Michael Marshall, Tiffany Michael, Morris Singer, and Sarah Wilkens. All four have
been active participants in the Pro Bono Program since its launch last fall.
As second-year Suffolk Law Student Tiffany Michael commands her blue Jeep Cherokee through the streets of Dorchester, Massachusetts, she and fellow second-year student Morris Singer debate driving directions and identify street names. Michael turns down a narrow one-way road populated by multifamily homes; Singer watches for house numbers. A parking spot materializes, and Michael squeezes in.
Michael and Singer decide to dispense with their bright red “No one Leaves” t-shirts—the shirts don’t fit over their winter coats, and today is a cold Saturday morning in February. In warmer weather, the tees would signal that Michael and Singer belong to an army of neighborhood canvassers known as the Foreclosure Task Force, a project of the Boston community organizing group City Life. But today the duo makes do with another prop: a stack of flyers, translated in both Spanish and English, with a blaring headline: IF YOU ARE A TENANT IN A BUILDING THAT IS BEING FORECLOSED, YOU HAVE RIGHTS!
Now on foot, they approach a two-story stucco apartment building painted aqua blue. A fat yellow cat stalks the yard while a cranked car radio blares across the street. Four mailboxes, four buzzers. The buzzers all go unanswered, so Michael, a veteran canvasser, tries the front door and walks in. Singer, her trainee, follows.
Michael knocks at the first apartment unit. A young woman is on her cell phone when she opens the door but ends the call to attend to the two strangers at her doorstep. Michael cuts to the chase. This building is in foreclosure, Michael explains, but tenants don't have to leave.
“Don’t take cash for keys,” Michael instructs, referring to a practice mortgage lenders often employ to empty the foreclosed properties of tenants. “Take these packets and read them. You can stay in your home, even if your landlord is foreclosed on.” The woman calls to her brother, with whom she shares the apartment. He throws on a shirt and darts upstairs to alert his fellow apartment dwellers. They’re not home, so he and his sister take extra flyers for them.
As Michael records their names and phone numbers, the woman explains that she and her brother received a notice three months ago that said the bank now owns the building. The landlord, meanwhile, has continued collecting rent, accepting only cash. He’s coming by this afternoon to collect again. “Don’t pay him,” Michael says. “Call City Life.” Michael tells her someone will be back to check up on them next week. The woman, wiser now to her predicament, thanks them profusely.
Michael and Singer came into this outreach effort through the Suffolk Law Pro Bono Program, the law school’s latest public service endeavor. Launched in August of last year, the program aims to fulfill a number of objectives: to offer students extraordinary learning experiences that prepare them for the work-force; to fill serious, unmet community needs; and to bring aspiring lawyers to their profession’s highest calling—offering assistance to the poor, underserved, and disenfranchised. With a vision of eventually serving the community on a grand scale, the program boasts a full-time director, access to 1,600 law students and 21,000 alumni, and a location that can’t be beat: close to city and state offices, state and federal courthouses, legal services, nonprofit agencies, and neighborhoods in need.
“We are positioned to have an extraordinarily vi-brant program with large numbers of students participating,” says Susan Prosnitz, executive director of the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service, which administers the program. “We have a goal to instill in every graduating student this sense of responsibility to give back, not just while they’re in school, but following graduation.”
The Pro Bono Program grew out of a confluence of factors. Students interested in pro bono opportunities and public interest careers, along with supportive faculty members, were speaking out for more coordinated support within the law school. At the same time, Jerry Rappaport, the donor behind the Rappaport Fellowship program, was considering the funding of a center dedicated to pursuing policy and public service. With support from the Rappaport family and the Jerome and Phyllis Rappaport Charitable Foundation, the Rappaport Center was established in 2007; Michelle Harper JD ’04, who had a professional background in public interest law and pro bono management, was hired as director of public interest and pro bono programs in August of that year.
“I think we are in the minority [of law schools] in that we have a director of pro bono programs,” says Harper. “What that shows is institutional support and institutional backing and a real commitment. This isn’t lip service. We put our money where our mouth is.”
Dean Alfred Aman carries Harper’s point a step further. “We’re at a point in history where I sense in the student body a real ethos of service and giving back,” he says. “When you institutionalize opportunities, and the institution backs it up, that says to students, ‘Your instincts are really right.’ That’s a fantastic way of teaching. When students graduate, they will have a broader sense of what their degree is about.”
Before launching the program, the law school sought guidance from the American Bar Association Center for Pro Bono. In the past 20 years, as federal funding for legal services has dwindled, law school pro bono programs have proliferated across the country, with a significant uptick occurring since 2005. That’s when the ABA issued new accreditation standards that made it mandatory for law schools to offer students substantial pro bono opportunities.
Suffolk Law applied for and was selected to participate in a visit by the ABA, which issued a report. The report acknowledged the challenges of building a pro bono program at a law school with a large student body in an urban setting, and set forth comprehensive recommendations on everything from staffing to development of opportunities; recruitment of students, faculty, and alumni; supervision; tracking of hours; placement and evaluation; and visits to participating organizations. A central point, which Harper and Prosnitz strongly endorsed, was the recommendation that the program offer a broad range of placements, varied by subject matter, venue, skills, timing, and clientele. The ABA report also noted that Suffolk Law’s program was already moving in the right direction, thanks to Harper, who was reaching out to students, faculty, nonprofits, and the courts even before the ABA team arrived.
“Ms. Harper’s energy, enthusiasm, and creativity were visible to the team,” says Melanie Kushnir, assistant staff counsel with the ABA Center for Pro Bono. With the ABA recommendations in hand, Harper and Prosnitz set forth to create a well-organized, central infrastructure to which students could turn for support, advice, and resources. All Suffolk Law students interested in participating go through a registration process under which they sign a pledge and are advised of their professional responsibilities. (Students who enroll in the Pro Bono Program are expected to complete a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono service before graduation and to track, verify, and report their hours.) As pro bono positions become available, Harper vigilantly posts them on the program’s website and issues weekly email updates to Suffolk Law’s public service listserv, comprised of more than 600 students. To easily match enrollees to opportunities related to their interests, Harper stores student information in a database.
A database is a decidedly mundane entity, but it’s worth pausing to consider what the student database means to the Pro Bono Program. Developed, pro bono, by second-year student Tom Beauvais, the database helps Harper and Prosnitz be nimble in their work.
With a few keystrokes, Harper can quickly call up a student’s areas of interest, availability, willingness to work in the summer, and any specialized skills. “I don’t know how many schools have a comparable database,” says Prosnitz. “It’s crucial to what we do.” And sometimes it even yields unanticipated benefits. Just four months into the program, Harper was contacted by a clinical professor in urgent need of a Polish speaker to prevent the deportation of a client. Among the data Harper collects is information on students’ foreign language skills. A quick search of the database revealed a Suffolk Law student fluent in Polish; with a single call to Poland, the student was able to come up with the information needed to keep the client in the U.S.
The acquisition of pro bono opportunities is an art in itself. Harper and Prosnitz actively network in the community to build a set of pro bono offerings that cover a broad range of legal fields and require the exercise of the full range of legal skills. They attend local and national conferences, meet with individual community leaders, and reach out to government offices and nonprofits. In the course of doing so, Harper explains, they not only discover existing opportunities but also help organizations identify service gaps and create new projects suitable for law students. It’s a strategy that builds the capacity of underfunded organizations that are working for the greater good while also generating new pro bono positions that might not have existed otherwise.
Participating students have already benefited substantially from the program. Last year, third-year student Sarah Wilkens tried unsuccessfully to secure a summer internship with the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee (MHLAC), a group of judges and lawyers within the Massachusetts executive branch who advocate for the legal rights of persons with mental disabilities. When Wilkens returned to Suffolk Law this past fall, she made an appointment with Harper. “She made me feel so comfortable about the process and the program, and made me excited about what I can do for the community,” Wilkens says. Harper made a phone call, and now Wilkens is volunteering with one of MHLAC’s senior attorneys. Among her responsibilities is conducting research on a major case involving insurance benefits in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
Wilkens realizes that she’ll be graduating into a depressed economy, when legal employment opportunities will be scarce. She sees the Pro Bono Program as a way to give back, grow professionally, and avoid gaps in her resume. “We’re all apprehensive about what will happen when we graduate,” Wilkens says. “[Michelle Harper] gave me a list of options. Worst case: I take an unrelated job but do pro bono work to keep my foot in the door. The Rappaport Center has been a beacon, because I felt like I had no direction and they pointed me in the right direction.”
As a second-year law student, Michael Marshall is hoping his pro bono service will help him become a better prosecutor. Marshall is currently volunteering at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, where, under the supervision of the head of legal advocacy and a special projects coordinator, he is helping to update a law enforcement curriculum for police officers who handle sexual assault cases.
“I thought it would be good to see things from a victim’s perspective,” Marshall says. The project puts him out in the field researching the work of other individuals and organizations, compiling the best information, and interviewing police officers. When the project is completed this spring, Boston-area police will have an up-to-date curriculum on investigating sexual assault and preserving evidence for trial.
Marshall feels the experience has educated him in ways his coursework never could. “It has given me a lot more background information on sexual assault in general, more information on the law and how the crime affects the victim,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of students get that.”
It’s not just students who are benefiting from the program’s resources. Suffolk Law is one of only a handful of law schools in the country to have a formal policy encouraging annual pro bono service by faculty and attorney administrators. The law school is in an even smaller minority of institutions that provide liability insurance coverage for faculty and administrator pro bono work. These administrative steps, says Harper, demonstrate the institution’s deep commitment to pro bono work and distinguish Suffolk Law as a leader in this area.
Professor Richard Perlmutter is one faculty member who has borne witness to the Pro Bono Program’s unique value. Perlmutter’s colleague, Professor William Berman, supervises Suffolk Law’s Housing Clinic and works closely with the Chelsea (Massachusetts) Restoration Corporation (CRC), a community-based nonprofit focused on housing for low- and moderate- income families. Berman recently asked CRC’s executive director if there were any gaps in its service that pro bono law students might be able to fill. He learned that CRC needed lawyers to review the work-out agreements the organization negotiates between lenders and homeowners, and to explain the agreements to the homeowners. Berman then approached Perlmutter, an expert in transactional matters, to see if he’d be interested in supervising several students on a pro bono basis to do the work. Perlmutter, who had never taught in a clinic before, agreed, leaning heavily on Harper to help him recruit and interview students.
“The Pro Bono Program gave us structure,” Perlmutter says. He is currently overseeing four law students as they help people stay in their homes and says he loves the work: “It’s as good for me and the students as it is for the people we’re helping.”
Harper is determined that the value of the Pro Bono Program extend not just to current students and faculty but to alumni as well. To that end, she and Prosnitz have recently embarked on a major new initiative: the Pro Bono Partners Program, which aims to pair up alumni and students. “We’ve got 21,000 alumni out there. If everybody did one small thing in terms of participating in pro bono work, it would make one big difference,” says Prosnitz.
Gillian Fisher JD ’05 can attest to the benefits of such a partnership. A court-appointed defense attorney for indigent clients in Middlesex County and a solo practitioner, Fisher welcomed Harper’s email offering the pro bono services of law students. She now has a recent Suffolk Law graduate volunteering in her office, doing legal research and assisting on court-appointed cases. “The fact that they formalized a program and made it a fairly easy process to get hooked up to someone is great, and has certainly helped my practice,” says Fisher.
If Harper and Prosnitz have any frustration about the Pro Bono Program, it’s that they want everything done yesterday. “The Pro Bono Program is one of our many missions, and we’re just a couple of people,” says Prosnitz. Agrees Harper, “it would be great if we could grow the program even faster, but there are practical limitations that affect our work. That for me is the greatest challenge.”
But their eagerness to do more cannot mask the great strides Harper and Prosnitz have already made in growing a program that has been up and running less than a year. More than a hundred students are officially enrolled; 35 organizations are being served by Suffolk Law students, and more than a dozen are seeking placements.
Looking ahead, Harper and Prosnitz have a number of growth areas in mind. They plan to increase services for new alumni. They’ll be reaching out to student organizations to help attract more students to the program. And by helping legal service organizations shape new projects and increasing the number of projects overseen by faculty members, they’ll continue to add to the number and diversity of opportunities, especially in the areas of transactional work and international law.
“Our aim is to make Suffolk Law’s Pro Bono Program a national model, with tangible impact on our surrounding community,” says Prosnitz. Adds Harper, “We also hope to engage a new generation of lawyers committed to promoting access to justice.” There’s certainly no shortage of need out there, as Tiffany Michael and Morris Singer well know. Having informed the tenants of the foreclosed blue stucco building that they can continue living there, the law students return to Michael’s car. These tenants have been unwittingly paying rent to the wrong party and will probably never recover their losses. But thanks to the law students’ intervention, things are about to get better.
“Even if you see only one family in a day, it makes you feel like you’ve made an impact,” says Michael.
Now, on to the next foreclosed building.
Jeri Zeder is a freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com
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