Public Service the Virginia Way
Students recognize the necessity of public interest law, but they don’t often appreciate how it combines social policy and client service until their first pro bono project.Afterward, their reaction is almost uniform – surprise and joy about the quality of the experience, and a sense of reward for having taken the road less traveled.
The path to public service is not always clearly marked. Although Virginia graduates have been prominent in America’s public institutions for generations – from Robert F. Kennedy ’51 (U.S. Attorney General) and Mortimer Caplin ’40 (Commissioner of the IRS), to Elaine Jones ’70 (President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and Richard Cohen ’79 (President of the Southern Poverty Law Center) – the overwhelming demand for Virginia students by the private sector puts the burden on the Law School to raise the profile of legal aid and public interest law.
Effort drives results, and in the course of his deanship John Jeffries has made public service a higher calling at Virginia.He put more money behind student fellowships and lent his personal prestige to activities that celebrate excellence in public service.The projects that are now part of the Law School’s public service enterprise are more relevant to today’s students and, equally important, are responsive to those in need who rely on the bar and the legal academy for help.
Public Service and the Law School Curriculum
The most formal expression of the Law School’s commitment to public service is the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, which administers public sector placement as well as the many pro bono initiatives that introduce students to community service. The Center coordinates summer internships and fellowships, provides individual career counseling, and supports the public service work of the school’s student organizations.
In addition to the Center, the Law School has witnessed the growth of new and existing public service outlets.Here is a summary of the most visible.
The Public Interest Law Association
The Public Interest Law Association is a frontline student organization dedicated to promoting and supporting public interest law among students. PILA campaigns during the year to raise money to fund grants for first- and second-year students who accept volunteer or low-paying summer internships in public service. Any amounts raised by PILA are then matched by the Law School Foundation to help fund the grants. From 1996 to 2004, the Foundation matched fifty cents for every dollar PILA raised, but midway through his deanship Jeffries asked the Foundation to double its commitment. As a result, the Foundation today matches in full every dollar raised by PILA. Designated funds from the Mortimer Caplin ’40 Fellowship, the Linda Fairstein ’72 Fellowship, and the Ford C. O’Connell ’04 Fellowship also support these grants.
PILA’s fundraising success determines the number of students who will receive grants. In 2007, PILA distributed a record $279,000 to 58 students who undertook public interest work around the world. That almost tripled the number of awards made during Jeffries’s first year as dean, when 37 grants totaling $112,500 were awarded.
Pro Bono Programs
In order to count for the pro bono challenge, the work must be unpaid, law-related (e.g. interviewing clients and witnesses, drafting documents or legislation, doing legal research or law reform projects, assisting at trials or administrative hearings), and supervised by a licensed attorney or a Law School faculty member.
Past participants have included nonprofit organizations, pro bono attorneys, public interest law firms, local government agencies, public defenders, and legal services offices. Students may participate in existing external pro bono projects, develop their own pro bono projects, or volunteer through a student-run public service organization. Examples of the many available opportunities include:
Find full details at www.law.virginia.edu/publicservice
Conference on Public Service and the Law
Founded by students in 1999, the annual Conference on Public Service and the Law brings together students, faculty, lawyers, and policymakers to explore current public interest issues, usually with the goal of unpacking a subject with larger political or economic consequences. In its nine-year history, the conference has become a national event that draws more than 500 law students and close to 100 panelists from across the country. Recent keynote speakers have included Virginia Governor Tim Kaine; Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy '59; ACLU President Nadine Strossen; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer; and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano '83.
The Pro Bono Project
During their time at the Law School, students are encouraged to perform at least 75 hours of free legal work. Dubbed the Pro Bono Project, this initiative last year resulted in students volunteering more than 13,600 hours assisting indigent clients and nonprofit organizations. To satisfy the pro bono commitment, students may find local and national pro bono opportunities on the Law School’s pro bono project database, volunteer through a student-run public service organization, or participate in one of the many targeted pro bono programs coordinated by the Law School.
The Hunton & Williams Pro Bono Partnership
In 2005, Hunton & Williams, in partnership with the Law School, opened a pro bono office on the campus of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. Today, more than 20 students work with Hunton & Williams lawyers to provide free legal services to low-income victims of domestic violence and to immigrants seeking asylum from persecution in their country of origin. Jeffries praises the partnership for offering Virginia students “the opportunity to engage in important public service under the guidance of knowledgeable and experienced lawyers,” and notes that “it is both a giving and a learning experience” for students. “The Pro Bono Partnership reflects the Law School’s and the firm’s commitment to the ideal of access to justice."
Winter Break Pro Bono Project
Some students take advantage of their month off from classes during winter break to undertake public service work. Through this year’s Winter Break Pro Bono Project, a record number of students volunteered a minimum of 40 hours, usually in their hometowns. The Public Service Center found projects for 114 of the 135 students who applied, involving more than 3,000 volunteer hours—nearly double last year’s total. (See related story.)
Today, so many clinical opportunities exist at the Law School that students can be quite selective in choosing the area of law they wish to explore. Under the supervision of practicing attorneys, students perform lawyer functions associated with their cases, including client and witness interviews, factual development, legal research, preparation of pleadings, and negotiation. Students with third-year practice certification may also be responsible for courtroom advocacy.
Clinics Involving Public Service
Under the supervision of an attorney and faculty members, students perform the lawyer functions associated with their cases, including client and witness interviews, factual development, legal research, preparation of pleadings, and negotiation. Students with third-year practice certification may also be responsible for courtroom advocacy. Students accrue pro bono experience in some of the following clinics:
The Law School’s promotion of public service and pro bono work extends beyond the current student population to recent graduates in the form of loan forgiveness and graduate public service fellowships.
Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program
When Jeffries took office, the Law School was already a leader among law schools providing financial assistance to its graduates who entered public interest or public service jobs. At that time, the Public Service Loan Assistance Program began providing loan forgiveness in the fifth year following graduation. PSLAP offered complete forgiveness in year eight. In 2001, the Law School spent $110,000 on the deferred loans of its graduates in qualifying public service, but that sum was insufficient.
Jeffries thought more should be done and in 2003-2004 introduced the Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program, which shifted the emphasis from loan deferral to loan forgiveness.
“The key here is loan forgiveness,” noted Jeffries, and the VLFP demonstrates the Law School’s “major commitment to enabling our students to pursue public service careers after graduation.” Students who graduate with large debts—as most of today’s students do—cannot take low-paying public service jobs unless they get help with their loans. “We provide that help in the form of loan forgiveness for graduates engaged in full-time public service whose incomes do not allow them to meet current repayment obligations,” said Jeffries.
The VLFP supports the Law School's dedication to making public service a viable career option for graduates who want to work in the public interest. But Jeffries also wanted to acknowledge the Law School’s historic obligation to the Commonwealth and thus expanded the VLFP’s reach to cover graduates who choose to practice in underserved areas in Virginia, including those who go into private practice. In 2007, the Law School dedicated over $491,000 to loan forgiveness, and more than twice the number of graduates benefitted as did just six years earlier. “The expense is great, but loan forgiveness is absolutely necessary for our students who seek to enter public service,” said Jeffries.
Another important investment this decade has been the Law School’s establishment of fellowships to provide funding for non-paying, post-graduate public service positions.
A prime example has been the creation of the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Fellowship in Legal Services. Funded jointly by the Powell family and Law School benefactors, the Powell Fellowship funds a two-year position for a graduate providing legal services to the poor. Recent Powell Fellows have worked on matters as diverse asmigrant seafood labor rights in North Carolina, to educating South Asian immigrant women working in Maryland about their alien status and civil rights.
In addition, students are encouraged to apply for outside funding sources, and the Public Service Center helps students prepare their proposals for post-graduate fellowships and funding. This year, a record three Virginia Law students were awarded Skadden Fellowships, the most generous and visible of their kind, which are conferred to identify excellence in public service. Following graduation, third-year students Dania Davy, Michael Hollander, and Matthew VanWormer will each receive an annual salary, plus benefits, to undertake their respective public interest projects. (See related story)
“Due to the strength of our public service program, we are attracting highly qualified students who are committed to public interest careers and are therefore excellent candidates for national fellowships like the Skadden,” said Assistant Dean for Pro Bono and Public Service Kimberly Emery ’91.
Pro Bono Publico
Public interest, public service, and pro bono work have long been tenets of the Virginia culture—for both students and alumni. “We emphasize public service not merely as a full-time career choice that some students may make, but as a lifelong commitment for all Virginia graduates. One of the glories of the legal profession is the array of opportunities it provides for public service from the private sector,” said Jeffries.
Jeffries observed that “lawyers are born leaders. They naturally become involved in all sorts of civic organizations, charitable activities, educational institutions, advisory boards, and commissions, as well as a variety of professional organizations. One of the messages we celebrate at Virginia is that a lawyer doesn’t have to be employed in the public sector to make a contribution to the public interest. On the contrary, we see public service as a commitment to which all Virginia graduates should aspire. Fortunately, our students have the example of our alumni to show the many ways this can be done.”
Students and alumni will find the latest news about opportunities and events at the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center’s blog: Public Works. The blog posts information on public service job opportunities, pro bono projects, fellowships, speaker events, and links to frequently accessed employment resources.