Expert Opinion: Developing and Expanding Law School Pro Bono Programs

We continue PSLawNet’s participation in the 2010 National Celebration of Pro Bono with today’s expert opinion interview with Sylvia Novinsky, the Assistant Dean for Public Service Programs at UNC School of Law.  Novinsky has been with UNC School of Law since 1996, after practicing public interest law representing migrant farm workers and immigrant workers in Virginia and New York. She served as the school’s first public interest career counselor and, in 2000, became the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs.  Novinsky launched the Pro Bono Program at UNC in the fall of 1997 and since has been the driving force behind the development and expansion of the program.  The program has filled thousands of placements with attorneys in non-profit organizations, private practice, and legal services organization across the country – the Class of 2010 completed more than 10,000 hours of pro bono.

In our interview with Novinsky, she shares her insights regarding best practices and the challenges involved in developing and expanding pro bono programming at law schools.  Learn more about UNC School of Law’s program and their Celebration of Pro Bono events.

Why do you believe it important for students to incorporate pro bono into their law school experience?

I believe it is our ethical responsibility as lawyers because we have this special skill set to do pro bono service – and students should begin honoring this commitment to pro bono while still in school.  Additionally, pro bono is an important learning tool to assist students in building their skills outside the classroom.  It also allows students to experience different areas of law, which is helpful in planning their career path.

How did the Pro Bono Program at your school grow into what it is today?

Our program development was guided by student input, student needs, and the community’s needs.  It really is this sort of thing that if you build it they will come.  As students realize what pro bono service can offer they gravitate towards it, especially if the projects have already been organized and are right there in front of them.  If a formal structure is not in place, it takes a lot of time for students to set up their own pro bono opportunities and that can be deterrent for busy law school students.

I believe our program has also grown because we as a profession have become more aware of how lawyers can help – not just in a community service oriented way, but using our unique skills and training.  As a member of the legal profession, one of the great things about the last 10 years is that the group of students entering law schools arrives with a volunteer ethic – their belief in volunteering and giving back as lawyers is a natural outgrowth of their community service experiences as college and high school students.

Based upon your own experience at UNC School of Law, what do you believe are the greatest challenges law schools face in developing and expanding pro bono programs?

I think greatest challenge is figuring out what works for your school – what is the best programmatic structure and what is the mechanism for developing that structure?  Even though our program is now thirteen years old, it was not until the last three years that we achieved a workable system for tracking data.

What is your advice for figuring out what will work at a particular law school?

You really need to understand your community, both your law school and the surrounding legal community.  By legal community, I mean the needs of those low-income individuals seeking legal services and those providing the legal services.

You need to create relationships.  Lawyers in your community need to know that there is a point person at the law school that they can rely on to ensure all the logistics involved in student pro bono projects are being accomplished – that you are not going to let them down.

To some extent you have to take risks – some things are going to work and some things are really not going to work.

In your experience, what are the advantages and challenges to having a student-led pro bono program?

I think the key advantages are the energy and the commitment students bring to the program.  Each student on our board takes their work very seriously and is committed to ensuring the program is the very best it can be.  This dedication creates an energy both inside the board and throughout the law school community.  Inside the board, there is a community of students who feel as passionately as you about creating service opportunities.  The students on the board then take that energy and spread it to their fellow classmates.  As an administrator, I could not share that energy in as an effective manner as the student board members – they are interacting with their peers both inside and outside the classroom on a daily basis.

Also, having a student led program helps better understand what students want in terms of pro bono opportunities – both in geographically and in which areas of law. Additionally, it helps that students are holding each other accountable for following through on commitments to projects because that is the way it works in our profession.

In terms of challenges, it takes a lot of time for me to be there for the students.  As an advisor, you have to understand that everything is not just about getting it done; it is about teaching students how to get it done.  In some cases, it will not get done the way you would like it to get done.  You also have to understand that the most important priority on students’ plates is academics, not running a pro bono program.

Lastly, I really think to be successful there must be an institutional commitment to the pro bono program.  Your institution has to really value the student leadership and governance component of the program.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you launched the program in 1997?

How much enthusiasm there would be, particularly on the student side.  That students really would embrace pro bono as much as they have.  I think initially I thought it was easy way to match up people (organizations and students), but I don’t think I ever thought the program would be this big.  I didn’t ever think it would be “cool” to do pro bono.

What advice would you give to a law school that is considering developing a pro bono program?

Be patient.  A pro bono program is not going to be built in one year, two years, it takes a long time to develop a culture.  People told me that, and I now really understand that.

Reach out to law schools with developed programs.  Find out how their programs are soliciting projects, how students sign up for projects, what is there mechanism for insuring both students and attorneys follow through on commitments, and what incentives they offer for students and attorneys to participate.  Then they have to figure out what is the best system for their law school.

What advice would you give to a law school that is considering expanding their program to include pro bono trips during semester breaks?

I would encourage them to have resources set aside – not only financial resources, but people resources as well – to structure the trip so it goes well and students learn something from the trip.  You want students to return to school thinking:  “I am the better for attending that trip.”  That takes time and planning to achieve – planning needs to commence at least a year in advance.  You need to take the time to really think through the experience for the student – what do you want the students to get out of the trip and what are you asking the students to do.

It is imperative that you have a good relationship with your community partner.  You need to be honest and understanding.  Understand both what their agenda is and what your agenda is – don’t be shy about bringing up concerns, its better to tackle them head on versus later.

Always remind the community partner that the students are there to work.  Not to say there should be no fun, part of the experience is seeing things that will leave an impression on students.  For example, one of our community partners took students to see a fire station that had been turned into the courthouse.

Your community partner and you both invest a lot of time in designing a trip – it takes a lot of work on everyone’s part to make it happen.

I look at schools that have really developed winter and spring break programs – and I wish our programs were further developed.  However, you have to manage your growth – you lose quality if you get too big, unless you have the staff to manage that expansion.

How has your program provided funding for pro bono trips?

Our students fundraise throughout the year.  We also apply for grants from the main campus and our Dean has set aside money in the school’s budget depending on needs to help fund the trips.

What do you believe motivates your students to participate in the pro bono program?

The volunteer ethic that students enter law school with these days is certainly part of their motivation to do pro bono.  This does not apply to all law schools, but as a state school it is an easy, natural message, to encourage students to give back to communities in our state.

In terms of program management, keeping projects really interesting and meaningful is great for fostering investment.  Remember to have fun as well and to say thank you to your volunteers.

What advice do you have for a student seeking pro bono opportunities if they are at a law school that does not have a pro bono placement program?

I think they should search for allies on the faculties and the staff.  Talk to their dean.  Be ready to make a commitment themselves to participating in the forming of the program.  They need to just ask the question:  why don’t we have a pro bono program.

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1 Comment »

  1. Promoting Public Interest Law at your Law School « public interest law student said,

    October 31, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    […] curiosity in this topic was peaked by an interview with the Assistant Dean of Public Service Programs at UNC on PSLawNet’s Blog.  UNC has developed a great program to encourage law students to perform pro bono work.  I […]

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