Program in Law and Public Service Gets a Boost from New Student Board
University of Virginia School of Law students who aspire to careers in public service are benefiting from a recently formed student advisory board that enhances the efforts of the Program in Law and Public Service.
The program, which admits up to 25 applicants each year, prepares students for highly competitive jobs in prosecution, public defense, government, legal aid, international human rights and at nonprofit organizations. Now in its sixth year, the program offers students access to special coursework, summer funding for jobs and a faculty mentor.
Directors Josh Bowers and Anne Coughlin said the program has gotten a boost from the highly coordinated efforts of its student leaders. The professors encouraged the board's formation during the 2013-14 academic year to provide program feedback and as a way to organize annual events, such as the program's public service days, where participants volunteer on community service projects.
"We've found that some of the more innovative and interesting directions the program has moved in during the last year have been at [students'] urging and based on their initiative," Bowers said.
Board member and third-year law student Mario Peia, an aspiring prosecutor, is starting an effort to break students into small groups based on work interest so they can share information and become a network amongst themselves.
"It is easier to pursue a difficult path when you are right next to those who share the same, difficult goals," Peia said.
UVA Law has an extensive list of alumni working in the public interest, and third-year law student Sejal Jhaveri, a board member who also serves as president of the Public Interest Law Association, said PILA and the Program in Law and Public Service put forth an idea last year to tap graduates to be mentors to current students. The result was the Public Service Alumni Mentors program.
Jhaveri said she has been pleased "to see how those relationships have developed and become useful to many students."
Board member and second-year law student Courtney Miller, who is interested in LGBT issues in the law and will clerk for Judge Catharine Easterly on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals after graduation, said collaborative networking through regular social opportunities is another way students can help each other.
"I'm currently trying to start a biweekly social hour where Law and Public Service students can meet one another and hang out," Miller said. "I think it's very important to instill a sense of camaraderie and belonging among students interested in public service."
Coughlin said students in the program want to know each other well not just for ease of networking, but because their associations help form the lawyers they will become.
"We found over time that there is a real desire and appetite for social professional events," Coughlin said. "They are creating a professional identity together. They get together and share their collective wisdom with each other, which is huge."
Among the responsibilities of the board is first-year student outreach. Second-year law student Megan Watkins said she appreciated that board members introduced her to a small group of former Teach For America participants. They also updated her on opportunities within her field of interest, juvenile justice, which then led to work at the Legal Aid Justice Center last summer.
"[The support] helped me feel like I was not alone and lost at law school," Watkins said.
The students, while proactive in their efforts on their own behalf, also benefit from the Law School's resources, including the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center and the connections of their instructors.
Bowers' connections as a former staff attorney with the Bronx Defenders recently helped two graduates land Kennedy Fellowships at the community-based public defender organization.
Boris Bourget, a second-year law student on the board interested in federal prosecution, said Coughlin also recently made a meeting happen that might not have occurred otherwise.
"When Professor Coughlin learned that I would be working in Oregon this past summer, she set me up for a lunch with a federal district judge in the area," Bourget said. "It's hard to imagine that I would have gotten that networking opportunity some other way."
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.