Archive for December, 2011

Is the Worst of the Recession Ahead for City/Municipal Budgets?

By: Steve Grumm

City/municipal funding is often an important piece in the public interest funding pie.  In Philadelphia and Seattle, for instance, the municipal governments fund public defense programs.  Legal services organizations rely on city grants and other collaborative funding efforts to serve clients.  So it’s worth noting that, even as the recession has officially ended, the worst may lie ahead for city budgets.  The Washington Post explores looming budgetary woes for city governments:

The nation’s housing crisis is five years old, but for local governments across the country, the worst of the reckoning might only now be at hand.Because of the time it often takes for property assessments to reflect falling home values, the bust that began in 2007 has just begun to ravage tax revenues in communities from coast to coast. The problem is unlikely to subside soon.

State governments, which rely heavily on sales and income taxes, saw massive hits to their bottom lines early in the crisis as unemployment skyrocketed. But those revenues have begun, ever so slowly, to recover.

Meanwhile, many local governments weathered the early years of the financial crisis in part because the property tax revenues they rely upon so heavily held steady or actually increased as a result of assessments that still reflected inflated prices. Many municipalities are now being forced to recognize the collapse in home prices and the shrinking tax base that comes with it. At the same time, they are seeing state and federal aid dry up.

 

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Job o' the Day: PAID Internship at the Mazzoni Center in Philly!

Mazzoni Center, a nonprofit organization which focuses on the health and wellness needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, is currently accepting applications from first and second year law students for summer internships for the summer of 2012.  The summer program will begin on Tuesday, May 29, 2012, and end on Friday, August 3, 2012.

Mazzoni Center Legal Services provides direct legal assistance to low-income LGBT individuals in a wide range of areas, including elder issues, employment discrimination, family law/parenting issues, name changes, relationship recognition and dissolution, advanced planning, and youth concerns.  Interns will gain familiarity with the unique ways that the legal system addresses the specific needs of the LGBT community.  They will contribute to the mission of the office by ensuring that this community has a voice in the legal system.  We also represent individuals in cases which may have an impact on the status of LGBT rights within Pennsylvania.  Interns will work closely with attorneys on a wide variety of cases, some of which may involve precedent-setting legal issues.

If you’re interested, check out the listing at PSLawNet!

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Starting on the Summer Public Interest Job Hunt? How about Informational Interviewing during the Semester Break?

By: Steve Grumm

Congrats, 1Ls!  Getting the first set of finals under your belt is a rite of passage.  (If you’re not feeling good about them, don’t despair.  If I had a nickel for every law student who didn’t excel in first semester but finished with a strong academic record…)

2Ls: finals are old hat.  But as you’ve now discovered, second year is quite busy and you’re dealing with more demands on  your time.  Still, you’ve hit the legal-education midpoint.  Huzzah!

Time to kick back, yes?  No.  Well, not entirely.  For sure, take a few days to decompress.  Connect with family and friends, read fiction, go for a jog.  I also used to unwind by tipping a pint or two at various Philadelphia watering holes with my classmate Irish Dan.  But I do not offer this as formal advice as 1) it’s not always the best stress relief solution and 2) I don’t want any 1Ls getting in trouble and then suing me based upon some obscure, 18th-century liability theory from their torts casebook.

One valuable pursuit during your semester break is setting up informational interviews with lawyers who work in fields you’re interested in and/or with employer organizations you’re attracted to.  Setting up these interviews can be an intimidating prospect.  At least a job interview is a well-defined proposition with a concrete desired outcome.  The end goal of an informational interviews is not a job, but rather insight into the everyday work of public interest lawyers, the challenges and opportunities present in certain practice areas, the cultures of employer organizations, and so forth.  You’re doing reconnaissance, essentially, that will inform subsequent job-search strategies.

Informational interviewing is a form of the dreaded “networking.”  When I was a law student I loathed the concept so much that I refused on principle to use “network” as a verb.  But I find informational interviewing less stress-inducing because its more formal structure 1) allows you to prepare and 2) greatly diminishes the awkward straining-to-make-conversation feeling that can creep in when you meet someone randomly at a social event.  Not to mention, there is helpful self-selection at work. Unless you’re blackmailing them or something, the only people who will agree to meet you for an informational interview are those kinds of people who like working with aspiring public interest lawyers.

How to set up informational interviews:

  1. Begin with research on your own.  Use PSLawNet and other career resources to ID practice areas/settings and employer organizations that interest you.  When you’ve put together a list…
  2. Share it with a career services professional at your law school.  Explain your interests and ask if 1) they know anybody at the organizations you’ve ID’d, 2) they have other employer organizations suggestions, and 3) they know any alumni who work in the fields you’re interested in.
  3. Identify specific people to contact within your ID’d organizations.  This, if you don’t have a contact already, can involve taking an educated guess.  If you want to practice family law with a civil legal services provider, I suggest reaching out to the managing/supervising attorney of an organization’s family law unit.  I would try to find someone on a management level, but below the head of the office (i.e. the executive director, district attorney, etc.).  The exception to this rule would involve a small office.  If the DA’s office consists of the DA and her two deputies, then outreach to the DA would be fine. 
  4. I recommend email as a first resort.  (If you have reason to know that the attorney whom you’re reaching out is an old-fashioned type, then a letter may be best.)  A concise note explaining a) who you are, b) why you’re writing (i.e. in hopes of meeting) and 3) why you want to meet should suffice.  Close by thanking the person in advance and by requesting that if there is someone else in the office with whom you should speak, to let you know or to forward your message to that person on  your behalf.
  5. Once you’ve got a meeting set up, prepare much like you would for a job interview.  Do your homework about the organization and learn what you can about the person whom you’re meeting with.  The significant difference in preparation between informational and job interviews is this: during informational interviews you’ll be asking most of the questions.  The tables have turned here, so take advantage.  Don’t interrogate the person you’re speaking with, but prepare a handful of questions that will get the answers you seek.
  6. When you’re finished, say thanks in person and again via email.  If it goes well, and if you’re otherwise inclined, it’s fine for you to ask if your new contact would keep you abreast of job openings that may match your interests. 

If you want others’ takes on this topic, here are some  informational interviewing tips from Washington & Lee, from Seattle U. and from Ohio State.

Have a relaxing and joy-filled holiday season.

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Nat'l. Law Journal's Top Ten Law School Stories of 2011

By: Steve Grumm

2011 was a great year for legal education, right?  Right?  [Crickets.]

In “The Year the Chickens Came Home to Roost,” the National Law Journal’s Karen Sloan offers her top 10 legal education stories.  Making the cut: schools fudging admisssions data, grads use their legal skills to sue their alma maters, Sen. Boxer takes the ABA to the mat, law school finals go to the dogs, etc., etc., etc.

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Public Interest News Bulletin – December 23, 2011 – Holiday Edition

By: Steve Grumm

Happy FridayHolidays, dear readers.  And if the religious holidays are not your bag, I wish you a wondrous Winter Solstice Season.  According to the Wikipedias, “The winter solstice occurs exactly when the axial tilt of a planet’s polar hemisphere is farthest away from the star that it orbits. Earth’s maximum axial tilt to our star, the Sun, during a solstice is 23° 26′.” If axial tilts don’t warm your heart and make you want to be in fellowship with humanity, I don’t know what will.  Regardless of what you celebrate or how you celebrate it, I wish you a joy-filled, relaxing holiday season.  In summary, here’s what we’ve got:

  • NOLA’s defender office has made serious, post-Katrina progress;
  • our buddy Tom Maligno is profiled for his remarkable public-interest work at Touro Law on Lawwng Eye-laaand.  (Don’t worry, the interview is translated out of their strange local dialect and into regular English.);
  • just a few miles west, is public defender hiring on the horizon in New York?;
  • Legal Aid of West Virginia looking at layoffs in wake of LSC $ cuts;
  • as has happened elsewhere in the country, a Northeastern PA defender announces he’s triaging the kinds of new cases he can accept;
  • controversy in MA about an apparent failure to screen indigent defendants for indigence;
  • an MLP in East Tennessee;
  • making the case for an indigent defense system, Minnesota-style;
  • Quiz: what will cause a public defender’s office to burn through cash right quick?;
  • NYC legal aid lawyers hop in the bus and bring justice to Brooklyn and the Bronx;
  • from the Department of Bad Timing: public defender layoffs, prosecuting attorney raises, in Central Florida;
  • Houston, TX finally has a public defense program, and its chief wants you to know how their first year went.

This week:

  • 12.22.11 – Tom Maligno, executive director of a unique (and quite robust) “Public Advocacy Center” at Touro Law School, drops some wisdom about why/how the PAC operates.  The center houses several independent public interest law offices, which gives Touro students direct access to employers and experiential learning opportunities.  On the ABA Center for Pro Bono’s blog, Maligno notes, “Through the William Randolph Hearst Public Advocacy Center (PAC) we give free space to advocacy organizations so they have working offices within the law school. What we get in return is a plan for them to involve our students in their work. We have a mandatory pro bono graduation requirement at Touro. One of the ways students can fulfill that requirement is by working within these agencies that are all housed within the law school.  We try to select various groups so the types of organization available for student volunteers run the gamut. We work with legal services programs, immigration groups, civil liberties organization, domestic violence advocates and much more.”
  • 12.21.11 – public defender hiring on the horizon in New York?  Thomson Reuters reports: “State court administrators have requested millions of dollars in funding to help legal-aid offices in New York City come into compliance with a new law limiting the number of criminal cases a public defender can handle each year…. The law, proposed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in 2009, bars public-defender offices in the city from averaging more than 400 misdemeanor or 150 felony cases per attorney in any 12-month  period…. While the law creating the cap doesn’t take effect until April 1, 2014, the current state budget includes $6.8 million to allow the handful of public-defender offices in the city to hire new attorneys. The largest office, the Legal Aid Society of New York, has already hired 105 new lawyers, according to Attorney-in-Chief Steven Banks, but is still only about halfway toward its bid to meet the cap. Earlier this month, in a spending proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, state court officials requested an additional $6.4 million to come into compliance with the law.”

  

  • 12.20.11 – following November’s LSC funding cuts Legal Aid of West Virginia is bracing for attorney layoffs.  From the Charleston Gazette: “Federal spending cuts will likely force the overburdened Legal Aid of West Virginia to lay off several lawyers in order to compensate for its annual budget woes.”  It’s not like LAWV is overly staffed right now: “Legal Aid has just 40 lawyers to handle cases in the state’s 55 counties, according to Legal Aid’s website, and demand for more lawyers is not getting any lighter.  In 2010 alone, demand for Legal Aid services increased 20 percent from the previous year.”
  • 12.20.11 – resource shortages are compelling a Northeastern Pennsylvania public defender to refuse some new cases.  From an editorial in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader: “Chief Public Defender Al Flora Jr. said his office will limit the number of new cases it takes beginning this week. Flora pinned the problem on a shortage of funding for a sufficiently large defense staff to handle the caseload, saying, ‘We are overwhelmed right now….’  By taking this action, Flora might finally force county and state officials to confront troubling shortfalls here in money and personnel devoted to the court system. He’s justifiably perturbed at being asked to provide competent counsel without being provided the resources to supply it.  Until the dust-up can be resolved, however, the most likely casualties are – again – the people with the least.”  Flora is basically limiting case intake to juvenile and some felony matters.  Here’s additional coverage from the Associated Press.
     
  • 12.19.11 – in Massachusetts, trouble with the system to screen client eligibility for a public defender.  The AP reports: ‘Massachusetts has spent nearly $48 million on free legal services for the poor without verifying whether those making the claims are truly indigent, according to a new report released Monday by state Auditor Suzanne Bump.  The report looks at the Office of the Commissioner of Probation, the agency responsible for verifying that a person claiming to be poor meets the definition established by the Supreme Judicial Court to be eligible for free legal services.  Bump’s review of fiscal year 2010 records at 27 of the state’s 70 district courts found what she called ‘near total noncompliance with the indigency verification laws, rules, and regulations.’  None of the 27 courts performed any verification of documentation at an applicant’s initial screening.  In the sample of cases pulled from these courts, only 1.7 percent contained adequate documentation that court officials performed a required 60-day reassessment, and less than 1 percent had any evidence that a required six-month reassessment had been conducted.”  More coverage from the Boston Herald.
  • 12.19.11 – a new medical-legal partnership (MLP) in East Tennessee.  WDEF reports: “It’s the first of its kind in the Chattanooga area.  Erlanger Health System announces a partnership with Legal Aid of East Tennessee.  The Erlanger Health Law Partnership aims to improve the health of low-income patients….  [The] Partnership will help low-income patients with legal problems that affect their health…issues like education, the Family Medical Leave Act, Powers of Attorney, Public Benefits and Housing.”
  • 12.18.11 – a column by Minnesota judge Terrence E. Conkel emphasizes the importance of public defenders’ roles in the judicial system, and the importance of providing them with the resources they need to operate effectively.  Read the column in the Jordan Independent, a/k/a the New York Times of Scott County, Minnesota.
  • 12.18.11 – what causes public defenders’ offices to burn through funding right quick?  Capital cases.  To wit, in Northampton County, PA the defender’s office saw its “budget ballooning nearly 400 percent from $150,000 to $600,700,” mainly on account of having to handle four death-penalty cases in the past year.  Read more in the Express-Times
  • 12.16.11 – NYC legal services lawyers have justice, will travel.  From WNYC: “A large truck with the words ‘Access to Justice’ written on it has been making its way through low-income communities on the outskirts of Brooklyn and the Bronx this week. Its purpose is to bring the courts and free legal services to people who often don’t have access either because of language barriers, physical disabilities or other issues. It’s the first of its kind in the state.  Lawyers from the New York Legal Assistance Group or NYLAG operate the mobile center with the New York State Courts’ full cooperation. The so-called justice on wheels truck is expected to make stops in 30 different locations a month and serve 2,000 city residents a year.”
  • 12.16.11 – worst of times, best of times: public defender layoffs, and prosecutor raises, in Florida.  The Orlando Sentinel reports:  “Orange-Osceola Public Defender Robert Wesley says a combination of economic factors has led his office to lay off 11 attorneys, meaning several long-time assistants will lose their jobs by year’s end….  Factors contributing to the layoffs include: lack of natural turnover with defense attorneys finding fewer jobs available with private firms; a decline in collections from clients of Wesley’s office – normally such collections account for 30 percent of funds for operations; a number of staffers who left and then returned under the Family Medical Leave Act; and an increase in health insurance costs.”  In a strange juxtaposition, the local prosecutor’s office announced raises: “…State Attorney Lawson Lamar, just announced raises for staffers in his office, which prosecutes state-level crimes in the circuit covering Orange and Osceola….  ‘[Increased collections have enabled me to provide salary increases for the remaining majority of our team members this year,’ Lamar wrote in a statement to employees. ‘This comes at a particularly important time of year since we all saw our take home pay shrink due to inflation [and] no cost of living increases since October 2006’.” 
  • 12.15.11 – in Texas, Harris County (that’s Houston) Public Defender Alexander Bunin catches us up on his newly created office’s activity.  (Houston had been using an appointed counsel system for indigent defense all the way up until last year.)  Contributing a piece to the Houston Chronicle, Bunin reviews his office’s successes and reinforces the economic and moral cases for funding a stand-alone public defense agency. 

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Job o' the Day: Staff Attorney at Kids in Need of Defense in Houston!

I can’t promise you’ll meet Angelina Jolie, but you’ll definitely make a difference! 

Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) is an innovative partnership among the Microsoft Corporation, Angelina Jolie and other interested philanthropists, law firms and corporate supporters. KIND is dedicated to providing both pro bono representation and positive systemic changes in both law and policy to benefit unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children. Launched in fall 2008, KIND is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

KIND is looking for a staff attorney to represent unaccompanied children entering the United States.

Check out the listing at PSLawNet for more information!

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NOLA's Rejuvenated Public Defense Program

By: Steve Grumm

Radical left-wing commy pinko magazine Mother Jones looks in on indigent defense in the Big Easy.  Oddly enough, it was from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation that a renewed defender’s office emerged. 

“When the storm hit, it certainly did better than any lawsuit could have done to show the problem,” says Derwyn Bunton, the chief of the Orleans Public Defenders. Katrina demolished the city’s public defense system: The lawyers were funded by traffic fines, and there was no traffic anymore. Civil rights activists, lawyers, and the Justice Department stepped in, and by August 2007, a brand new OPD office was ready to do things differently.

The office culture has changed, too:

“Their vigorous client-centered representation is such a dramatic contrast to the previous meet-’em-and-plead-’em system of days past,” says Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. In 2006, the center published a damning report on the city’s indigent defense; in 2009, it gave OPD its prestigious Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award, calling it “an inspiration.”

But the program still faces challenges, funding chief among them:

In order to keep up [with demand for services], OPD needs $12 million a year; in 2012, it will get only $9.5 million. The Justice Department grant has run out, and the cash-strapped state has cut its funding. New Orleans’ mayor has, for the first time ever, prioritized public defense in the budget, but that won’t cover the difference. After my visit, OPD cut nine lawyers and froze hiring. Bunton vows to continue to provide representation to anyone who needs it, though it’s unclear how his remaining staff will manage.

The PSLawNet Blog interviewed Mr. Bunton back in early 2010 about his career path and advice he would offer to law grads on public interest career paths.

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Job o' the Day: Summer Associate Position at Public International Law & Policy Group in DC!

Here’s a great opportunity for ya —

The Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG) has a Summer Associate program open to students who have completed one or two years of law school.  PILPG is a global pro bono law firm that provides legal assistance to states and governments with the negotiation and implementation of peace agreements, the drafting of post-conflict constitutions, and the creation and operation of war crimes tribunals.   

The Summer Associates will be required to spend 10 weeks working in PILPG’s Washington, D.C. office.  Summer Associates will be assigned to teams managed by PILPG Senior Counsel and Project Directors to work on PILPG projects such as constitutional reform in Egypt, on-going projects in the Middle-East and North Africa region, human rights projections in Tanzania, and political constitutional reform in Bosnia and judicial sector reform in Kosovo.  Summer Associates will work closely with PILPG’s Washington, D.C. staff and PILPG’s field office staff throughout the program.

PILPG currently has project offices in Bosnia, Egypt, Kosovo, South Sudan, and Tanzania.  The Summer Associate program is designed to expose law students to the field of peace negotiations and post-conflict constitutions, as well as to assist students in honing their legal research and writing and networking skills.  The Summer Associate program also has a strong emphasis on professional development and exposure to the field of public international law.

Is this the position for you? Find out how to apply at PSLawNet!

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Animal Rights Activists Challenging "Terrorism" Law

I didn’t even know there was a law called “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” — did you? I’m tempted to check the legislative history on this one to find out what the rationale was to change the name from “Animal Enterprise Protection Act” to Terrorism Act. Anywho, here’s what’s going down…

From Mother Jones:

In 2006, Congress quietly passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a sweeping new law that classified many forms of animal rights campaigning as terrorism. Now the law’s critics have taken to the courts to try to kill it. In a case filed last week, five activists argue that AETA violates their rights by criminalizing constitutionally protected actions.

AETA . . . prohibits anything done “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise” or that “causes the loss of any real or personal property.” . . . The law also prohibits “economic damage” to an enterprise, which includes loss of profits and pressure put on any investors or other companies that do business with the animal enterprise. . . .

Faced with the possibility of terrorism charges for engaging in many forms of protest, a number of activists have decided to curb their activity. . . .

One federal judge has already endorsed the idea that the government’s use of AETA has been too broad. In 2009, four protesters in California were charged under the law for allegedly chalking a sidewalk, handing out fliers, and engaging in protests at the homes of researchers that use animals. Ronald M. Whyte, a federal judge in California, threw out the charges, finding that they were too vague and included constitutionally protected actions. . . .

AETA was passed specifically to cover a broader range of groups and activities than its predecessor, says Will Potter, a reporter who has covered the attempts to classify various forms of activism as terrorism in his blog and book Green Is the New Red. “They’re really trying to scare the hell out of people,” he says.

Note that there are a few rules of construction provisions, including that the law shall not be construed “to prohibit any expressive conduct (including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration) protected from legal prohibition by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

Read the rest of the article here.

I’m uncomfortable with the use of the word terrorism in connection with activism and the censorship implications of the law. What are your thoughts?

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Landing a Job: Skills First, Passion Second.

by Kristen Pavón

In Follow Your Passion Is bad Career Advice for Most People, the author warns readers that focusing on passion is dangerous for most people. I read the title and was a bit nervous (Eek! Us public-interest peeps are bursting from the seams with passion!), but really, what she says is not nearly as severe as the title suggests.

While she recognized that passion wins in some situations, she made it clear that passionate people need to back it up with real skills. I agree with this; it makes sense.

 How can you say you’re passionate about a job or company or industry that you know nothing about? How can you say you’re passionate about something you’ve never tried before? If you’re so passionate, why do you have to keep telling people you are (instead of just showing them)?

. . . [Y]ou have to have something tangible, actionable or measurable as evidence that your passion manifests in something real.

She gave four examples of ways to gain skills in your area of passion without having years of traditional, full-time work — and I think they fit well with public interest law!

  1. Volunteer work in your passion
  2. A side business in your passion
  3. An encyclopedic knowledge of your passion
  4. An extensive network of contacts active and influential in your passion

What else would you add?

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