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In the middle of a steamy New Orleans summer, Brooklyn Law School student Dwayne Thomas, ’13, traveled Big Easy streets on a mission. He needed to track down a set of court documents that might prove one unfortunate Louisiana inmate not guilty.
“My first thought coming into law school was to get people out [of jail] who were wrongfully convicted,” said Thomas. His sleuthing brought him to a local courthouse, where he finally obtained a set of old documents that may turn the case around.
When he decided to go to law school, Thomas didn’t know for sure whether he wanted to go into public interest law. But having grown up in the projects of Jamaica, Queens, he knew that an education in law could equip him with the tools needed to help reverse the high incarceration rate his friends faced growing up. That thought led him to the Innocence Project New Orleans, a non-profit that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners in the deep South.
This summer, Thomas was one of more than 450 students who participated in the BLS Public Service Grant program, which for the past decade has provided students with a stipend of up to $5000 for summer work in the public sector — either in government, with a judge’s chambers, or at a not-for-profit organization.
Florence Attino, Associate Director of Financial Aid, likened the program to a “mini corporation” due to the sheer number of students enrolled, and all the paperwork it entails. The program has doubled in size in the past six years, she said, due in large part to the drying up of private sector jobs.
“I don’t see it slowing down,” she said.
Michael Shearman, ’13, spent his summer working at the Securities Exchange Commission in Washington, DC, with the aid of a Public Service Grant. At the SEC, Shearman worked on international bribery cases as part of the agency’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act team. He’s also played a part in the investigation into the Rupert Murdoch-News of the World phone hacking scandal, as well as delving into other high profile projects.
“It was a huge factor,” Shearman said of the grant’s impact on his decision to work at the SEC.
Two other BLS students, Jared Steller and Neerav Shah, were also SEC interns this summer–no secret, since they were featured in the New York Times Dealbook blog in August, speaking about their internships. In mentioning his stipend to the Times, Shah noted that “[l]aw schools are making a real push to support public service.”
But many schools do not actually provide their students with the same level of public interest funding as BLS. Attino noted that the program is unique to BLS because, as a stand-alone law school, the institution does not have to share its federal funding with unrelated graduate and undergraduate programs, as others do.
And BLS students do not take the program for granted – especially those who had already lined up summer work in reliance on the grant when they received an emailed memo on March 1st, indicating that their summer’s public interest funding would be capped at $3000 instead of $5000 for the summer.
The grants are funded in part by federal work-study money, and the school has customarily matched those funds to reach the $5000 per student cap. According to the March 1 memo, the cut resulted from a decrease in federal funding.
Kristie LaSalle, ‘12, a member of the newly founded BLS Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (ATA), helped form the BLS ATA with several other like-minded students shortly after the announcement of the public service grant reduction. According to a statement LaSalle issued to the Advocate on behalf of the group, “[s]tudents met, town-hall style, mere days after the announcement of the funding cuts.”
The ATA explained that this “student outcry” over the funding cuts “arose not only out of concern for students’ own ability to afford the cost of living over the summer, but also out of a recognition that the decision reflected a marked departure from the school’s prior commitment to public interest and public service, a cornerstone of the school’s mission and a devotion for which it has gained much respect in the broader legal community.”
Fortunately for 2011 grant recipients, the school decided to restore funding to its original level, but Interim Dean Michael Gerber made it clear that next summer’s public interest job seekers will likely feel the impact. In an email to the BLS community announcing that grants would be restored to the original level, he wrote:
“This decision…does not come without cost. We will maintain the grant amount by using our entire FY 2012 federal work-study grant in the summer of 2011, as well as expending substantial additional Brooklyn Law School funds.
“While we will tirelessly continue to pursue other sources of funding for 2012, it is likely that reductions in federal support will continue. As a result, it is difficult to predict what the structure of the program for summer 2012 will be, although it is certain to be substantially restructured and grants will almost certainly be reduced.”
According to the new BLS development director, Jean Smith, the school has not yet found a donor to endow the public service grant program.
However, “whenever we reach out to people for fundraising purposes our primary push is financial support for our students,” Smith said by email.
For those still concerned about the issue of transparency within the BLS administration, LaSalle says that the BLS ATA plans to act as a liaison between students and the administration, “not only for the public service grant issue, but for many issues that deeply impact students’ lives and experiences at BLS.”
Betsy Kane, director of public service programs, suggests that students prepare for the upcoming summer by seeking other sources of funding for public interest work, including the Sparer or BLSPI fellowships, and non-BLS affiliated grants such as the Equal Justice Works stipend, the Charles H. Revson Law Students Public Interest Fellowship, or the Peggy Browning labor grant.
Both Thomas and Shearman admitted that they may not continue public interest work for their entire legal careers, but they are grateful for the opportunities they had this summer.
“Before you go to law school you have no idea what being a lawyer is like,” said Thomas. “[Now] I have a better idea of what I want to do when I get out.”