June 2014 - Transforming Legal Education One Pro Bono Project at a Time: A Practical Model for Law Schools

by Anna Strasburg Davis

Pro bono service has always been viewed as a commendable part of a successful attorney’s practice. As law schools adapt to the demands for “practice ready” graduates, pro bono service is also becoming a critical aspect of legal education. Pro bono growth in law schools is being encouraged by moves by some states, including California, to make pro bono service a requirement for licensure. A growing number of Orange County attorneys are supporting the law school pro bono evolution by supervising law student work, significantly expanding legal services to the underserved.

The Development of Law School Pro Bono Work
Experiential learning is more than a buzz word in legal education. It is the recognition that the model of teaching students to “think like lawyers” is not sufficient. Law schools need to prepare students to practice law.

The three most popular aspects of law school experiential learning are clinics, externships, and pro bono service. Law school clinics are typically taught by faculty, who are licensed attorneys, and oversee students’ direct work on behalf of clients. Externships involve students going out into the community and receiving academic credit for work done under the supervision of a judge or licensed attorney. The third prong, pro bono service, usually involves doing legal work for clients in under-served communities, over and above students’ regular law school classes.

The increase in pro bono service at U.S. law schools is attributed to both a trend toward experiential learning, and a recognition by the legal community that law students can help bridge the ever widening “justice gap” in legal services caused by significant budget cuts. The decrease in traditional legal services has increased the demand for pro bono attorneys. The legal community has recognized the need to instill in future attorneys, beginning the first day of law school, a professional obligation to do pro bono work.

The pro bono movement in law schools is growing constantly with an increasing number of schools providing staff support to insure a more successful experience for both students and the communities they serve. Pro bono programs vary significantly. Some are mandatory, while others are voluntary, and law schools differ in what they count as pro bono service.

Many Orange County law students are already focused on pro bono service. The Public Law Center (PLC) reports working with volunteers from all area law schools. However, once California’s pro bono requirement goes into effect for law schools, the law student demand for pro bono work will grow exponentially. This could be a boom for Orange County’s low-income and modest means clients, but it will place a significant strain on the legal services community.

There are only two primary legal service providers in Orange County: the Legal Aid Society of Orange County (LASOC) and PLC. These organizations are making Herculean efforts to expand legal services, often leveraging student volunteers. However, the organizations are not yet equipped to handle the flood of law student volunteers that will result from a California pro bono requirement. Such a change will take creativity to provide pro bono opportunities for the hundreds of Orange County law students. Attorneys in private practice will be a critical part of the solution.

Collaborative Pro Bono—Maximizing Student Volunteers and the Private Bar
The Pro Bono Program at UCI School of Law merges the school’s missions of public interest law and experiential learning. It is one of just a few law schools in the country with administrative staff dedicated to creating pro bono projects for students. The result is that 90% of students are participating in pro bono work. Last year, students completed more than 8,900 pro bono hours on over 100 projects. The lessons learned in launching the Pro Bono Program at UCI Law will be useful to other law schools and legal services organizations as they prepare to comply with the proposed California pro bono requirement.

Due to the limited number of legal services attorneys in Orange County, law students cannot solely rely on these organizations to provide pro bono supervision. Collaborations between legal service providers, law firms, and law schools are necessary. UCI School of Law has fostered this type of collaboration since the first class of students began doing pro bono work in Spring 2010. This model should be expanded throughout Orange County, and will depend upon alumni support to provide sufficient volunteer opportunities once the pro bono requirement goes into effect.

Creating Successful Pro Bono Projects
An important aspect of a successful pro bono program is to offer opportunities that meet students’ educational goals. Projects may include direct legal services in civil and criminal law, remote research, legal education in schools, and legal observing among other projects. Similarly, projects must also complement the needs of law firm attorneys. When the UCI Law Pro Bono Program first launched, Snell & Wilmer LLP agreed to supervise students in preparing U-Visas. The firm had extensive experience with these pro bono matters. The cases were provided by the Public Law Center, and Snell & Wilmer remained responsible for primary supervision. More recently, attorneys from K&L Gates wanted to do pro bono innocence work. A collaboration developed between the firm, UCI Law, and the California Innocence Project. Both projects were developed based upon the interests of the law firms, while keeping in mind students’ education.

Each year, UCI School of Law has worked to expand collaborations with the private bar. Just this school year, law students have worked with firms on a variety of matters, usually with a legal services organization to provide training, cases, and oversight. The collaborations have been beneficial to associate attorneys. Colin Higgins of Snell & Wilmer found that:

partnering with students at UC Irvine School of Law to provide pro bono services has boosted awareness and visibility of pro bono opportunities available to Snell & Wilmer attorneys. The program also has provided junior associates at the firm with a valuable leadership opportunity and hands-on delegation and supervisory experience working on these pro bono matters.

Clients have also benefitted from the alliance. In one case, UCI law students, under the supervision of Mr. Higgins, represented a crime victim who was brutally assaulted at his workplace and had the courage to aid the police and district attorney in the arrests and prosecutions of his attackers. Through the collaboration of the students and attorneys, the victim was able to obtain a U-Visa, which enabled him to get a promotion at his job.

Irell & Manella LLP recently agreed to supervise a number of students in a variety of pro bono cases, including litigation, bankruptcy applications, and refugee assistance. The collaboration has expanded legal services for low-income residents of Orange County. Irell is one of a few firms that does pro bono bankruptcy cases. Supervision by Irell attorneys, including Michael McMahon, has allowed PLC to feed even more bankruptcy application cases to the firm. Mr. McMahon reports that “the students ... have taken their roles seriously and shown professionalism and compassion during a difficult time in their clients’ lives. They’ve made our job as supervisors easy, yet rewarding. And the clients’ appreciation is evident.”

Other interesting collaborations during the past year have included Guardianship applications with Paul Hastings; litigation supervised by Akin Gump; and work on the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project with Bingham McCutchen, Sheppard Mullin, Fragomen, and R&S Law Group. Other attorneys have supervised students on matters such as the Domestic Violence Project and Worker’s Rights Clinics.

Win-Win for Law Students and the Community
Students are drawn to the pro bono projects, in part, to gain hands-on legal experience such as interviewing clients, preparing declarations and a variety of legal documents, researching an array of legal issues, and at times attending hearings with supervising attorneys. Last year, first-year students were able to represent clients in administrative hearings. In one case, Margaux Poueymirou (a 2L) secured a ruling for a low-wage worker in which the judge denied a claim that the client was overpaid, required three months of back benefits to be paid, and extended unemployment benefits. It made a significant difference in the life of the client, who was a parent of three young children. More recently, Adriana Nunez (a 3L) was able to successfully negotiate a client’s eviction matter to provide the client, a single mother with a special-needs child, with sufficient time to find a new home. She was supported by a trial brief prepared by first-year student, Aaron Benmark.

Of course, the primary goal of every project is to help an underserved community or cause. Law students are able to expand services in Orange County. UCI law students have been part of several firsts with recent Orange County legal projects. In partnership with The Employment Law Center in San Francisco and Legal Aid Society of Orange County (LASOC), students created the first intake clinic for low wage workers in Orange County. Also with LASOC, UCI Law students have staffed regular Family Law Blitzes in which a large number of low-income clients are given assistance over a few days. The project was recognized with a California State Bar President’s Pro Bono Award in 2013. Other firsts have included the development of an SSI clinic, an expungement clinic, and preparation of declarations for victims of domestic violence.

The impact of pro bono in law school can be felt long after a student graduates. UCI law graduates are now practicing in our community, and have brought their dedication to pro bono service to their law firms. Inaugural graduate Denisha McKenzie (Class of ’12) has balanced her work as an associate at Allen Matkins LLP with a significant pro bono case for a victim of domestic violence. Denisha worked to get approval for a domestic violence program at the firm, and has established a strong relationship with Laura’s House domestic violence shelter. According to legal advocate Adam Dodge, in less than a year, Allen Matkins has become a “go-to” firm for Laura’s House.

Other graduates have chosen to serve as supervisors for current students. Samrah Mahmoud (’12) of Crowell & Moring has joined another Crowell associate, Thy Bui, to supervise students preparing declarations for victims of domestic violence. Samrah was part of UCI Law’s Family Violence Clinic, and thus felt comfortable supervising such work as a young associate. Chris Taylor (’13) is working with UCI Law students on the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. Chris was a student leader for IRAP during law school, and is enjoying serving the refugee community as an attorney with Sheppard Mullin.

Inspiring Student Involvement
Getting busy law students to take on additional pro bono work over and above their classwork requires dedicated resources from the law school and legal services organizations. It is important to create interesting projects to compel participation. Recent opportunities for UCI law students involve volunteering at the legal services office of Camp Pendleton, researching human rights abuses in Haiti, investigating post-war resolutions for Syria, and researching legal remedies for Native Americans affected by U.S. boarding school policies during the Twentieth Century. These opportunities, and many others, are made possible by dedicated and creative public interest organizations working in partnership with law school staff.

Another way to engage law students in pro bono is to provide opportunities during school breaks. During school breaks, students can provide intensive legal assistance to a variety of communities. Each fall, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP collaborates with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and UCI law students to prepare Permanency applications for victims of crime. Don Daybell of Orrick worked especially hard to expand the project, which served fifteen clients in just three days in October 2013. During other breaks, students have traveled to volunteer at the Mississippi Center for Justice to work on a variety of legal issues stemming from Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the closure of a historically African American school, special education rights, and consumer protection. These short-term projects provide an excellent opportunity for law students to experience a variety of subject areas, and be exposed to the legal burdens faced by the nation’s low-income clients and working poor.

The pro bono movement at law schools is on the rise, and will increase as more states implement pro bono service requirements. UCI School of Law is proud to have established a culture of pro bono, serving as a model for other law schools. Orange County has wonderful opportunities for pro bono provided by PLC and LASOC. While there are many attorneys volunteering their time every day, there is room for more. Ideally, the members of the Bar in Orange County will join the pro bono surge sweeping through law schools, and serve as an example for other bar associations statewide. It is important to recognize that the law schools must also be involved, providing staff and resources to grow their pro bono programs. If such law school support does not occur, the burden of creating pro bono projects for students will fall on an already overburdened legal services community.

Anna Strasburg Davis is Director of Public Interest Programs at UC Irvine School of Law. She can be reached at adavis@law.uci.edu.