Chicago Students Find Ways to Serve as They Study

Adam Susser decided to spend his last two spring breaks in Biloxi, Mississippi, to help those devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. Last year, he helped a Vietnamese fisherman whose livelihood was destroyed by the oil find access to legal counsel in the hopes of receiving a settlement. This year, he helped people who received federal aid after Hurricane Katrina to navigate a waiver process so they wouldn’t be required to repay money they didn’t have.

In Chicago, Bethany Fisher spent part of her year coordinating a new mentoring effort that will pair law students with middle schoolers. Other Chicago law students made time to help low-income residents prepare their taxes and to give online assistance to people with legal problems but no money to hire a lawyer.

And two students, Mishan Wroe and Eileen Ho, saw an opportunity to expand how the law school helps the vulnerable by starting an organization to help advocate for domestic violence victims.

Law students serve in many ways, in Chicago and around the world. They log hundreds of hours each week in the Law School’s 14 clinics. Well over a hundred students work in summer jobs for nonprofit organizations and government annually. And a growing number add volunteer hours to their busy schedules of classes, reading, and interviewing. The benefit is twofold: those in need get help, and the law students gain real-world experience. The Law School works to promote service with the Pro Bono Pledge, which asks students who sign it to complete 50 hours of law-related volunteer work before they graduate.

In fact, before the students even take a class, they participate in a Day of Service during orientation. This year, it included tasks such as volunteering at an animal shelter and at neighborhood schools and pulling weeds to beautify nearby Jackson Park.

After that, it’s up to the students to answer the call to service. And they do, often coming up with new ideas and projects, said Shannon Bartlett, Associate Director of Student Affairs.

Initiative is never in short supply when it comes to Chicago law students, she said. “Students tend to be really energetic. We have a lot of students who are constantly coming to us and saying, ‘We have an idea.’”

The story of Mishan Wroe, ’13, and Eileen Ho, ’12, is a perfect example of just how far a student idea can go. Wroe and Ho noticed that the Law School lacked a student group or a clinic dedicated to examining domestic violence issues. So they set out to change that.

The students met with faculty and administrators to propose a clinic, which eventually became the Gendered Violence and the Law Clinic, launched in January. Students learn from teacher Neha Lall, a staff attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago. Lall’s practice has a special focus on issues related to violence against women. Students in the clinic also work 12 hours a week at the foundation on family-law matters, with 3Ls who have their student-practice licenses even going to court to represent clients.

Wroe and Ho didn’t stop there. Unsure if the clinic would become a reality, they started the Domestic Violence Project in the meantime. The pro bono project trains students to work with the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services, on behalf of domestic-violence victims. Again, the 3Ls have a chance to prepare their clients’ court filings, such as orders of protection, and to represent them in domestic violence court.

To start the program, the students received a $4,500 grant from the University of Chicago Women’s Board, a group of alumnae and friends of the university. So far, Wroe said, about seven people are involved in the pro bono project, which launched winter quarter, and about a dozen are enrolled in the clinic.

Wroe said she’s grateful the Law School was open to making the programs happen. “It’s a really good way to get students involved,” she said. The forms for protection orders, for example, are not difficult to complete, but they are crucial for victims.

“It’s not a very complicated area of law, so from the beginning of law school, you can have a lot of impact and influence over someone’s life very easily,” Wroe added.

Students often track down service opportunities that dovetail with their future goals. Katie Funkhouser, ’13, wants to be a tax lawyer.

So Funkhouser, along with some law school friends, thought she could be helpful to herself and others by trying out her skills through the Ladder Up program, an organization through which volunteers help the working poor with tax assistance, securing financial aid for college, and other financial help.

One cold Saturday in February, Funkhouser and other volunteer tax preparers met downtown and were bussed to Olive-Harvey College on the southeast side of Chicago. In the first half-hour the doors were open, the clients filled every seat in the room.

Funkhouser said she learned that, though the clients needed help, they were not helpless. She found many of them were well-acquainted with the tax code and came to the clinic armed with the relevant information and paperwork.

“I benefitted from the experience too,” Funkhouser said. “I was delighted to apply what I had learned in a classroom to real-world situations, and at the same time genuinely help people.”

About 10 Chicago students have volunteered for Illinois Legal Aid Online’s LiveHelp chat service, which serves people who can’t afford lawyers for civil matters such as divorces and domestic violence. Students undergo a training process that teaches them to direct people to the right web content, including how-to videos, automated court documents, and informative publications and websites.

It’s up to the students to decide when they will log on and help. To date, Chicago students have volunteered more than 200 hours to LiveHelp.

The Chicago students “are great. They’re one of the best groups I have,” said Jane Lombardi, the LiveHelp program coordinator. “They’re always willing to take hours, and extra helpful with the users.”

Today’s Chicago students also are finding ways to update organizations started a generation earlier. For example, the leadership of the nearly 20-year-old community group Neighbors is coming up with new ways to help youth in Hyde Park.

This year, they conducted an after-school program for high-school kids at Kenwood Academy. The law students tutored the high schoolers and guided them through the application to the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which awards financial aid to outstanding minority students entering college. Between a dozen and 15 law students participate on a regular basis.

Neighbors is also starting a new mentoring program for middle-school students at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, which provides educational programs to children from infancy to the 12th grade. In addition to an after-school program, law students will be paired with a middle-schooler for one-on-one “hang out” time at least once a month.

Bethany Fisher, ’12, co-president of Neighbors, has been working to coordinate the new program, even though she’s about to graduate. Her experience with Neighbors has helped her feel like part of the community.

“It has enabled me to become meaningfully involved with the surrounding community rather than simply viewing Hyde Park through the Law Library windows,” she said. “Working with low-income kids at nearby schools is the best way to put the hardship of law school in perspective. Plus, their boundless energy is a great pick-me-up after a long day of studying .”

There’s plenty to do in the Law School’s neighborhood, but students want to serve around the world too. This year, the school solicited proposals for an “International Immersion” program this spring break. One of the projects chosen was a service trip to Belize. Six students affiliated with the Human Rights Law Society volunteered with organizations such as the Red Cross in Belize City.

They follow in the footsteps of a group of Chicago students who traveled to Jammu and Kashmir, India, last year to help the Kashmiri Pandits, a group expelled from their home many years ago because of racial and religious tension. The students met Pandits living in camps for internally displaced persons. They also interviewed government leaders and met with prominent academics.

The India trip was the brainchild of Maya Ibars, ’11, and Subha Chauhan, ’11. Audrey Gilliam, ’12, who was on the India trip, called it “an incredible opportunity.”

“I learned field interviewing skills, applied international law principles—which before seemed abstract—to a real-life problem, and met some great people along the way.”

The volunteer work is good for the community, and for the law students’ careers, said Susan J. Curry, Director of Public Interest Law and Policy. “The students get work experience and knowledge in an area of law . They make networking connections and maybe get in court before a peer would who is not volunteering,” she said.

Being involved in service work, especially law-related service work, helps new graduates stick out in the job market, said Valerie Byrne, ’13, a leader of Spring Break of Service who spent this most recent break working in New Orleans. Another group of Spring Break of Service members was in Biloxi.

“It’s a unique experience that employers don’t see on the average resume,” Byrne said. “It shows I have a dedication to pro bono work, and that I have some substantive legal experience.”

Plus, Byrne takes pride in the student service component of the Law School. “We’re associated with a lot of great things—law and economics, an incredible learning experience and academic rigor, and this is just another great thing we can be known for.”

Adam Susser, ’13, one of the students in Biloxi, said he’s learned a lot from working with the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm committed to racial and economic justice. Susser was one of 22 Chicago law students to take the Biloxi trip this year. Among his tasks was to help the center assist people who faced foreclosure, eviction, and other problems as indirect results of the oil spill.

“It’s important not to lose sight that there are a lot of people in the country who need some help,” Susser said. “I’ve had the opportunity to have a really great education at the University of Chicago, and if there’s an opportunity to go down and help some people, I think that’s a great use of my spring break.”

Through the program, Susser met and worked with restaurant owners, oil-rig workers, and fishermen, including some from Vietnam who spoke through a translator to explain the turmoil the oil spill had caused in their lives.

“It was very eye-opening,” he said. “They weren’t looking for any type of handout. They were just trying to move their life forward.”

M. D. Akinmurele, ’13, was on both trips with Susser. Last year, she worked to mobilize a community around reopening a top-performing school that was destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. This year, she supported attorneys at the center as they met with people affected by the oil spill who thought they might have a claim to some of BP’s settlement money.

Akinmurele makes sure, when she is back in Chicago, to tell as many people as she can about what she has seen in the South.

“One day, when we’re attorneys and we have power to make a difference, maybe that’s something people will have in mind,” she said.