Pro-Bono Service by Law Students

If there was ever a sign that the “avaricious Eighties” were over at Law Schools, a news conference by law students from law schools across the country a few days ago should be it. Hailing from Harvard to the University of Hawaii, these students announced they were “fed up” with the pretense that there is “equal justice under law.” They said: “It is time for our legal educators, the leaders of our profession, and the Bush White House to realize that our legal system is not delivering on its promise of justice for all.”

Their elders in the legal profession have failed to deliver, they declared, citing a report of the American Bar Association that shows nine out of ten legal needs of the poor go unmet.

So what are these students doing about it? With admirable organization and determination, they have launched a new group called “Law Students for Pro Bono,” to push for a curriculum requirement at all law Schools that at least 50 hours of pro bono work a year be a pre-requisite for graduation.

Jason Adkins, Harvard Law Student, estimated that if each of the nation’s 129,000 law students performed 100 hours of pro bono work per year for citizens in need, they would be providing 12.9 million hours of legal services. Assuming that the average pro bono case takes 10 hours, over one million Americans can be helped. And the helping law students would he helping themselves to learn about the gap between the laws promise and its neglect.

Scott Saiki, a law student from Hawaii put the challenge nicely: “We find people evicted because they cannot afford to go to a housing court, we find battered women who do not have the money to hire a lawyer, and we find elderly people who cannot enforce their rights under the law because of lack of money. These problems must be incorporated into our education so we can start doing something about them now, and so that we will be better equipped to deal with them when we graduate.”

A pro bono requirement already has been adopted by Tulane, University of Pennsylvania, Valparaiso and Florida State Law School. The momentum is growing at other law schools.

Law students usually graduate with large debt loads — $45,000 or more! They are lured into corporate law firms with large salaries ranging from $50,000 to $80,000 a year. There they represent polluters, not the environment, landlords. not tenants, the wealthy, riot the poor. Law schools charge a hefty tuition and law firms help subsidize the students with $1200 a week summer jobs after their first and second years.

For years, this relationship was cozy for all three parties — students, law schools and law firms. The firms simply charged it to their corporate clients who rarely questioned the bills. Times are beginning to change. The shaky economy is also the shaking corporate giants with their shaky leverage buyouts and heavy debt. The big law firms are feeling some cold air and are reducing their hiring of new lawyers. The bloom is off the Doom.

At the same time, the demand for justice is growing and not just from the poor. People are fed up with corruption in government and greed in corporations who mock, dilute or violate the laws of the land almost with impunity. The law is supposed to curb raw power, but the opposite is happening and the students know it.

As I sat in the audience at the law students press conference, I noticed an intensity and genuiness among these young people that have been absent for almost twenty years. Watching Steve non7ider and Sandra Hauser and Juliette Williams and others take their turn explaining to the reporters why they were there and what they were determined to do, I sensed an awakening mood of controlled indignation nourished by a factual awareness not present since the Sixties and early Seventies at Law Schools.

Let’s hope it thrives. (For more information contact Michael Caudell-Feagan at (202) 462-0120).

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