A new initiative aims to make it easier for law graduates to become public defenders in the South.

Gideon’s Promise—an Atlanta-based non-profit that trains and advocates for public defenders throughout the South—has launched its Law School Partnership Project, whereby law schools commit to funding a recent graduate to work in a Southern public defender office for up to a year. The office, in turn, commits to hire the graduate for a permanent position within the year.

At the same time, the new graduate receives three years of training and mentorship through the Core 101 program run by Gideon’s Promise. That training program, which emphasizes legal skills as well as the values of public defense, got a boost in October when the U.S. Department of Justice offered up a $1 million grant to help fund it.

The new Law School Partnership Project so far has three law schools lined up: The University of California at Los Angeles School of Law; New York University School of Law; and American University Washington College of Law.

“The vital work of improving the quality of public defense is completely consistent with the law school’s mission of pursuing access to justice for all,” said American law dean Claudio Grossman. “This partnership will create a concrete pathway between law students and public defense work upon graduation and will be a significant service to communities in need.”

Jonathan Rapping, the president and founder of Gideon’s Promise, said he hopes to have as many as eight partner law schools in the coming months and place a dozen recent graduates in public defender offices by August.

“Much of what we’re trying to do is identify really good, young public defenders who want to work in the most challenging places,” Rapping said. “These are lawyers saying, ‘I want to be a public defender, but not in New York or D.C. I want to do it in Mississippi.’”

The Law School Partnership Project aims to solve a logistical problem that many Southern public defenders offices face, Rapping said. Most of those offices don’t have the structure or resources to recruit on law campuses in the fall, as do some of their more established counterparts. Public defender offices in the South typically don’t have the budget to hold a job open for months while a student graduates and takes the bar. Because they tend not to hire ahead of time, potential candidates can’t choose where to take the bar based on the offer of a job.

By letting students know they have a school-funded position in a public defenders office before the bar exam, those offices will be more attractive options for students from around the county who may not have considered applying otherwise, Rapping said. Plenty of law students complete internships at Southern organizations dedicated to access to justice, such as the Equal Justice Initiative and the Southern Center for Human Rights. But permanent jobs at those entities are few and far between and local public defenders offices are a logical option for those students, Rapping said.

Public defender offices in the South, more so than other regions, need passionate, energetic young attorneys who understand the importance of a robust indigent defense system, he added. Rapping worked in the highly regarded Public Defenders Service for the District of Columbia before relocating to Georgia in 2004.

“I started to see that the high standard of representation in D.C. was the exception rather than the rule,” he said. “In the South, the expectations for representation are embarrassingly low.”

In response, Rapping formed the Southern Public Defender Training Center in 2007—which was recently renamed Gideon’s Promise—to offer better training to public defenders and create a regional network of attorneys dedicated to improving indigent defense. The organization has widened its scope over time and administrators believe partnering directly with law schools to place students in public defender offices is an important next step.

The participating law schools will determine how much to pay their fellows for the first year, Rapping said. After that, the fellows will be hired on as permanent public defenders, initially earning between $40,000 and $55,000 a year.

“This exciting new partnership ensures that talented NYU students committed to public defense work secure their dream jobs, and that some of the nation’s neediest communities receive the high quality representation that our Constitution promises, and that every defendant deserves,” said NYU law professor Erin Murphy.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. For more of The National Law Journal’s law school coverage, visit: http://www.facebook.com/NLJLawSchools.