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There’s no real case against doing pro bono work while in law school, and the arguments in favor are unusually broad and compelling. No. 1, of course, is that many schools make it a requirement for graduation. Beyond that, however, the reasons range from making connections with practicing attorneys — connections that will later prove invaluable when looking for a job — to broader issues having to do with long-term professional satisfaction. “Why do it?” asks Robert Precht rhetorically. Precht is assistant dean of public service at the University of Michigan Law School. His answer? “The best reason is because you will be a happier lawyer in the long run if you feel you’re using your talents not just to make money but also to serve the public good. It keeps you idealistic.” There is something to be said for doing well by doing good. Pro bono work on a resume shows a willingness to work hard for causes you believe in, a quality that is highly valued by recruiters. The American Bar Association recognizes the value of student pro bono work with its Judy M. Weightman Public Interest Award, which is given annually to a law school with a notable public service program. What follows is a look at the pro bono programs of the three most recent winners. 2001-2002 UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL Giving voice to people without a voice “We’ve grown from a passive organization that matched students to different public service groups to one that is focused on student-initiated projects,” says Rob Precht. “Our goal is to find out what a student is passionate about and then construct a project around that passion.” The Office of Public Service, a student volunteer project, was founded in 1994 by the school’s then newly installed dean, Jeffrey Lehman. The idea was to provide a focus for pro bono work at a school that — unlike many of its peers — had no public service requirement. Today, about 100 of the school’s 1,200 students volunteer at the center to work on some 30 to 50 new cases each year. “The students I work with feel they can change the world,” says Precht, a former federal public defender whose own clients have included Mohammad Salameh, one of the accused parties in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “It’s very renewing.” The cases run the gamut from domestic law to more complicated efforts on behalf of prisoners and immigrants. One of the more outstanding student initiatives involved the efforts of Jared Genser, a second-year student who, two years ago, was responsible for the freeing of human rights activist James Mawdsley from a Burmese jail. Genser, who now works for McKinsey & Co. in Washington, D.C., filed a complaint on Mawdsley’s behalf with the subcommittee of the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights that is concerned with arbitrary detention cases around the world. Mawdsley, a British national, had been sentenced to 17 years in prison for passing out prodemocracy leaflets. Genser, a Washington, D.C., native with a prior degree in public policy, also galvanized support on Capitol Hill, the State Department, and the British Foreign Office, all of which demanded Mawdsley’s release after the UN ruled in Mawdsley’s favor in September 2000. Mawdsley’s release several weeks later was “the most amazing moment of my life,” says Genser. “I feel very lucky to have gotten the education I did and to have been in a position to have an impact on something of that scale.” As a result of his experience, Genser formed Freedom Now, a nonprofit legal organization that works on similar cases around the world. His motto, he says, is anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous dictum: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Such sentiments are at the heart of Michigan’s Office of Public Service. “I try to instill the idea in my students that, if nothing more, you are a witness,” says Precht. “You are there to give voice to people who don’t have a voice, and there’s something noble about that process.” 2000-2001 TULANE LAW SCHOOL Socially progressive in the South In 1987 Tulane Law School in New Orleans instituted a graduation requirement that all students spend a minimum of 20 hours doing pro bono work for various groups that benefit indigent and disadvantaged people. The requirement was the first by an ABA�sanctioned school and paved the way to a wider embrace of public service work by law schools across the country. It also solidified Tulane’s reputation as a socially progressive law school in a judicially conservative region. “We’re known as a place that encourages public interest work,” says Julie Jackson, the school’s assistant dean. Over the years, the school has forged alliances with civic and criminal associations such as the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation and Covenant House. Students also suggest their own causes and charities, which vary from year to year, says Jackson. “For a while there was a lot of interest in elder law and working with senior citizens. This year, fair housing has attracted a lot of students.” Aside from reinforcing progressive values, Jackson says public interest work serves another purpose for many students. “It’s a real benefit when it comes time to look for a job,” she says. “In large law schools, students often don’t have the opportunity to develop personal relationships with their professors. So when it comes time to write recommendations, all the professors have to go on is grades. The beauty of a community service placement is that students usually work fairly closely with an attorney or several attorneys who get to know their strengths on a firsthand basis. They also have connections and can open a lot of doors.” Heather White, a second-year student from the Washington, D.C., area, completed her requirement by working for the New Orleans branch of the Innocence Project in winter of 2001 and has continued volunteering there ever since. The Innocence Project is a national association that seeks new trials for prisoners when there is strong evidence of both innocence and flaws in judicial procedure. The project, founded in 2000, has already achieved reversals in two capital murder convictions, one of which involved a defendant who had been in prison since 1975. White currently is working on achieving a new trial for a defendant convicted of second-degree murder. The work is often unglamorous. “It mainly involves record searches and interviews with clients, witnesses and jurors,” she says. “We’re always looking for procedural flaws because that’s how you get back into court.” Many of the interviews take place in prisons. “It’s another planet,” she says. “You’re locked into a room with a prisoner in shackles on the other side of a screen through which you have to interview them. We’re the only hope they have.” The experience, she says, has been valuable. “I’m looking to go into labor and employment law, and there are a lot of similarities to criminal law. In both cases, the playing field is incredibly uneven, and the odds are against the little guy.” 1999-2000 NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW Not plain vanilla — and proud of it A commitment to public interest work is “one way we distinguish ourselves within the universe of law schools,” says Roger Abrams, dean of Northeastern University’s School of Law in Boston. Through the school’s innovative co-op program, students are required to spend a total of four quarters away from campus working in various legal environments, at least one of which must be with either one of the 100-plus public interest groups with which the school is affiliated or with a public interest group of the student’s choosing. The associations range from walk-in legal service centers to advocacy groups for everything from low-income housing to animal rights. Abrams stresses that the program “has nothing to do with either progressive or conservative causes. If a person wants to work for the NRA or the National Right to Work Coalition, that’s fine as long as he or she is doing good legal work.” About a quarter of Northeastern’s graduates ultimately go into public interest or government work, says Abrams. “This is not a plain vanilla law school, and students know that when they come here.” Indeed, Northeastern has had a rather unorthodox history. Originally founded in 1898, the school shut down in the early 1950s and then reopened in 1968 at the height of the student activist movement. “This is a school that was created by people who grew up in the ’60s,” says Abrams. “We’re the anti-Harvard.” In addition to introducing the co-op program, the school abolished grades in favor of written evaluations. Northeastern is also known as a school that embraces diversity. Upwards of 65 percent of the student body and 55 percent of the faculty are women. Dimple Abichandani, who graduated this spring, did two public service co-ops, including one with the National Employment Law Project in New York. While there last summer, she focused on the problems of South Asian day laborers. “They get exploited all the time by employers who refuse to pay them, and most are in no position to fight for what they are owed,” she says. Abichandani, who was born in India, ultimately wound up filing claims for back wages with the Department of Labor on behalf of two Pakistani immigrants. “I felt such a personal tie to these clients,” she says. “I felt like they could be my family.” The case “taught me the value of persistence,” she says. “I found out the name of the person at the Department of Labor who would be evaluating the claims and called him every morning. I made sure he was moved by their personal stories.” Finally, last spring, she learned that the two won full restitution. “It really made me feel hopeful about the system,” she says. “I had a conversation one day with one of my clients, and he talked about life in Pakistan, how hard it is, how people cheat you all the time, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And I said, well, that kind of thing happens here, too. And he said, ‘The difference is, here there’s someone like you who’s willing to take my case. You make me feel that we can fight for justice.’”

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