• Getting Started: There are many ways to get these programs off the ground — and we have had two different experiences. The initial impetus for the landlord-tenant program actually came from law students themselves, who wanted to work with a firm to get involved in the landlord-tenant matters — and reached out to CLS and Dechert. Our appellate externship was our initiative — our attorneys reached out to Penn Law School.
• Training: Providing training to the students and attorneys alike is critical. In our landlord-tenant program, we provide orientations and trainings twice a year, involving the law students, but we emphasize that the most significant source of training is the “on-the-job” training they get from participating in a case with an experienced lawyer. They then can take on increasing responsibility with each subsequent case accepted. As noted above, with the appellate externship, we offer a series of seminars for the students.
• Supervision: Working with law students can be a great way to increase the number of clients served in the community. However, they are students — and must have supervision. We therefore always have a lawyer actively participating in the representation. That said, in the landlord-tenant program, we have learned that having the students form a relationship with the client early on fosters a relationship that makes the students’ participation more meaningful and rewarding. We have therefore encouraged students to handle the client interview largely (or entirely) on their own and to then circle back with the supervising attorney to discuss the next steps. We also encourage certified students to handle the case presentation in court, under our guidance and supervision.
• The Academic Year: The academic year is always a challenge when partnering with law schools, remembering that the students are not available during the summer and often are not available during different points in the academic year, especially around exam time. No matter how eager the students may be, when exams roll around, even the most dedicated student may not be available. In the landlord-tenant program, we have been fortunate to have had the assistance of one or two summer interns supplied through Penn Law’s public interest program during each of the last several years, and we have learned to be flexible during the school year.
As students develop skills and a passion for serving those in need, these programs affirm that it is never too early to start doing good. •
Cheryl Krause is a partner in Dechert’s white collar and securities litigation group.
Jennings Durand is an associate in the litigation department.
Ethan Fogel chairs the firm’s pro bono committee in Philadelphiaand is a partner in the business restructuring and reorganization group.