Recently, I have been given the opportunity to work at the SC Access to Justice Commission (SCATJ) by being appointed as a “BFF,” a bar foundation fellow. The program is known as the South Carolina Bar Foundation Public Interest Fellows Project, which was started to increase student awareness of public interest law. It also offers public legal service organizations the help they need to accomplish the work they do for the public. Now you may wonder what SCATJ is and what the organization does; I know I did. But one of the great things about this program is that it gives students a chance to learn about public interest organizations that they did not know existed.
SCATJ is faced with the difficult challenge of “ensuring access to justice for all South Carolinians.” This organization was created to help people with low income and modest means obtain access to the South Carolina court system. One of their programs is geared towards self-represented litigants, and that is the field I have done the most amount of work. One of my major projects since starting here has been to work on an information guide for different counties within the judicial district of the new Newberry County Self-Help Center. Often times, self-represented litigants forego hiring an attorney due to lack of financial means. However, these litigants often go into court with no resources or knowledge of the SC legal and court system. They do not understand the legalese in forms, the process to properly fill out court documents and forms, and court policies and procedures, such as service of process.
SCATJ tries to provide self-represented litigants with guidelines and resources so that they may enter the court with more knowledge of the system. Chief Justice Toal has spearheaded the movement to streamline polices and procedures and have records be automated through the use of the Internet. This has enabled all courts in different SC counties to have similar paperwork.
The reason I came to law school was to help those in need and make an impact in the community. As cliché as that may sound, my passion and desire to achieve this goal is the reason I applied to be a “BFF” and the reason I want to become an attorney. The goals of SCATJ align with the goals I seek to accomplish after law school, and this is the sole reason I wanted to take part in this opportunity. This has been an invaluable learning experience for me thus far. I have learned a lot about public interest law, SC law, and the challenges everyday South Carolinians face to acquire what we, as law students, sometimes take for granted: obtaining justice. It has been a pleasure to work here at the SCATJ, and I look forward to continuing to work here in order to give back more to the community while continuing to learn and grow from this experience.
Thanks much to CDO Newswire at Berkeley Law for pointing out to us this article at Slate! In this recession-era, it is as important as ever to assist graduating students whose interest is sparked by public interest law.
Most will agree that the need is great but how will the new attorneys be compensated?
How will new attorneys pay off their exorbitant student loans? The average law student debt is $100,000 according to Forbes article “The Great College Hoax.”
If we are to ensure the future of public interest law, we must ensure that future attorneys are able to afford the practice of law. The Slate article offers some hope for new graduates in this difficult time. Especially when the statement below is accurate.
Lawyers working for nonprofits earn approximately $35,000 less per year.
Just as I was beginning to question whether public interest law could and would truly engage new attorneys, I read a story at www.lawjobs.com about Sara L. Woods.
Ms. Woods is the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program aka Philly VIP. According to the article:
Woods says her gut and her heart are in public service work, so VIP is the right choice for her.
“I can’t imagine not working in the public sector. I see myself here for a long time,” she said.
Glad to have you with us Ms. Woods!
Theories abound as to why fresh, new lawyers are not turning to public service when they enter the workforce. Much of the discussion centers on the incredible debt that arises from law school, an average of $80,000+. Sure it would be hard to accept a job for $40,000 a year (see my previous article), but an article by Tan N. Nguyen in the Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal paints a different picture.
According to Nguyen, law professors may play a large role in where students seek employment and that the trend is toward large firms.
Law schools often teach legal skills in the absence of any discussion regarding equity, fairness, or the possible result of their application in people’s lives. The case-analysis method of teaching law separates legal thinking from larger societal values.
Nguyen suggests alternatives in the article.
Now may be a good time for us to re-examine how we paint the profession to law students. Public interest lawyers do great work and deserve recognition. Maybe it’s time to let law students know that too.
PS – Many thanks to Ezra Rosser at Poverty Law Prof Blog for pointing us toward the article.
Fresh off the digital highway, good news from Equal Justice Works – public service loan forgiveness is NOT taxable. That’s right – not taxable. This is great news for attorneys practicing public interest law!
To read more, visit http://equaljusticeworks.wordpress.com/2008/12/01/public-service-loan-forgiveness-not-taxable/.
After the recent Presidential election, it appears that there has been a resurgence in public interest law, at least according to The National Law Journal. This is encouraging for those of us who are and have been working in public interest law, especially now when there is an increased need for competent and passionate attorneys.