As Student Interest Grows in Public Service, Law School Expands Opportunities

As Student Interest Grows in Public Service, Law School Expands Opportunities
Sarah Galer
University of Chicago News Office
September 13, 2010

After seven years doing music therapy for emotionally disturbed children in New York, Amy Bobo decided to attend law school so she could better address issues of mental health services and immigration that she had encountered in her job.

Bobo, a rising 2L at the University of Chicago Law School, is part of a growing trend of law students who choose to pursue public interest career opportunities. Helping students along that path is a top priority for Law School Dean Michael Schill. Even before he started his tenure at the Law School in January, Schill had resolved to expand and formalize the school’s public service programs, which he feels should thrive in the Law School’s educational environment.

Schill said the unusual diversity of political views at the Law School offers a unique training ground for students pursuing careers that touch on issues of public concern.

“Here, you get to sharpen your teeth on ideas that you don’t agree with,” Schill said. “It makes you so much better analytically to be taught by professors who are of a different political persuasion and to interact with students who don’t agree with you ideologically. It resonates with the University mission, which is to seek truth wherever it lies.”

Schill plans to enhance the Law School’s existing public service offerings by growing its public interest curriculum, career guidance, financial support, clinical, and pro bono opportunities. He said the effort also includes helping to funnel more scholarly research to public policy decision-makers.

This year alone, the Law School has doubled the number of students working in summer public interest law, with more than half of rising 2Ls choosing a public interest summer internship – all supported by the Law School’s fellowship programs. The increasing student interest in public sector experience often is explained as generational enthusiasm and a result of the changing private sector economic landscape.

Bobo secured an internship at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights after meeting the policy director at a Law School event. Although many students like Bobo know before coming to the Law School that they want to pursue careers in public service, the school also hopes to expose its private sector-bound students to the benefits of a public service experience.

As a first step in this new initiative, Schill brought on leading public interest legal expert Susan Curry as Director of Public Interest Law and Policy to help fine-tune and implement the Law School’s new goals.

“This Law School believes that a public service program is important because of the enormous benefits it can generate,” said Curry, who was the Executive Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative until she joined the Law School in July.

“These types of programs offer critical support to public service agencies trying to meet needs, offer hands-on training opportunities to law students, provide critical networking opportunities, and enhance the Law School’s ties to the community,” Curry said.  She said such programs also “instill in students a sense of professional responsibility in helping achieve access to justice for all.”

The Law School hopes that more formalized efforts will help instill all of its students with a greater understanding of the need for public service, like that which already drives Bobo.

“A lot of my colleagues in music therapy were actually from other countries,” she said. “Anyone who wanted to stay and practice had a really difficult time getting through the system to get their green card or to get sponsored. And these were people with means, education, and resources. What about all those other people who don’t have those resources?”

Michael H. Schill


expanding public interest law exposure and opportunities

Great to see this happening. Not much was available to the class of '67 except through the legal clinic. Having been involved with legal programs providing help to the developmentally disabled, and a law school clinical program providing the same, and seen these programs' funding cut off or changed, I would suggest that students and their advisers make sure they understand how their generally low-paying work does not translate easily into big or even middle and small regular practice jobs when the funding goes.