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Posted March 18, 2011

Alternative Spring Break Participants Provide Legal Services From D.C. to Mississippi

Alternative Spring Break
Several students traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of the Public Interest Law Association's alternative spring break program.

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Mary Wood

More than 50 Law School students provided legal services to the needy or volunteered for the government at seven sites across the country last week as part of the Public Interest Law Association’s third annual alternative spring break program.

Students worked with legal aid organizations and prosecutorial offices in Kentucky, North Carolina, Richmond, New Orleans and Charlottesville, in addition to new sites in Biloxi, Miss., and Washington, D.C.

“The professional networks that you can build are invaluable, and I’ve already heard reports of people getting summer job offers out of these experiences,” said third-year law student Jesse Stewart, PILA’s alternative spring break director.
Stewart said he hopes the program also invests students  in public service, giving them “that kind of spark that can come with being surrounded by really passionate people who are doing really important work.”

Stewart, who created the program as a first-year law student and has run it since, said the effort has grown from 19 participants in 2009 to 53 this year, and that he believes it will continue to expand.  

“As people come back and they’re excited about what they did, it just kind of naturally spreads,” he said. “As we start to develop more diverse trips that offer a more diverse array of options for people, they naturally become more interested.”

Second-year law student Kate Gilman, a participant in last year’s New Orleans trip, co-captained a team of eight students who volunteered with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, one of the most elite public defender offices in the country.

Students were paired with an attorney based on their interests, such as trial, appellate or parole work.

“During the week we wrote legal memoranda, shadowed attorneys in court and on jail visits, and were able to experience a little of what working as a public defense lawyer might be like,” Gilman said. “PDS is a unique office. The attorneys’ talents are paired with caseload caps and federal resources that allow them to do exceptional work for their clients: really high-caliber, high-stakes defense — a lot of felonies.”

The office also planned brown-bag lunch seminars in which staff from different practice areas, such as forensics, would describe the kind of work they do.

“One of the more valuable things about this trip is it gives you, in such a short time, a real window into this work,” Gilman said. “They had us practicing opening statements, given a hypothetical that was similar to a real case that one of their attorneys was working. We felt lucky to receive advice from a group of lawyers so passionate about and successful in their work.”

To fund the trip, participants contributed $100 to cover transportation costs and accommodations. To offset this cost, they held fundraisers in the months leading up to the trip, from which most of the original funds were returned.

Where possible, participants stay with students involved in public interest organizations at other law schools. “We were camped out on air mattresses in [George Washington Law School] students’ apartments,” Gilman said. “It was easy and nice of them to do.”

Other students worked in Richmond for the attorney general’s office; for the public defender’s office in New Orleans; with AppalReD, the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky; with Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Fair Trial Initiative in North Carolina; and in Charlottesville with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defenders and the Charlottesville City Attorney’s Office.

Biloxi

From left: Tyler Masse, Kimberly Rolla and Nina Schwartz worked on a school closure project in Biloxi, Miss.

The seven students who traveled to Biloxi, Miss., drove 14 hours overnight in two rental cars to arrive in time for training with the Mississippi Center for Justice on Sunday afternoon. Prior to law school, team captain Thomas Silverstein worked with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based organization affiliated with the Mississippi nonprofit. He turned that connection into another partnership for the spring break program.

Silverstein worked on a food-security initiative under a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“They are working to ensure that local governments in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region are doing what they can to ensure access to affordable, healthy foods — particularly fruits and vegetables — for low-income people in the region,” he said.

Silverstein checked local markets for the availability of healthy foods and researched local zoning laws to see what impediments may exist to establishing more community gardens and grocery stores. He said many impoverished areas do not have easy access to large, well-stocked supermarkets.

“In a neighborhood like East Biloxi, which is the area where most African-Americans and Vietnamese in Biloxi live, you can go a few miles without seeing an actual supermarket, and all you’ll see is these little hole-in-the-wall stores that really do not have healthy food,” he said. Additionally, a poor public transit infrastructure limits options for residents who are willing to journey farther for better options.

Other students in Biloxi researched segregation in light of the closure of a traditionally African-American school; helped ensure BP oil spill claims for fisher people were processed fairly; and worked on land title issues for traditional African-American communities who have passed down land without wills because of lack of access to legal services. The lack of clear ownership puts them at a disadvantage for qualifying for federal grants to rebuild housing.

Silverstein said the trip was an eye-opening experience for some students who had not previously worked on such issues. Although Silverstein had focused on related issues in his last job, he found that working in the field provided a different perspective.

“It can energize you to have that kind of on-the-ground client interaction and see the circumstances that people are coping with on a day-to-day basis in a way that sitting in the office and just doing research really can’t,” he said.