Expert Opinion: 5 Steps to Launching a Law School Pro Bono Program

Today’s expert opinion is contributed by Susan J. Feathers, an Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at Albany Law School where she is also an Academic Support Professor, the Director of Pro Bono Programs and the Faculty Advisor to Moot Court.  She is the former Executive Director of Stanford Law School’s Levin Center for Public Service and served as an Assistant Dean for Public Service at the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Public Service Program (ABA Pro Bono Publico Award 2000) for nine years.  She began her career in academia as a Senior Supervising Attorney for Hofstra Law School’s Constitutional Litigation and Criminal Defense Clinics.   She has also served as Senior Appellate Counsel for the Legal Aid Society of New York City, Criminal Appeals Bureau.

The following five steps are excerpted from Feather’s article, 5 STEPS TO LAUNCHING A PRO BONO PROGRAM:   Albany Law School Launches Service-Learning Program with statewide partners.

(1) Host a Pro Bono Fair for Community Partners Seeking Pro Bono Assistance:   One of the most effective and easiest ways to educate students about pro bono opportunities in your community is to invite attorneys seeking pro bono interns to your law school for an informal informational fair.  This provides a way for both your students and prospective partners to meet ‘face-to-face’ and get a sense of the broad range of opportunities.    Your fair can feature local as well as statewide programs.   Albany Law School’s Pro Bono Program collaborates with a vast array of local and national  partners including:  the ACLU of Mississippi;  Freedom Now; LawHelp.org/NY;  the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York;   the New York State Bar Association,  Prisoners Legal Services,   and the Rural law Center.

(2) Develop a Student Handbook:  In the student handbook you can detail the various components of your program; including your definition of pro bono, the time expectations and the procedure for signing up and giving feedback.   In the handbook it is critical to address the many professional responsibility issues that may arise in the context of pro bono placements including confidentiality, conflicts of interest and the potential for unauthorized practice of law.  Finally, it is important to have opportunities for students to provide feedback about their experience and how it may have contributed to their understanding of substantive law;  informed their career choices;   and impacted their overall experience at the law school.

(3) Develop a Supervisory Manual for your Community Partners:  In addition to describing the parameters of your program, be sure to offer advice about how to recruit, train and supervise pro bono interns.  In addition, give thought to how to effectively craft assignments and offer meaningful feedback.   In the short run, your partners may find that they are putting more into the program than they are getting back.  But in the long run, an effective pro bono coordinator can ensure that the experience is a mutually beneficial one and that the partners are receiving much needed assistance from law students in a way that allows them to better meet the needs of their clients.

(4) Host Trainings for Student Interns:  Most community partners will train pro bono interns in the substantive area of the law in which they will be practicing.  In addition,   it is useful to provide training to student interns  on a range of issues that may arise in their pro bono placements –– e.g. cultural competency, client interviewing and ethics in the context of poverty law.    These may be lead by faculty and/or community partners and are another way of ensuring that the pro bono experience is an educational one.   In addition, faculty lead reflection sessions for students involved in pro bono work can be a useful way to forge links between the pro bono experience and substantive law and classes.

(5) Create a sustainable model: One of the more formidable challenges in launching and sustaining a pro bono program is insuring that your law school makes pro bono an institutional priority.  Indeed, despite the consensus among law school deans that creating structured pro bono programs is very important, many law schools do not have adequate staffing and resources to ensure that students receive a meaningful experience.   In order to get authentic institutional ‘buy-in’ is critical to educate and build relationships with your admissions and career development offices, faculty, and alumni about the many institutional benefits of pro bono programs which increasingly have become a critical component of experiential and service-learning at most law schools across the nation.  In the short term, however, one way of insuring that your pro bono program has adequate staffing and resources is to create a self-sustaining model.  One such model is that at Albany Law School’s Pro Bono Donor Project,  a student-initiated model for building and sustaining meaningful pro-bono programs at law schools nationwide. Created at Albany Law School, the program utilizes the fundraising formula used by marathons, but rather than soliciting sponsorship for the number of miles raced, students solicit sponsorship from friends, family, and the community for the number of hours of pro-bono related work that they complete.

Want to view sample materials and learn more about Albany Law School’s Pro Bono Program?  Visit the Albany Law School Pro Bono and Professionalism webpage.

Also, check out our earlier post “Developing and Expanding Law School Pro Bono Programs” from Sylvia Novinsky, the Assistant Dean for Public Service Programs at UNC School of Law.

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