Creating a Culture of Service: The Law School Pro Bono Pledge

When Susan Curry joined the Law School in July 2010 as the Director of Public Interest Law and Policy, one of the first initiatives that she introduced was the Pro Bono Initiative. Students joining the program voluntarily pledge to do 50 hours of law­-related pro bono work before graduation. This fledgling program is still at the beginning of what we hope will be a wonderful trajectory of growth and development. With the Initiative well into its second year, we asked Alejandro Herrera, ’13, Co­Chair of the Public Interest Law Society (PILS) to interview Susan Curry about the creation of the program and plans for its development.

ALEJANDRO HERRERA: I was an entering 1L student in the fall of 2010, which was just after you joined the Law School. One of the first things you told us about during fall orientation was your plan to launch a Law Student Pro Bono Initiative. You yourself had only joined the Law School a month earlier. Why did you place this program’s launch so high on your list of things to do?

SUSAN CURRY: Having a vibrant law student pro bono program is an essential ingredient in creating a culture of service within the Law School. Our students are no strangers to volunteering—we knew that already. Beginning with the service they provide during Orientation volunteer days, and continuing through their time here, with our Neighbors program here in Hyde Park or our Spring Break of Service trips to Mississippi and abroad, our students were already taking their time and talent outside of the Law School building and into the community. By launching a pro bono initiative here at the Law School, with a formal pledge, organized opportunities, and a recognition component, we can go even further toward permanently instilling a pro bono ethic in our law students. And I wanted to start right away with your class.

AH: The students likely wanted to start right away too.

SC: Yes! I hadn’t been here even one full week when I got a call from your predecessors at PILS [then ­co­-chairs Marci Haarburger, ’12, and Nick Tarasen, ’12], requesting a meeting to share student ideas for rounding out our Law School’s public interest programming in general, and a pro bono project specifically.

Like me, students recognize that pro bono public service is an integral part of a lawyer’s professional obligation. And let’s be honest: students hunger for practical skills training. Providing pro bono legal services is a great way for students to develop some practical and professional skills. For those students who are interested in pursuing careers in public service, pro bono work can also provide critical networking opportunities.

AH: Can’t our large family of law clinics satisfy that student hunger for practical skills?

SC: Certainly, students can get a taste of practice in one of our popular legal clinics, or in a corporate lab, and certainly in their summer internships. Our clinics in particular have, for many decades, been a haven for students who seek practical skills. But for those students who would like to explore a practice area outside of those offered by our clinics, or for those students who prefer not to take on the rather lengthy time commitment of a clinical course and would prefer shorter­-term, practical­-skills assignments, pro bono can be the ideal opportunity.

AH: In a metro region the size of Chicago’s, it seems like there’d be no shortage of need for extra pro bono assistance from legal advocates.

SC: That’s true. From our perspective as educators, it is important to think about the need to round out our students’ practice and professional skills and to provide them with professional networking opportunities—we are only beginning to scratch the surface of how pro bono work can help our students on that front. But there is an outward­-looking reason for launching the student pro bono initiative as well: our communities need more legal assistance. Individuals, especially low­-income individuals, need quality legal services. Waiting lists at legal service providers are mind-­numbingly lengthy. Many groups and causes are also “underrepresented” in the legal system. Law students can help with this service gap. With this program, we are formally acknowledging our dedication to the principle that members of the legal profession—including those aspiring to enter the legal profession—have a professional obligation to assist in providing quality legal services to individuals, groups, or causes that are underrepresented in the legal system.

AH: So how does the pro bono pledge work?

SC: First, it is important to note that our program is both very new and entirely voluntary. There are some law schools that make pro bono service mandatory for every law student. For students at these schools, it is an actual graduation requirement to perform a set number of law­-related public service hours—hours for which the student is uncompensated monetarily and for which the student receives no academic credit. At Chicago, our pro bono initiative works like a standard “pledge drive” with students pledging to contribute 50 hours of law­related pro bono service during their time in law school. Students can sign up anytime online, or they can pledge during one of three annual pledge drives that we conduct each academic year: one at the end of October, to coincide with National Pro Bono Week; one during a winter quarter coffee mess; and one in the spring quarter as part of the Law School’s Public Service Week. If students meet or exceed the 50-­hour service goal, they are recognized at graduation. In addition to this recognition component, our program features a searchable pro bono opportunity database, web­based student evaluation forms, and online pro bono time log through which law students keep on online log of their pro bono projects and hours.

AH: Fifty hours certainly seems doable, over the course of three years of law school.

SC: Yes, but I’m sure you remember how challenging that first year of law school was, especially that first quarter of law school. I always advise 1Ls who are eager to get out and volunteer in the public interest law community to consult with me first. I can help guide them to pro bono placements that require smaller time commitments or that do not require advanced skills or experience. We even have pro bono opportunities that our student scan manage remotely, from a computer in the library or Green Lounge!

AH: How do students find their opportunities?

SC: Law students find their pro bono projects in any of a number of ways. Many come right to me and ask for suggestions. Before I joined the Law School, I spent six years as the Executive Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI), an umbrella organization of nearly every public interest law agency in Chicago. In that role, and in my previous roles at various public interest law agencies such as the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, the Better Government Association, and the Illinois Guardianship & Advocacy Commission, I have developed a strong network of public interest law providers. In addition, I work with the alumni office to make sure I am well connected to the substantial network of our alumni working in public interest jobs, many of whom are interested in working with our students. Students may also search in a law student pro bono opportunity database on our website that is managed by Illinois Legal Aid Online; that database allows students to search by opportunity type, practice area, client population, and other criteria. Many students have developed their own public service opportunities by networking with student organizations or faculty members.

A number of Law School student groups and associations regularly organize and coordinate pro bono opportunities.

AH: How have students responded to the pro bono pledge?

SC: With gusto! There does not seem to be a “typical” pro bono participant. It would be tempting to predict that pro bono participants would be those students who were not also doing a Clinic, or a journal, or Trial Advocacy. But scores of students participating in the Pro Bono Pledge are also actively involved with these other activities as well.

We are still very much in the infancy of this program. We launched it in October of 2010, and since then, 72 students have already logged more than 3,300 pro bono hours with various law projects and legal service providers, including Cook County Public Defender, Equip for Equality, the Archdiocese of Chicago, Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago’s Immigration Project, Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes (Street Vendors’ Association in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood), National Resources Defense Council, the Chicago Legal Clinic, and the Chicago Law and Education Foundation—Chicago Public Schools Legal Clinic. In the inaugural year of the Initiative, sixteen students graduated with Pro Bono Pledge honors, despite having only one year to complete the hours. Those 2011 graduates who completed the pledge in such a short period of time set a very positive example for the other classes. We have had 185 students take the pledge, though many are 1Ls who don’t plan to log any hours until they finish their first year.

AH: You mentioned earlier that the work must be law-related. What type of service “counts” towards the pledge?

SC: To count toward the Pro Bono Pledge, work must be law-related, must not be done for academic credit hours or financial compensation, and must be supervised by a licensed attorney or a Law School faculty member. So that means that qualified activities would include those that require lawyering skills (such as legal research and writing, interviewing, counseling, oral or written advocacy, or representation of individuals in court, administrative, or other hearings), public education activities (such as preparing for and delivering lectures on legal topics or writing informational brochures or web information on legal topics for underserved communities), and service to the legal profession or legal institutions. Work that does not qualify includes nonlegal public service such as volunteering for a homeless shelter or food pantry or engaging in a park cleanup project. Also excluded are working for a judge or assisting in political campaigns. These are all critically important efforts of course, and we encourage students to perform this work. But for purposes of this Law School pro bono pledge, students should choose law-related pro bono opportunities consistent with ABA Model Rule 6.1.

AH: What are your plans for the future of this initiative?

SC: In order to grow this pro bono program into the most effective model possible, we must do two things simultaneously: we must build the number and types of opportunities that are posted by public interest law and legal aid providers, and we must encourage student organizations to continue developing student-led volunteer projects. We are fortunate to have strong student-led pro bono models, not just for the Spring Break of Service, but for individual pro bono programs developed by PILS, BLSA, and Outlaw. BLSA and Outlaw, for example, recently partnered with the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago to create a pro bono project which trains law students to perform legal intake for clients of the Council’s CORE Center in the UIC/Medical Center/Nearest neighborhood.

But student-led programs such as this one usually need time and resources from my office to help manage logistics, to help students hold themselves accountable, and to maintain these projects over the years as individual classes of students graduate out of the Law School.

Larger numbers of students are more likely to participate in pro bono service if the projects have already been organized and are right there in front of them and if there is adequate training provided. Administrative resources are required in order to develop individual and group service projects, to keep projects interesting and meaningful, to track student involvement, to help students hold themselves accountable for their service commitments, and to communicate with pro bono supervisors, of course. We must continue to foster our relationships with providers, since it will be these relationships that will make the program thrive. If we can build the database of opportunities so that it includes pro bono projects that are designed specifically for our students and their obstacles (e.g., distance from the traditional Loop-located service providers, daytime class schedules), our program will be that much stronger. There is so much potential for this program to both provide new dimensions to our students’ educations and to develop a long-term habit in our students and alumni of using their legal training to give back to the community. I am so excited to see all the ways our students will use this program to make a difference.