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June, 2019

Law School Pioneers Conference in Pro Bono Service

By Maggie Master

Melanie Kushnir of the American Bar Association offers the attendees a national perspective on pro bono.

How do you build a national network of lawyers committed to the public good?

By building a national network of law students committed to the public good.

That philosophy of molding students into service-minded attorneys prompted a recent national conference at CUA’s Columbus School of Law. The conference was titled “The Role of Law Schools in Fostering Commitment to Pro Bono Publico.”

Held on Oct. 5 and 6, it was the first national academic forum of its kind, examining the ways law schools provide substantial opportunities for student participation in pro bono activities, and how those opportunities can expand. The conference brought more than 100 registrants from 79 U.S. law schools — impressive numbers for a first-time conference.  The two days of expert panels explored partnerships between law students, alumni and other legal professionals to provide free and low-cost legal services for those who can’t afford prevailing rates.

“There is no question that law schools can and should be doing more to promote pro bono,” CUA law school Dean Veryl Miles told the audience at the conference’s opening plenary session. “That mission must be reinforced over the course of a career.” Still, she observed, “The mission begins with us.”

The Latin words “pro bono” literally mean “for good,” though in today’s lexicon the term usually describes a service done without charge, usually for clients who can’t afford to pay. The American Bar Association sets an aspirational goal that every lawyer perform at least 50 hours of pro bono service annually.

There has never been a better time for lawyers to offer pro bono services, or a greater need for those services, said Melanie Kushnir, who addressed the conference on behalf of the ABA’s Center for Pro Bono. While there is approximately one lawyer for every 525 people in the general U.S. population, in stark contrast, there is only one lawyer for every 6,861 Americans living in poverty. One million pro bono cases are turned down each year by social justice programs that lack the resources to take on additional pro bono clients, according to Kushnir.

As law school tuition increases, fewer graduates can afford to go into public service jobs, she said. Only 1 percent of law school graduates go on to legal aid and public defender jobs — a percentage that is in steady decline.

The benefits of pro bono opportunities for law students include connecting legal theories with practical issues and real-life cases, Kushnir notes.

Dean Veryl Miles welcomes participants at the start of the conference, with Professor Sandy Ogilvy, one of the conference organizers, seated at right.

The conference was organized by a CUA law school planning committee chaired by CUA Professor J.P. “Sandy” Ogilvy, director of the school’s Law and Social Justice Initiatives, at the request of Dean Miles. Conference planning coincided with a 2005 change in the ABA’s policy on pro bono offerings at ABA-approved law schools. While the ABA had long encouraged schools to offer pro bono options, the change requires ABA-approved schools to offer such opportunities. While students are not required to participate in pro bono work, they must have those opportunities available to them.

With so many law schools working toward finding a pro bono framework that works for them, there was no better time to provide such a forum for discussion, says Ogilvy.

“We’re at the ground floor of a really significant movement to facilitate pro bono at law schools,” he says.

Thirty-six panelists from two dozen law schools spoke at the conference, offering advice and roadmaps to implement a range of pro bono programs — everything from setting up voluntary student-run programs to making pro bono work mandatory for graduation. Session topics included “Setting up a Pro Bono Program from Scratch” and “One Size Does Not Fit All: Drawing on Community Resources to Create a Variety of Pro Bono Opportunities.”

Give-and-take was evident in every session, with panel members engaged in an open dialogue with audience members eager to learn from more-established pro bono programs.

“How do we give the students directions so that ‘mandatory’ doesn’t feel mandatory?” asked a faculty member from the Phoenix School of Law during one session. Her question prompted responses not only from panelists, but also from other audience members who had come to the conference to share their own stumbles and successes with pro bono programs. For example, a professor from Fordham University’s law school raised his hand to offer a suggestion that might help Phoenix institute a mandatory program.

More than 100 registrants from 79 law schools gathered for the two-day conference.
Ogilvy said the planning committee targeted the conference to any faculty, staff or students involved in establishing or coordinating a school’s pro bono program. But CUA organizers also brought in local attorneys and judges — including D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer; Eric T. Washington, chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals; and Jane Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., each of whom spoke at the conference — in the hope of broadening the conversation beyond the law school environment.

“We should not limit conversation to professors and students, but include the profession — the bench and the bar — in making this part of the life of an attorney,” Miles says.

Eighteen of the nation’s law schools have mandatory pro bono requirements for graduation. Although these vary, even the least stringent of them require a student to do at least 20 hours of work without compensation or academic credit.

CUA’s law school does not have a mandatory pro bono requirement for graduation. Rather, its student-inspired and student-operated Legal Services Society offers students opportunities to engage in pro bono work and community service. Last year, the law school also created the position of pro bono coordinator, a paid administrative position meant to provide oversight, staffing continuity and an institutional memory during academic transition periods, such as when second-year students replace third-years at the helm of the society.

While thrilled to see CUA’s pro bono model born out of student initiative, Ogilvy says he hopes it is a foot in the door to a future institutionalized and mandatory program at the law school.

“Our goal is to raise the profile of [pro bono and community service work] we’re already doing, and create new opportunities as well,” he said.

Ogilvy added that he hopes the conference will become an annual event hosted on a rotating basis by participating law schools.

 

 


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Last Revised 25-Oct-07 04:30 PM.