Community Profile: Berkeley Law’s Student Initiated and Student Run Pro Bono Program

This week we had an opportunity to speak with Sue Schechter, Field Placement Program Director and Lecturer-n-Residence at Berkeley Law. Sue figured out early on in her legal career that she wanted to spend her career helping law students pursue public interest and public service careers. Through her current experience she is learning ever day and bringing her energy and perspective to both the law student pro bono movement and to the Berkeley Law pro bono program. Read part one of this two-part post about the program.

Could you explain how the pro bono model at Berkeley Law works and what your role is within the program?

We like to say that “while some schools have a pro bono requirement, Berkeley Law has a pro bono culture.” Several years ago, the Law School hired its first full time Skills Program Director, David Oppenheimer, who had the vision to understand that our pro bono program had a natural fit with our law school skills program and led the charge to figure out what that meant and how we could enhance the students’ work. The Field Placement Program, which I direct, is part of that skills program. Although my primary role is as director of field placement, I support the student-run pro bono initiatives by working with the students and co-teaching a course for the leaders.

When David came to Berkeley, we realized that about 80% of our first year students were doing pro bono under the auspices of Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects (SLPS), student groups run by 2L and 3L students. We have been very cognizant of the fact that these are student initiated and student run projects. We see our role as supporting the students, creating leaders and providing structures that enable the students to run their organizations more efficiently and more professionally. Unlike some law school pro bono programs, we do not have a pro bono coordinator who facilitates projects or opportunities for the students. The students determine what they want to work on, who they want to partner with and what they want their individual pro bono experience to look like. The more ownership the students have the more they commit to and invest in the outcome of their work.  We stand by their side lending support when asked and making suggestions which we hope are helpful.

The support that we provide as staff is achieved through several components: First, we hold a separate orientation for first year law students introducing them to the 17 different SLPS projects so they are aware of the pro bono opportunities available to them from the onset of their legal education and to provide an overview of the professional responsibility and cultural competency issues they need to be aware of. Second, we teach a course to our second and third year student leaders on leadership and pro bono. The goal is to have students participate in this class so that we have ongoing contact with the leaders of the organizations.

The third component of our pro bono program is to have ongoing meetings with our SLPS leaders. Each of the pro bono student organizations within SLPS are self-elected, self-run organizations and we provide support by staying in constant contact with the leadership. Through the fourth component of the program, we have a SLPS fellow where a graduating student has the opportunity to continue working with SLPS by providing the day-to-day support of the program, the course, and of pro bono at the school. The final component of our program includes participating in a public interest graduation where we acknowledge our SLPS student leaders and our supervising attorney mentors. We also award a supervising attorney who has gone above and beyond in their mentoring of the students with their pro bono projects throughout the year.

In the fall of 2012, we will be offering the course for the third time.  The course focuses on introducing students to the concepts of leadership, helping them identify their leadership strengths and challenges, and to provide a forum to work on the organizational structures and priorities of their pro bono projects.  The culmination of the course is a self-identified project that students work alone or in groups to make their SLPS project better – a manual, a new training, a new curriculum, or something useful for the organization.  Each year, we look at the fall course and strive to improve and deepen the students’ experiences. 

While I am very excited about and proud of the Berkeley Law pro bono model, I do want to recognize Tom Schoenherr of the Fordham Law Public Interest Resource Center (PIRC)and other schools who have been doing a student-initiated model a lot longer than we have.

Sue is happy to share Berkeley Law’s Providing Pro Bono Legal Services:  Entrepreneurial Leadership course syllabus or other information about their Program.  Sue can be reached by email at sschechter-at-law.berkeley.edu. Come back Friday to see part two of our interview with Sue.

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One Response to Community Profile: Berkeley Law’s Student Initiated and Student Run Pro Bono Program

  1. Pingback: In the News — Community profile: Berkeley Law’s student run pro bono program

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