Archive for April, 2015

NALP Conference Sneak Peek: The Low Down on Low Bono

PSJD has pulled up stakes this week and decamped to NALP’s Annual Education Conference. At the moment, we’re preparing for the arrival of our conference participants on Wednesday. (We hope to see you there!) In particular, I’m excited for the large number of public-interest-oriented meetings taking place over the course of the conference. To kick your week off, here’s a piece from Niloufar Khonsari, the founder of Pangea Legal Services and a presenter at the conference. Enjoy, and remember–if you’re attending the conference you can follow-up about affordable fee work with her in person on Friday!

The Low Down on Low Bono:
Identifying a Need and Starting up a Nonprofit Organization

While the government funds many important pro bono programs in the United States, low-income communities are still underserved in many legal service areas: housing, family, criminal justice, public benefits, immigration and more.  This article focuses on the gap in immigration and removal defense services in Northern California and how nonprofit organizations can sustain themselves while filling some of that gap.

More than 29,000 immigrants currently find themselves in court proceedings at the San Francisco Immigration Court.[1]  Nationally, there are over 431,000 immigrants in court proceedings. With increased deportations nationwide, there is a clear need for court and immigration defense services. Immigrants in removal proceedings need a lawyer because of the complexity of immigration law and the negative consequences of deportation. Also, many immigrants in the court process are eligible for relief or protection under existing laws, and they may have a pathway to citizenship.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of immigrants have immediate access to legal counsel.  Private immigration attorneys can be prohibitively expensive. And most nonprofits, even in San Francisco, do not represent clients in complex removal proceedings. The key to this gap is providing access to counsel.

Pangea Legal Services (Pangea) is one example of an organization that was created to help bridge the access gap. While it hasn’t come without its challenges, Pangea created a low-fee, sliding-scale model that grew to five full-time employees between January 2013 and December 2014.  Low bono, or affordable fee models similar to Pangea are growing around the country in various areas of law, creating a financially viable avenue to fill the justice gap.[2]

Be Entrepreneurial and Find the Gaps.  You don’t need decades of experience to start an organization. As Steve Jobs said, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you.  And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”  The entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley tend to have three things in common: 1) identifying a solution to a problem, 2) pursuing that solution proactively, and 3) committing to creating social value.  Pangea was able to identify that within the area of immigration, deportation defense was significantly underserviced by the nonprofit community. This discovery was made by volunteering in the immigration nonprofit community, participating in policy advocacy work around immigration issues, and surveying senior advocates in the field about the needs within immigration legal services.  Identifying this gap and focusing on creating a solution for it was central to Pangea’s startup.

Get a Mentor, Ask for Advice.  Founder of ZenPayroll, Joshua Reeves, said that not having industry experience can be a real asset, as long as you recognize what you don’t know.[3]  Identifying what you don’t know then can be addressed by seeking guidance and mentorship in that field. The legal field is vast and complex and so is the world of human resources, employment law, finance, and nonprofit governance. There are many online resources and listservs, but personal relationships with experts in the field are the most helpful.  Many practitioners and experts are open to meeting with and advising nonprofits; connecting can be as easy as making a phone call or sending an email.  For its governance structure and compliance efforts, Pangea is currently in the process of building a team of advisors with expertise in areas such as finance and employment law.  For its legal services, Pangea has a network of at least a dozen senior attorneys from whom attorneys seek mentorship regularly. The organization has a weekly one-hour mentorship session with rotating senior immigration attorneys to consult on legal strategy, procedural questions, and complicated immigration cases.  The key to successful mentorship and seeking advisors is identifying your needs and organizational gaps.

Create Partnerships, Learn from Other Nonprofits.  Nonprofit organizations often collaborate with other nonprofit organizations on advocacy efforts, direct actions, clinics, and other projects.  Join their circles and learn from them!  This can be viewed as an extension of your organizational efforts to seek mentorship and formal advisors. Networks and partnerships with other organizations are essential to strong advocacy and quality legal representation, as they offer many tools, lessons, and resources for your organization.  Your local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) could be a great starting point.  Pangea staff began participating in advocacy coalitions and learning from other nonprofits through the local NLG-Bay Area immigration committee and the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee (SFIRDC).  Many of Pangea’s cases would not be successful, but for the strong partnerships, friendships, guidance and support from partner groups.

Obtaining 501(c)(3) status is not hard.  Registering a 501(c)(3) is logistically easier than you think.  You will need a Board of Directors, Articles of Incorporation, and Bylaws.  The instructions laid out in Form 1023 specify that you should set aside approximately ten hours to prepare and assemble your IRS filing.  While you can do it yourself, there are many pro bono attorneys at law firms, nonprofit organizations such as The Foundation Center, or low fee attorneys that can help you prepare your 1023.  Pangea received guidance from individuals who previously registered organizations, and we prepared our own forms without formal legal assistance.  This IRS process is more straightforward than one might believe; the key is to just do it.

Go Low Bono.  Low bono is an alternative to the corporate method of hourly billing at market rates.  Low bono could mean offering your legal services at below-market rates and allowing clients to pay through a low fee payment plan. The IRS has no cap on fees for services or products for nonprofit organizations, so the only restriction is the ability to pay of the community you seek to serve. There are very indigent clients who cannot pay any fee and require pro bono services.  However, there are also many hard-working low-income and moderate-income individuals who are more than willing to pay relatively small fees in increments (a few hundred dollars a month).  Many clients actually prefer to pay a small fee and invest into their case.  Pangea’s current low bono model is one that has a set fee for service, with a sliding scale monthly installment plan. Organizationally, finding the right balance between being sustainable and accessible can be challenging, and it is a continual trial and error process. While there are ongoing fee adjustments and necessary revenue diversification efforts in place at Pangea, the sliding scale low bono structure has created a starting point to create greater access to counsel for low-income immigrants.

Financial Assistance for Student Debt.  If you are going to hire lawyers straight out of law school and retain them, or, if you are in debt yourself, going low bono in a private practice will likely not pay your student loans. Fortunately, federal loan payment and forgiveness programs exist, and many law schools provide loan repayment assistance to attorneys working in nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Thus, incorporating as a nonprofit organization can provide critical financial assistance to your likely indebted staff.[4]

Scale-up with foundation support and grants.  Foundation and other grant funding is important to help you build capacity, scale up efforts, diversify the revenue pool, and increase pro bono services.  It can also support your engagement in non-revenue producing work such as legal empowerment, education efforts, and policy advocacy work. Starting with a sliding-scale fee structure can make your organization sustainable while leveraging foundation support for expansion efforts. There is a worry that this may reduce the funding pool for already existing free legal service providers; however it is possible that low bono structures will attract a new set of funders that previously did not exist, thus increasing the funding pool for all.  Funders prefer organizations that have diverse sources of revenue and are not solely reliant on one funding stream.  A low bono model allows you to create a consistent revenue stream of funds enabling you to do your work as you build on your organizational mission and vision; it creates a viable platform for funders to see your potential as a partner. For Pangea, the revenue brought in through low fees has leveraged additional resources (from the San Francisco and Silicon Valley Community Foundations) to go further than a new organization could if it were seeking funding from point zero.

Be Excellent.  This means working hard, focusing on thoroughness, addressing all issues and questions head-on, not leaving any pages unturned, and submitting timely products. It also means reacting to developments quickly, going the extra mile, and delivering for the community. Recognition of quality work happens quickly in the nonprofit community and building credibility is vital to a strong foundation. In the long term, the combination of dedication to excellent services and accessibility through low fees is a guaranteed recipe for success.

The nonprofit low bono model is an important capacity builder in developing access to legal services.  It is efficient, sustainable, and scalable. By creating organizations based on the low bono model, the legal needs of our low- and moderate-income communities can be increasingly met to create greater pathways to relief and safety.


Niloufar Khonsari is an immigration attorney and the founder of nonprofit organization, Pangea Legal Services, available at nilou [at]

[2] See, e.g. Open Legal Services,

[3] Joshua Reeves, “A Marathon, Not a Sprint,” Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Podcast, Feb. 25, 2015.

[4] It should be noted that many low bono private practice attorneys can use “Pay as you Earn” to pay back their student loans, which caps their payments based on their income and provides loan forgiveness after 20 years.



PSJD Public Interest News Digest – April 17, 2015

by Christina Jackson, NALP Director of Public Service Initiatives & Fellowships

Happy Friday!  Next week we will be in sunny (I hope) Chicago for the 2015 NALP Annual Education Conference.  We’re looking forward to seeing you all there, and sharing information in person.  Accordingly, the Digest will take the week off, and will return on May 1st.

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • Illinois Governor cuts funds to immigrant services;
  • New nonprofit law center in Rhode Island to help low income residents;
  • New pilot program in British Columbia to help quickly resolve criminal cases;
  • Georgetown University Law Center partners with two DC firms to open modest means law firm;
  • ABA awards head of Maine legal aid group for innovative self-help website for veterans;
  • Atlanta Legal Aid moves to new building;
  • Spotlight on Public Service Servants;
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

April 9, 2015 – Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner froze $26 million in social service and health grants as part of his plan to plug a $1.6 billion hole in the budget.  Immigrant advocates, who stand to lose more than $3 million in aid, worry this will hurt their efforts to provide legal assistance and language training across the state. These immigrant services grants, originally budgeted at $6.7 million, fund initiatives such as language training and legal services, as well as assistance in applying for citizenship. The Coalition explains the money is from the Immigrant Services Line Item (ISLI), a recurring part of the state budget since 1997. Rauner’s proposed 2016 budget seeks to eliminate ISLI entirely. (Newsweek)

April 9, 2015 – “The Rhode Island Center for Justice and Roger Williams University Law gathered on Thursday, April 9 to launch the Center for Justice at the Roger Williams campus in Providence. The Center for Justice is a new nonprofit public interest law center that will address the growing volume of unmet legal needs among vulnerable individuals, families and communities in Rhode Island.”  “The Rhode Island Center for Justice represents a desperately needed source of legal assistance for low-income Rhode Islanders,” said Melissa Husband, executive director of the Community Action Partnership of Providence. (Go Local Prov)

April 10, 2015 – “A pilot project announced Friday is expanding legal aid services to help resolve criminal cases more quickly. Attorney General and Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton made the announcement Friday for the Expanded Criminal Duty Counsel (ECDC) program. Provided by the Legal Services Society (LSS), this program will serve legal aid clients who are dealing with a criminal case at Port Coquitlam’s courthouse. Before this pilot project, legal aid clients got legal advice from a different lawyer every time they went to court. This new project, however, will focus on continuing with the same lawyer throughout to help achieve early resolution of cases wherever possible.” “The Ministry of Justice is funding the ECDC as the last of five legal aid justice transformation pilot projects to help improve access and outcomes in the criminal and family justice system.”  (Kelowna Now)

April 12, 2015 – “Georgetown University Law Center is working with DLA Piper and Arent Fox to create a small nonprofit law firm in Washington, D.C. The unprecedented collaboration, announced Monday, is aimed at providing legal services at affordable rates to people with modest incomes who don’t qualify for free legal aid because they’re not poor enough. The DC Affordable Law Firm is slated to start taking clients in the fall, and will be staffed by six salaried lawyers from this year’s graduating class of Georgetown students. The law firms will provide a range of services and support.” (The American Lawyer)(free registration required)

April 14, 2015 – “The American Bar Association will present its Grassroots Advocacy Award on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance for her leadership and initiatives addressing the unmet legal needs of active duty military members, veterans, their families, and caregivers. Heald has been an innovator in making legal services more accessible to underserved rural and native communities in her state, according to a press release issued Tuesday by the ABA. One example is the Pine Tree website,, which was the first legal aid website in the country to offer self-help resources.”  (Bangor Daily News)

April 15, 2015 – “The renovations are complete for Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s new headquarters at 54 Ellis St. N.E., and the downtown branch’s lawyers and staff have just moved in. The historic building, constructed in 1910 as an Elks lodge, almost doubles the group’s space to 35,600 square feet on five floors. There is also a parking lot, so clients and volunteers venturing downtown will no longer have to pay for parking in lots several blocks away.”  “The new building’s layout incorporates features that have become the norm in contemporary law firm design—except on a much lower budget. There is a large event space on the top floor, along with a library and a terrace.” (Daily Report)

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:  After 20 years as executive director of Community Legal Services (CLS) and 11 years before that as a staff attorney, Catherine Carr will be leaving the legal aid nonprofit on July 1. In a letter to the community, Carr said it was time for her to move on from what is the biggest regional legal services agency in the state, which provides free legal services in civil cases to low-income families in Philadelphia. “My plan is to create the next stage in my professional career, where I can continue to work on access to justice for all, and social and legal change to address poverty,” Carr said. “I am not yet sure exactly what that will look like, but I am excited about figuring it out. I have learned and grown so much at CLS over the last three decades; I look forward to the next stage of learning and growth in a new role.”  Read more about her great work here.

Super Music Bonus!   In honor of the Annual Conference location – Chicago, we bring you music from or about that great city all month.



PSJD Public Interest News Digest – April 10, 2015

by Christina Jackson, NALP Director of Public Service Initiatives & Fellowships

Happy Friday!  This week we celebrated the Pro Bono Publico Award winner Alex Dutton from Temple University Beasley School of Law.  What a good time and what a deserving individual.  Thank you to the staff at Temple Law, especially Lisa Hurlbutt, Director of Public Interest Programs, for hosting us.

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • Legal Aid Ontario expands family law services in Scarborough;
  • Harvard startup helps users find lawyers/compare fees;
  • California nonprofit expands immigration legal services
  • Georgia Public Defender Standards Council gets new leader;
  • Tennessee Supreme Court adds way for lawyers to donate to access to justice;
  • William & Mary veterans legal clinic gets $245,000 grant;
  • Medical-Legal Partnership clinic announced at Penn State Dickinson Law;
  • Delaware bill would revamp public defender office;
  • University of Nebraska School of Law breaks ground on expanded clinic space;
  • Spotlight on Public Service Servants;
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

April 3, 2015 – “Scarborough residents now have more access to free family law services as part of a new initiative by Legal Aid Ontario. The new service is provided by family lawyer Ana Rico at three Scarborough locations: West Scarborough Community Legal Services on Mondays, East Scarborough Storefront on Tuesdays and Scarborough Community Legal Services on Wednesdays. ‘We provide legal advice about a variety of family law topics so that would be separation, divorce, custody, access, child support and spousal support,’ Rico said.” (Inside Toronto)

April 3, 2015 – Harvard student Michael Gants developed JustiServ, with the intention of allowing anyone—anywhere—to find legal aid in just a few clicks. By entering the legal problem, the user can peruse the lawyers that fit that realm while also comparing their professional backgrounds and price estimates. Clients can even pay for the legal services they find on JustiServ via Paypal.  “‘The price estimates are what really makes JustiServ revolutionary,’ Gants said.” (BostInno)

April 3, 2015 – “The Catholic Charities of the East Bay, which has offices in Oakland, Richmond and Concord, has expanded its legal immigration services in Alameda and Contra Costa counties in response to an increase in demand for services since President Obama’s executive action on immigration in November. The social services organization has hired an immigration attorney and legal assistant, is looking to fill more positions and has expanded service offerings in order to help meet the demand of about 65,000 East Bay immigrants who are affected by the President’s executive order.”  (Richmond Standard)

April 4, 2015 – “Georgia’s governor has appointed a new leader for the board that oversees the state’s public defender system. Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday named attorney Bryan Tyson executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. Tyson is the 2014-2015 section chair of the appellate practice section of the State Bar of Georgia and represented the state as a special assistant attorney general in the 2011 redistricting process. He previously worked as an attorney with Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP.” (Online Athens)

April 6, 2015 – “The Tennessee Supreme Court said that it is adding a way that lawyers can voluntarily donate to access to justice programs to help people who don’t have enough money for an attorney. The state’s highest court also adopted changes this week that would not require lawyers to report all of their pro bono hours.” “The court had considered a change that would require all lawyers to report their pro bono work and be sanctioned if they didn’t, but it declined to mandate the reporting. Nevertheless, the court said it continues to encourage lawyers to report their charity legal work because it raises public awareness of how some Tennessee lawyers are helping those in need.” (WATE)

April 6, 2015 – “A legal clinic at the William & Mary Law School is expanding its efforts with the help of a state grant. The Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefit Clinic is slated to receive $245,000 from the commonwealth of Virginia to increase its services to veterans. The grant will fund the addition of a full-time attorney, a full-time legal administrator and a part-time psychologist to the clinic’s staff.”  (Williamsburg Yorktown Daily)

April 7, 2015 – “Penn State’s Dickinson Law today announced the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic, a collaboration between the Law School and Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. This is the first partnership of its kind to be offered in the Harrisburg-Carlisle region. The clinic will provide low-income patients and patient-families with critical legal assistance under the supervision of Medha D. Makhlouf, the founding director and clinical professor of law. Students participating in the clinic will have the opportunity to work collaboratively with the faculty and staff of both Dickinson Law and Penn State Hershey, as well as participate in joint class sessions with students of medicine and other health-related disciplines.” (Penn State News)

April 7, 2015 – “Senate lawmakers have passed legislation that would rename and restructure the Delaware Public Defender’s Office to be more inclusive of private attorneys who are called on to represent defendants when the office has a conflict of interest. The legislation also would change the term length for the governor-appointed public defender from six years to eight years. The bill passed the Senate with 20 ‘yes’ votes and 1 ‘no’ vote last week. It is now headed to the House.”  (Delaware Online)

April 10, 2015 – “The University of Nebraska College of Law will break ground this week on a 14,000-square-foot addition to house its legal clinics and potential expansions. The $4.5 million, privately funded addition is scheduled to open in fall 2016. A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. April 10. More than 30 third-year law students work in the civil, criminal, immigration and entrepreneurship clinics. The offices, now front and center in the law college, will be more accessible for clients who need legal assistance, and room will be available for the programs to expand their footprints, Susan Poser, dean of the college of law, said in a press release. The clinics ‘teach students how valuable and gratifying it is to provide critical legal assistance to underserved clients,’ Poser said.” (

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:  The legal system is feeling a void after the death of Jim Fitzsimmons, 62, executive director Legal Services of North Dakota, according to those who worked with him.  “It’s hard to put in words what we lost,” said Richard LeMay, the program’s interim executive director. “It will take a while to figure out where we go from here …. He has left us too soon.” A 38-year advocate of civil cases for the elderly, tribal residents and those with disabilities and low incomes, he will be remembered as the voice for the underdog, according to LeMay. Read more about his legacy here.  Mr. Fitzsimmons, thank you for your service and your unending devotion to your community.

Super Music Bonus!   In honor of the Annual Conference location – Chicago, we bring you music from or about that great city all month.


Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Restorative Justice at Strawberry Mansion High

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

Today, Christina is in Philadelphia presenting the Pro Bono Publico award to our 2014-15 recipient, Alex Dutton.  Alex, a student at Temple University Beasley School of Law, receives this year’s award for his work supporting Youth Court programs throughout the city of Philadelphia, beginning with his involvement at Strawberry Mansion High School. 

Restorative Justice at Strawberry Mansion High
Alex Dutton, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Recipient, 2014-2015
(Temple University Beasley School of Law)–

Strawberry Mansion High School, “Mansion” as it’s known in the community, is a behemoth of a building that consumes several city blocks at the corner of 31st Street and Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia.  Across the street are abandoned rowhomes, collapsing in upon themselves.  Students, dressed in collared shirts and khakis, scurry over jagged sidewalks under the shadows of the school’s immense façade.  Walking past the police car eternally parked on Ridge Avenue in front of the school, they file in through the front doors.  They wait to be screened by the metal detector.  Some of the students make it to the courtroom on the third floor on time, others straggle in late.  Always, the law students and attorneys are there, waiting, in this gem of a room (fitted with a jury box, witness stand, and bench) in the corner of a forgotten school in a forgotten neighborhood.  From the jury box, one can just barely make out the top of the William Penn statute that stands atop Philadelphia’s City Hall.  Eventually, a diminutive young lady, cloaked in a long black robe, adjourns the court.

No Right to Be Heard: Suspension Law and Due Process

Pennsylvania law provides effectively zero process for students suspended for three days or less.  In contrast, state law, pursuant to the Federal Constitution, requires school districts to provide formal process to students at risk of expulsion. 22 Pa. Code § 12.8(b).  In Philadelphia, a consent decree compels the School District of Philadelphia (“the District”) to provide similar procedural rights to students at risk of transfer to a disciplinary school. Dunmore v. School Dist. of Philadelphia, No. 72-43 (E.D. Pa, Feb. 14, 1973).  That same consent decree requires the District to hold a conference with students suspended on a short-term basis.  This conference is meant to provide staff, by speaking with the student, an opportunity to identify the student’s problematic behaviors and implement corrective techniques.  (Recall: this is still more than most students get in Pennsylvania, because of Dunmore.)

There are nearly 200,000 students in Philadelphia.  Cuts at the state level critically reduced funding for educational support staff, including guidance counselors and conflict resolution specialists.  As a result, these student conferences are perfunctory, if they are happening at all.  (I’m careful not to place blame with the District here; the District has done—and continues to do—a tremendous job reforming the process it provides students who are at risk of disciplinary transfer.)  Most students are just sent home with suspension paperwork and told to come back in a day or two.  In addition, many students are constantly funneled through in-school suspension—as damaging as a traditional exclusion—without any meaningful process or opportunity to be heard.

While this gap in due process may seem insignificant, it means schools suspend significantly more students than they might if each case were more carefully considered.  Research has long demonstrated that students who are suspended fare much worse than their peers.  Short-term suspensions are the entry point to the school-to-prison pipeline.  Suspensions lead to more suspensions, which precipitate expulsions and dropout, eventually pushing students into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  What’s more, recent research posits that students who remain in the classroom when their peers are suspended are worse off, too.[1]  Youth courts purport to fill this gap in due process, staffed with the greatest resource in the District: students.

Youth Courts and Restorative Justice

There are various models for youth courts.  Some use a traditional adversarial approach, assigning students to the roles of prosecutor and defense counsel.  Others use restorative justice techniques.  Restorative justice de-emphasizes school exclusion and challenges students to think constructively about conflict resolution.  At Strawberry Mansion, we used a restorative model.

When we first introduced restorative justice principles, our students were lost.  During a “mock” hearing, the jury wanted to force their peer “respondent” to clean the bathroom with a toothbrush for talking back to a teacher.  This, coming from students whose families had been ripped apart by the criminal and family justice systems?  (Just weeks earlier a student told a federal prosecutor that “all prosecutors and judges should burn in hell!”)  I couldn’t believe it.  I took a step back and thought to myself: Alex, you’re so naïve.  How could you ever expect anyone to respond in any other way other than what they’ve been taught, what they’ve learned through experience?  Our students were raised on punitive discipline.  In school, they were suspended and expelled.  On the streets, they were arrested and sent away.  So when we elevated our students to figures of authority, they reflected these punitive inclinations.

It was up to us to help our students question their assumptions about justice and conflict resolution.  We pressed our students to think about the impact of rules and the policies behind them.  Specifically, we encouraged them to consider the purposes of punishment, with a sharp focus on rehabilitation and restoration.  Why is making a student clean the bathroom an appropriate punishment for acting out in class?  How does the punishment relate to the harm the student caused to his classmates?  They applied these concepts in the hearings.

Our far-reaching goal is that students will apply these principles to their daily lives, in school and in their communities.  In the meantime, the youth court provided an opportunity for student-respondents, previously silenced under more primitive discipline regimes, to be heard.  In addition to providing process, the youth court destabilized the school-to-prison pipeline at Mansion: if the respondent completed his restorative assignment, the offense would be wiped from his record.  More importantly, he stayed in school.  Rather than being alienated from his peers, he engaged with them.

A Day in the Life of the Strawberry Mansion Youth Court: Lawyering Skills Alive in the Classroom

Student-respondents who appear before their peers must admit responsibility for violating the school code.  (And, really, these are minor infractions: cell phone use, uniform violations, talking in class, walking the halls, refusing to do school work, arguing with another student, arriving late to class.)  Effectively, the youth court process is a dispositional hearing; peer questioning exposes facts relevant to determining an appropriate punishment—the restorative assignment.

Prior to the hearing, the respondent meets with his “youth advocate,” a high school student trained to defend him.  With the assistance of a law student, the youth advocate interviews her peer-client.  She listens to him.  She inquires as to his motivations and what he thinks the appropriate punishment should be.  She levels with him when he is unreasonable.  Then, she presents this information to the jury: an opening statement.  Through this process, students learn crucial listening skills and gain exposure to public speaking.

Next, the judge opens the floor for questions from the jury.  To facilitate greater class participation, the jurors ask their peer-respondent questions.  The jurors proceed, guided by the Mansion Court’s mantra: FACTS.  HARM.  FIX IT.  Through questioning, the jurors attempt to uncover the facts of the case, the harm caused to the community by their peer’s conduct, and possible constructive solutions.  By uncovering the facts of what happened, the students assessed his culpability.  By inquiring into harm, the jurors determined the segments of the community that were affected and ripe for restoration.  As they go, the students fill out charts labeled: FACTS.  HARM.  FIX IT.  Their questions forced their peer to critically examine the consequences of his actions and included the him in the restorative process: “now that you have identified the harm caused, if any, what can you do to repair that harm, to restore our school community?”

We provided the high school students with the skills they needed to conduct this process.  We trained them in questioning techniques: open-ended and closed-ended questions, funneling, etc.  We exposed them to principles of restorative justice.  And we trained them to be good listeners.  (These are all skills that are often overlooked in law school.)

Youth Court at Strawberry Mansion HighTogether, the students guide their peers through the restorative process, making objections and requesting sidebars–concepts the Youth Court program staff never taught.
(Photo courtesy of Alex Dutton)

Together, the students guide their peers through the restorative process.  Every now and then, the youth advocate stands up: “Your Honor, they keep asking my client the same questions; make them move on to a solution.”  An objection!  The foreman disagrees: “we are trying to get to the bottom of what happened.”  The judge is concerned: “can you two come over here to talk with me.”  A sidebar!  We never taught these concepts.  The students, empowered with the skills to resolve disputes, improvised.  Advocates called out unfairness; jurors objected because they were untangling important and difficult aspects of the case; judges adjusted to ensure civility and efficiency.  All of this to ensure that their peer received his day in their courtroom.

Eventually, the jury returns a verdict: a parent conference so that the school knows the student’s father plans to call the school in the morning to make sure his daughter arrived safely.  Why?  She had been stepping out of the classroom each morning to pick up her father’s call.

Final Remarks

Of course, youth courts are far from the only solution to the school pushout problem.  In my view, school districts should adopt a variety of interventions—some restorative, some not—that would collectively transform schools from punitive institutions to compassionate, empowering communities.  Our schools expend so much energy excluding students from school, just to kick the can down the road—to another school, or worse, to our public dependency systems, including prison.  Why not spend this energy empowering our students?

My charge to future law students and lawyers is this: be creative, be bold!  Youth courts provide a platform for young people to reform their schools; a legal education is your platform to improve your community.

[1] Brea L Perry & Edward W. Morris, Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools, 79 No. 7 American Sociological Review 1067 (December 2014).


ABA Membership – Now FREE for Law Students

Any law students out there who haven’t yet joined the American Bar Association, you’ve officially run out of excuses. ABA membership is now free for students, and here’s what a whole lot of nothing will get you, according to the ABA’s own site:

More networking opportunities! Another job board! Monthly career webinars! Why are you still reading this!

Go get yourselves membered-up! at


PSJD Public Interest News Digest – April 3, 2015

by Christina Jackson, NALP Director of Public Service Initiatives & Fellowships

Happy Friday and welcome to April!  We’re a little over two weeks away from the Annual Education Conference.  I’m looking forward to seeing you all there.

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • British Columbia opens new legal center for child protection service;
  • Panel proposes cuts to Alaska public defender agency;
  • Philadelphia lawyer creates app to help homeless;
  • Canadian federal government must pay law society fees of its articling students;
  • Free Legal Aid Clinic, Inc. in Detroit celebrates 50 years;
  • New York bill would add oversight of NYC Legal Services;
  • Spotlight on Public Service Servants;
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

March 27, 2015 – “The B.C. government is hoping to reduce the number of child-protection cases going to court by opening a new legal centre for parents.  The Parents Legal Centre is a pilot project that will be located in the Vancouver law courts and will be staffed by a lawyer, an intake worker and an advocate.  Parents or guardians involved with the Ministry of Children and Family Development or an aboriginal agency will be able to access information, advice, referrals and some legal representation at the centre.  The Legal Services Society will operate the $300,000 centre, as one of several pilot projects funded by the Ministry of Justice’s previously announced injection of $6 million over three years.  Attorney General Suzanne Anton said Friday the government hopes early intervention will resolve disputes in child-protection cases before they make it to court.” (Times Colonist)

March 27, 2015 – “Alaska’s top public defender says there will be delays in criminal trials and appeals if a proposed $1.2 million cut to his agency goes forward.  A Senate subcommittee on Thursday proposed the cut to the public defender’s agency.  The cut to the public defender’s agency was cast by lawmakers as being commensurate to a cut for prosecutors. But Public Defender Quinlan Steiner says his agency has costs that prosecutors don’t and a caseload that traditionally has outpaced staffing.”  (News Miner)

March 30, 2015 – “A Philadelphia lawyer who experienced homelessness as a child has created an app that makes it easy to donate to groups that help local poor people.  Nikki Johnson-Huston says she created and funded the app, Donafy, with her husband, Shawn Huston.  Donafy is intended for those who wonder how they can help the needy in their area, and for those who need assistance themselves.  None of the donated funds will go to Donafy itself; the app functions only as a conduit. Those who need help can find food, housing, legal aid and other resources through a map showing nearby services. Users who want to reach an outreach hotline for help for themselves or others can connect with a ‘notify’ option.” (ABA Journal)

March 30, 2015 – “The federal government must cover the law society membership fees for its articling students, a labor relations adjudicator has ruled.  Since 2013, the Association of Justice Counsel has been battling to have the government cover the fees for all of its articling students after finding a patchwork of practices across the country.  In a decision this month, adjudicator George Filliter found in part in the union’s favor.  In 2013, the government denied the union’s grievance on the issue, arguing articling students don’t have to maintain a professional qualification as they’re in fact candidates rather than members of a law society.  While Filliter ruled in favor of the union on the issue of law society membership fees, he rejected the proposition that the government should also cover the costs of bar courses and examinations.”  (Canadian Lawyer)

April 1, 2015 – “The Free Legal Aid Clinic Inc. celebrated its 50th anniversary of providing free legal services to metro Detroit residents.  More than 150 Wayne State University Law School students, alumni, faculty and staff, as well as local lawyers, judges and other clinic supporters, attended the anniversary celebration.  The clinic is the only student run, 501(c)(3) nonprofit legal aid organization in the nation.”  (Wayne State University News)

April 2, 2015 – “A bill was introduced to New York’s City Council on Tuesday to create an office to coordinate civil legal services for low-income New Yorkers who need housing, consumer protection and immigration assistance.  City Councilman Mark Levine, of Manhattan, said the office would serve an important role in coordinating increased city spending on civil legal services. Spending is set to grow from about $35 million to about $50 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year, he said, to increase access to legal services for low-income and underserved populations.  The new Office of Civil Justice would issue progress reports identifying the civil legal needs of low-income residents and the availability of free and low-cost legal services in the city to meet those needs. The office would also identify obstacles to the delivery of legal services and serve as a liaison between the city and providers of civil legal services.”  The bill is expected to receive a hearing this month before the council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services and could go before the full council in May.  (New York Law Journal)

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants: “Just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. is fatally shot while standing on the balcony outside his second-story room at the Lorraine Motelin Memphis, Tennessee. The civil rights leader was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike and was on his way to dinner when a bullet struck him in the jaw and severed his spinal cord. King was pronounced dead after his arrival at a Memphis hospital. He was 39 years old.”  (  I take this as a reminder that we have made great strides toward equality in this country.  We have had great men and women show us the way.  In a time when it seems like we are taking some steps backward, ask what can we do to take up the mantle and move us toward a state of equality?

Super Music Bonus!   In honor of the Annual Conference location – Chicago, we bring you music from or about that great city all month.