Tucked into sparsely furnished offices in New York’s Financial District, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project is a remarkable program that is proving to be both a balm for our national honor and, in my view, a model for how law schools might evolve. Five years old last fall, IRAP brings together law firm lawyers and law students to counsel, on a pro bono basis, refugees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The conflict in Iraq may be ending, but a troubling refugee problem remains alive. According to United Nations and humanitarian group estimates, a few million Iraqis fled their homes during the war. Over the years, some sought asylum or other immigrant status in the United States, and, according to government reports, about 85,000 have been resettled here since 2007. Getting approval, though, means working through a multistep process during which the applicants must prove that they have been threatened because of their political, religious or social status, or have family in the U.S., or, under a special visa program, were employed by U.S. agencies—military, contractors or media. These are not easy burdens of proof—nor should they be—and they are complicated severely by language and cultural barriers, an opaque bureaucracy and an absence of legal counsel.
In 2008 a small group of Yale Law students began working with Iraqi refugees. But they needed a supervisor. Yale’s clinical instructors were booked, so the students sought help from law firms with pro bono programs and a desire to raise their profiles in New Haven. Dewey & LeBoeuf was the first to volunteer—for all its disreputable behavior, the firm’s pro bono efforts seem to have been genuine—and others quickly followed. According to Becca Heller, IRAP’s executive director and one of the original Yale cadre, 50 firms now work with students from 26 law schools.
Most of IRAP’s work is done remotely. Typically, the students and lawyers involved in a matter will meet to interview their client over a Web-based video connection. Often they will be entering the case after the refugee’s bid was rejected. On the basis of the interview and other digging, the students will draft an appeal letter. “And then we help them make it look like a real submission,” says Aidan Synnott, a litigation partner at Paul Weiss. “For all of us, this is rewarding work. These matters transform lives.” According to Synnott, 28 Paul Weiss lawyers have worked with 30 NYU law students on 16 refugee matters. Thus far, they’ve helped 11 refugees win admission to the U.S.
These are not trivial matters. Synnott cites one active case involving an Iraqi family who, as he puts it, “were the wrong religion in the wrong place.” What started as harsh words turned to threats, then to murder: After one son was killed, the family fled. Two years later, the family is in a Jordanian camp, hoping to win asylum with IRAP’s aid.
IRAP tends to attract 1Ls and 2Ls who want “a chance to do the kind of lawyering they went to law school for,” says Rebecca Callaway, a Freshfields associate who has supervised IRAP matters for three years. But the IRAP model is applicable to more than precociously public-spirited students.
And that’s where it starts to get interesting for the future of law schools and firms. Imagine a world in which law firms offering permanent jobs to their summer associates also ask them to spend part of their third year working remotely with the firm on a pro bono matter. For the new 3Ls who don’t have offers—which is to say, most—and those who aren’t in a law school clinic—which is to say, too many—the dean’s office could pair them with an alum to work on a pro bono case. The benefits? Provide a useful service; give students some real-world practice and supervision; allow the bar to help prepare the next generation of lawyers.
This isn’t entirely a pipe dream. On a handful of campuses, schools and firms already collaborate on pro bono projects. At Columbia Law School, Davis Polk; Milbank Tweed; and Cadwalader run programs, and two more firms are negotiating to start new ones. “The more involvement they have with clients, the more good supervision they get, the better able these students will be to serve the public as lawyers,” says Joseph Genova, Milbank’s pro bono partner. “Isn’t that what we’re trying to do here?”