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Having only completed her second year at Boston College Law School, Carol Head has already felt the pressure of what it’s like to have someone’s future in her hands. She was one of 20 law students who as part of their summer associate program at three of Boston’s larger law firms took on cases from beginning to end through a Boston Bar Association pro bono program. Head’s summer associate stint was for 12 weeks at Boston’s Bingham Dana. “I was not going to mess this up for her,” said Head of her indigent client who had appealed a denial of Social Security disability benefits. “She was really scared at the hearing. The best thing about the experience was being able to help her out.” Head’s handling of the case included obtaining affidavits from doctors, outlining her client’s disability, and writing a seven-page brief describing why her client should be eligible for benefits. They are still awaiting the outcome of the administrative law judge’s decision. Although many firms offer law students a chance to experience the legal profession through summer associate programs, the pro bono work these students are doing through the BBA’s Volunteer Lawyers Project offers more than just a first hand feel for the legal profession, say firm partners. “It’s a win-win situation,” said Marijane Benner Browne, Bingham Dana’s pro bono coordinator and hiring partner. “We’re getting better associates and they get to figure out what it means to be a lawyer.” Having the volunteer assistance, particularly during summer vacations when it is harder to find attorneys available to do pro bono work, is a bonus for the pro bono program, said Meg Connolly, executive director at the Boston Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project. But just as important, law students are learning early in their legal career the importance of providing pro bono services, she said. “It’s a really good message firms are sending about their approval of firm members doing pro bono work,” Connolly said. “The earlier (law students) are exposed to pro bono, the better.” Besides Bingham Dana, Boston firms Goodwin, Procter & Hoar and Palmer & Dodge offered their summer associates an opportunity to handle a Volunteer Lawyer Project case in the areas of unemployment compensation, eviction defense work and Social Security disability appeals. Each firm provided the law students with a mentor from the firm. This was the first time that the project had law students from more than two firms to help the program with its caseload, Connolly said. Under Supreme Judicial Court Rule 3:03, students with at least two years of law school classes may represent a client, without compensation, before any administrative agency. Some law students who took on Volunteer Lawyers Project cases said appearing before the Department of Employment and Training and the Social Security Administration offered broader opportunities than is usually available to summer associates, who typically only observe attorneys in action. “I was able to take control and be responsible for my own case,” said Palmer & Dodge summer associate Christine Griffin, who is entering her third year at the University of Chicago Law School. Griffin argued in front of an administrative hearing officer at the Department of Employment and Training that her client should be entitled to unemployment benefits because she was fired and had not quit as the employer contended. Griffin directly questioned her client, cross-examined the employer’s witnesses and presented a closing statement. “I had significant client contact, I got to speak on the record and I wrote a number of pieces that I presented to the hearing officer,” said Griffin, who is awaiting a decision from the DET. Palmer & Dodge associate litigator Ruth T. Dowling, who served as a mentor for Griffin, said the kinds of cases available through the Volunteer Lawyers Project provide a learning experience without it being overwhelming. In addition, the project provides training at the beginning of the 12-week period. Northeastern University School of Law student Jill Brenner, a summer associate at Goodwin, Procter & Hoar, represented a low-income tenant with children who had been served with an eviction. Besides meeting with the client on numerous occasions and conducting preliminary research to prepare for the case, Brenner took the proactive step of drafting answers to complaints related to the case. “Doing pro bono work is … good for my own personal growth,” Brenner said. Working directly with clients at such an early stage of their legal careers helps these future lawyers understand the heavy responsibility the job brings, firm members say. “They gain a sense of confidence in their abilities,” said attorney Maris L. Abbene, director of recruitment at Bingham Dana. “Law school is so academic. This is the first time they have complete responsibility for a client.”
Making the Most Out of Law School. October 16-27.

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