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Daniella Taylor-Smith, a law student at Howard University, has spent her summer combing through pay stubs, job applications, and other documents. Thus far, she’s racked up at least 10 3-inch binders — all with purple labels because that’s her favorite color — chock full of discovery for an employment discrimination case. Taylor-Smith, who has just finished her first year of law school, has been working on a class action against the Federal Aviation Administration for Gebhardt & Associates since mid-May, hence the abundance of binders. Working on a reduced fee, the firm is representing a class of former air traffic controllers who allege that the FAA committed age discrimination when the agency outsourced their jobs. Taylor-Smith is one of a troupe of law students from around the country chosen for a scholarship from Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. The scholarship gives students a chance to do public service law and pro bono work over the summer. “I basically have been interested in public interest work forever,” says Taylor-Smith. But, at least in the beginning of her educational career, she lacked focus. “The public interest professor said you can’t just save the world,” she says. “You have to pick a field.” Inspired by her mother, Taylor-Smith decided that public interest and employment law was the way to go. Her mother emigrated to the United States from Trinidad in 1986 with a degree from London University, one small child with another on the way, and the desire to have a top-notch career, the kind of work that can be difficult to find as a woman in her home country. But even in America her mother had problems, and while Taylor-Smith was in high school, her mom filed a discrimination complaint against her employer, a biotech company. “It really inspired me to go to law school and pursue this kind of work,” Taylor-Smith says. Law schools began taking substantial steps to develop pro bono and public interest programs in the early 1990s, according to the Association of American Law Schools. And in 1996, the American Bar Association changed its accreditation standards, encouraging law schools to foster pro bono work among the student body. Sonnenschein is in the second year of its scholarship program, and the firm plans to continue the program for the next three years. The firm gives out $4,000 stipends to two first-year law students from each of the top 25 schools in the country. Jerry Wolf, who is a partner at the firm’s Kansas City, Mo., office and one of the originators of the program, says the purpose of the scholarships is more than just introducing students to public service careers. It’s “to engage people in public service, so when they go to their law firms they’ll continue to do things in public service or on a pro bono basis.” Some law schools in the District have public service departments and voluntary pro bono programs, in which students pledge a certain number of hours to volunteer legal work. Students from Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law even started their own pro bono organization last fall. After spending several days this May on the Gulf Coast providing legal services to Hurricane Katrina victims, the group is now lobbying Congress over the evictions of trailer park residents in Mississippi. Barbara Moulton, the assistant dean of Public Interest and Community Service Programs at Georgetown University Law Center, thinks public interest and pro bono work can have a “tremendous effect” on students and can “inculcate in them the commitment to provide legal services for the underrepresented.” “I absolutely believe providing students those opportunities has a very substantial effect on who they will be as lawyers,” Moulton says. However, a study published this year by Professor Robert Granfield, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo, found that pro bono programs in law schools may not have the lasting impact everyone hopes. According to Granfield’s study, lawyers who “participated in mandatory law school pro bono programs are more likely to support the value of pro bono in principle.” But he found those same programs had little to do with the amount of actual pro bono work attorneys conducted later in their careers. Attorneys who did not participate in programs in law school performed about the same amount of pro bono work as lawyers who did. One of the possible reasons for this, said Granfield in an interview, is that the attorneys from the three law schools he sampled felt that their pro bono work was detached from their school work. The schools didn’t address questions such as the different types of pro bono work available. “The most common complaint across these law schools was that the pro bono experience was not integrated into the curriculum,” Granfield says. And, of course, economics is a huge factor. As law schools become more expensive and the allure of six-figure salaries for first-year associates more powerful, public interest law is less of an option for many students. Daniel Berlin, a law student at Georgetown who also received a scholarship from Sonnenschein, is working this summer with Ayuda, a legal service provider for immigrants. “I went to law school basically because I wanted to contribute more to the immigrant community,” says Berlin, who spent two years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. But he adds, “Being in school, it seems hard or impossible to do this kind of work” when others in his class will come out of law school making $160,000 a year. He says, however, that his experience at Ayuda, which includes helping clients with family petitions, naturalization, and asylum cases, has “reaffirmed that this is where I want to be.” The public interest coordinator at American University’s Washington College of Law, Charlene Gomes, says that the substantial amount of debt incurred during law school, which can cost upward of $100,000, bars many students from careers in public interest law. “We try to educate our students early on about debt management during law school and after, as well as what it means to graduate from law school when a large part of your peers are going to be making $80,000 to $160,000,” Gomes says. “There is definitely a core group of people who are going to do it no matter what,” she notes. Meghan Moore, another Sonnenschein scholarship recipient, fits the bill on that one. A law student at Georgetown, Moore is simultaneously getting her master’s degree in psychology from Catholic University. This spring, she spent one day a week interning at the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and thanks to her scholarship is now working full time at the center. She researches cases, works on depositions, and has helped draft a summary judgment motion and an amicus brief. “Here I have the opportunity to work on real cases and work with real clients,” says Moore, whose experience as an emergency medical technician while an undergraduate sparked her interest in mental health law. “This will always be something I will carry with me.”
Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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