Archive for "public service"
At the 2012 Annual Law Day address at the New York Court of Appeals, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced that starting next year, applicants to the New York Bar will be required to show that they have performed at least 50 hours of pro bono “law-related and uncompensated” service before being admitted.
In light of the fact that “those who are privileged to call ourselves lawyers have a special duty as the gatekeepers of justice to participate in preserving what we hold so dear,” Judge Lippman cited a need to instill and foster “a culture of service in the men and women who enter our profession as lawyers each year.” After all, “it is the legal profession’s commitment to equal justice and to the practice of law as a higher calling that has made service to others an intrinsic part of our legal culture.”
“We are facing a crisis in New York and around the country,” said Judge Lippman. “At a time when we are still adjusting to the realities of shrinking state coffers and reduced budgets, more and more people find themselves turning to the courts. The courts are the emergency rooms of our society – the most intractable social problems find their way to our doors in great and increasing numbers. And more and more of the people who come into our courts each day are forced to do so without a lawyer.”
While the legislature has taken note of the problem and has included substantial funding for civil legal services in the judiciary’s budget over the last two years, “we must do more to bridge the gap between this rising need and the services we provide… We need the continued individual efforts of lawyers doing their part.”
“Every year, about 10,000 prospective lawyers pass the New York Bar Exam,” noted Judge Lippman. “While 50 hours of law related pro bono work would amount to little more than a few days of service for each year of law school, the aggregate would be a half million hours each year that benefits New York and those in need of legal help.”
This will benefit both “the clients who are in dire need of legal assistance,” and prospective lawyers hoping to “build the valuable skills and acquire the hands-on experience so crucial to becoming a good lawyer.”
The requirement will not extend to lawyers already admitted to the state bar and living in New York. When applying for admission to the New York Bar, prospective lawyers will have to submit an affidavit describing the nature and dates and hours of their pro bono work, as well as the organization and individual lawyer who supervised them. Applicants will have the option to complete the requirement after graduation, or “even after taking the bar exam or after beginning a paid legal position in a law firm or elsewhere.”
Exactly what work will qualify as pro bono service, and to what extent it will have to be ‘uncompensated,’ has not yet been set out. In a recent e-mail, Interim Dean Gerber stated that Judge Lippman has appointed a panel that will determine the exact parameters of the requirement. The panel will consult with law schools, and during the process Brooklyn Law School may ask for comments from students and other members of the community. BLS currently qualifies the following work as public service for the Public Service Awards: internships at a government agency of nonprofit for pay, credit, or grant; volunteer work at a government agency or nonprofit; pro bono projects; and work through a school clinic at a government agency or nonprofit. Judicial internships for credit or pay and internships at a for-profit company or law firm for credit or pay do not qualify.
In a May 16th memo on the issue, the New York City Bar Association’s Pro Bono and Legal Services Committee expressed concern that the pro bono requirement will place an additional burden on new lawyers who are already struggling to make a living, and that it might lead to sub-par legal services for the poor provided by new graduates motivated only to fulfill their 50 hours. The Association urged that the guidelines be “structured to minimize the number of people in this group by using a broad enough definition of pro bono work, and by allowing new graduates to complete their service under the auspices of a law school program or during their summers.” It also urged that the guidelines include qualifying legal services even if they are compensated, as well as service done outside of New York.
Students with questions about the requirement are advised to e-mail Dean Allard.
Boyan Toshkoff, ’14, is an incoming Legal News and Events Editor of the BLS Advocate.
Working in an unpaid internship for a nonprofit or government entity is a rite of passage for many Brooklyn Law School students, particularly first-years. For many, the summer after 1L is a formative experience, often the first time a new attorney-to-be works on real cases for real clients. Yet this summer, the noncompetitive Public Service Grant, which supports students participating in unpaid internships, is capped at $3,000 per student, down from $5,000 just a year ago. A number of quirks in the program can limit students from collecting the full $3,000.
Hundreds of students every year participate in BLS’s Public Service Grant program, which draws on both federal work-study and school funds to support summer work at nonprofits, federal, state, and local governments (including judges’ chambers), and some international intergovernmental organizations. Four hundred fifty students took advantage of PSG funding last year, and similar numbers are expected to enroll this year.
Unlike in years past, students must now qualify for federal work-study funds in order to receive the public service grant. Most students are eligible based on income, but a few are ineligible under federal law because of high incomes or financial resources. Recipients must also meet certain citizenship requirements.
Furthermore, students receiving PSG can receive no more than $3,000—from any combination of sources—for work done in the qualifying internship. For instance, the ABA’s Curtin Fellowship, which funds work “for a bar association or legal services program designed to prevent homelessness or assist homeless or indigent clients or their advocates,” pays only a $2,500 stipend for the summer. A student receiving this grant would be also able to earn $500 from the public service grant for the same internship, but can earn no more.
Some students have complained that this funding cap discourages PSG recipients from seeking outside funds that total $3,000 or less, or grants that are partially funded by federal work-study, such as Equal Justice America fellowships.
Florence Attino, the Associate Director of Financial Aid at Brooklyn Law School, said the cap was meant to prevent students being paid twice for the same work. “We understand [students’] financial struggles.” But “compensation is based on accountability,” she said. In the past, Attino noted, “externships were always unpaid. The privilege of the placement was the compensation.” Public service grants, in this view, are awards meant to encourage public service and to provide opportunities for networking and resume-building, not income replacement.
Attino also said that students should weigh not just the dollar amount, but also the prestige of winning a merit-based fellowship, even if it meant they received no more money.
Some students expressed frustration that recipients of Sparer fellowships—which total $5,000 and are fully funded by the school—are nonetheless allowed to seek additional funding. BLSPI fellowship recipients, who also receive $5,000, are also allowed to seek additional funding, but can receive no more than $7,000 total.
The PSG program has also been ravaged by cuts to federal work-study funds: in the past, BLS received about $1.2 million from the federal government to fund the summer program; it’s now down to about $600,000. The total program outlays this year will be roughly $1.35 million, with BLS picking up the tab for most of the unmet cost, though the school does ask employers to contribute 25% of students’ grants if they are able. Despite the cuts, Attino believes PSG remains “a terrific vehicle for students in helping them decide their career paths.”
As in previous years, the public service grant will be paid at $12 per hour. This means that a student will now “max out”—reach the $3,000 level—after working just 250 hours. A typical summer-long internship can total 350–400 hours (or more).
What about those extra unpaid 100–150 hours? “We try to be flexible and accommodate students,” Attino said, naming travel and split summers as examples. “[PSG] used to [fund only] eight-week internships. It’s been expanded to fourteen weeks.” As she explained, the PSG fellowship/stipend rule only applies to amounts received for the same work. For example, Americorps awards, like those offered by Equal Justice Works to its Summer Corps members, allow students to redeem an education voucher toward tuition or outstanding student loans after working at a qualifying internship. Receiving a voucher would likely not affect the amount a student can receive from PSG during the summer, said Attino.
One way students might be able to maximize use of PSG, this reporter suggested, would be to work for pay during the summer, or work at a separately-funded internship, but also extend a qualifying fall or spring semester internship into the summer term for 2–3 weeks. Attino suggested that work done during the summer term and beyond the 168 hours required to earn credit might qualify for work-study funding through PSG.
Attino wishes more students would take advantage of the resources available to them. “Students miss deadlines,” she explained, referring to the many who realize too late that their summer placement qualifies for the public service grant. This year’s deadline was May 1, but many applicants had not yet turned in the required paperwork, despite email reminders and five workshop sessions held by the Financial Aid Office describing the program and process of applying. “We have an open door policy. Students should come talk to us.”
Students should also submit PSG applications before the deadline even if they do not yet have an internship placement, Attino advised.
Recent Gifts to BLS
BLS recently revealed that it had received two $1 million gifts, one from the Charitable Lead Annuity Trust of Louis Feil, father of Jeffrey J. Feil ‘73, and one from Dennis J. Block ‘67. In its press release, BLS reported that the Block gift “will support the Law School’s summer public service program for students who are interning with federal court judges.” Reached for comment, President Joan Wexler said the million-dollar gifts would become part of the school’s endowment and be used to pay current program expenses, such as academic scholarships and the unmet cost of the 2012 PSG. “We’re looking for support from friends [for programming and student aid],” said Wexler, “That’s what this was.” BLS has not yet worked out the program criteria of what might eventually be called the “Block Fellowship.”
Not the Only Option
Students who take at least six credits during the summer term can also apply for federal Grad PLUS loans to help make ends meet. Those taking fewer credits can sometimes apply for private education loans.
Asked about private summer loans, Attino hadn’t heard of any students taking on any for this summer. “It’s available, but [BLS] does not promote it.” Yet such loans “may be the only available financial resource when students do not qualify for the federal product,” she said. Private loans sometimes get a bad rap for falling outside regulation meant to protect borrowers and being ineligible for forgiveness and deferment, while also being difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.
Rather than attack private loans, Attino took aim at federal education policy: “Do you know that there is now no subsidized Grad Stafford? There is no reason students should be paying 6.8% when prime is 3.25%.” She added: “Students need to be aware of what’s out there. This office should be their lifeline.”
Disclosure: the author is a recipient of the BLSPI Fellowship and Equal Justice America Fellowship, and a member of the Equal Justice Works Summer Corps, for his work with the Bronx Defenders. He was previously awarded the Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship and Revson Law Student Public Interest Fellowship for his work with South Brooklyn Legal Services.
Doing good at BLS just got a little harder. On Friday, January 13, Interim Dean Michael Gerber announced that for summer 2012, public service grants, which fund otherwise-unpaid legal internships in government and not-for-profits, will be cut to $3,000 from $5,000.
Many students’ summer legal internships with government and not-for-profit employers are unpaid. Few of these offices have the resources to pay interns a stipend, and some rely on unpaid interns to handle higher caseloads. Many BLS students who are financially independent rely on fellowship and grant programs to make ends meet during the summer, when federal student loans are ordinarily unavailable unless a student enrolls in summer courses for credit.
The Public Service Grant program has consistently been popular among BLS students. More than 450 took advantage of the grants last summer by taking otherwise unpaid internships in judicial chambers, not-for-profit organizations such as the Innocence Project New Orleans, and government offices like the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Last spring, Dean Gerber all but promised that cuts to the popular program would take effect in 2012. The cuts were originally planned to affect Summer 2011 stipends, but the administration reversed course after students objected to the unfairness of announcing cuts after many had already finalized their summer plans.
“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,” Interim Dean Gerber wrote at the time. “[I]t 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.”
Now, the hammer has fallen, and cuts have been announced. In his January 13, 2012 email, sent only to non-graduating students, Dean Gerber identified the reason for the cuts as “continued massive cuts in the Federal Work-Study funding that helps support our public service grant program.” Public service grants are funded in part by federal work-study funding, with Brooklyn Law School paying an unspecified portion from its operating budget. However, in 2009, according to its most recent public IRS tax return, work-study funds accounted for only $52,308 of school revenue.
“This choice strikes me as a failure of priorities of the highest order,” said SBA Secretary Erika Lorshbough, ’12. “The school absolutely squandered the chance to capitalize on its growing reputation as a public interest nexus by striking at the foundation of that development, which is support for students doing public interest work.”
Kristie LaSalle, ’12, who helped found the BLS Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (ATA) last spring, said that students were cut out of the loop again this time around. “Those of us who spoke with the administration last year on behalf of ATA learned about the changes to the PSG program when it was announced to the student body” on January 13, 2012. “We weren’t specifically contacted by the administration, either before or after the announcement, and we weren’t approached for our input or reaction.”
Some involved in the student movement against the 2011 cuts have since graduated or will graduate this year. It remains to be seen whether students will organize to oppose cuts to the summer 2012 public service grants, which do not directly affect the graduating class, but rather the pockets of the 1L and 2L classes.
The grants are also now limited to those students who qualify for work-study, which is the “vast majority,” according to Dean Gerber’s announcement. “If you aren’t certain whether you do, please contact the Office of Financial Aid, which can advise you.” Previously, the grants were made available to all students, regardless of qualification for work-study. And as recently as the 2009–2010 academic year, grants were also made available for public service externships during the academic year. When the academic-year grants were cut, then-Dean Joan Wexler stated that the cuts were necessary to preserve the summer grant program.
Students with qualifying internships can earn up to the maximum (now $3,000) at $12 per hour. While some students may only spend half their summers working a qualifying job and may never reach the $3,000 threshold, many grant recipients work between 350 and 400 hours at a single unpaid internship over ten to twelve weeks, reaching the grant’s payment ceiling in as little as half that time. For 400 hours of work, a $3,000 grant amounts to $7.50 per hour, which is above the legal minimum wage but below the $8.50 minimum wage proposed three weeks ago in Albany.
Affording rent in New York City can be a problem on such a low wage. Rents elsewhere, such as Washington, D.C. and environs, however, might be cheaper. Given the availability of online resources like InternsDC to help find cheap housing shares, a $3,000 grant could be “reasonable for a D.C. summer,” said Steven Gordon, Deputy Director of Career Services. Gordon has helped place many BLS students in DC summer internships, though he admits his direct experience living there is limited to the mid-1990’s. BLS also allows students in school housing to sublet during the summer. Mr. Gordon hopes that the opportunities inherent in a public service summer internship would prevent people from deciding against it for budget reasons. “I’d hate to see it,” he said.
Finally, alternatives exist. The Office of Public Service Programs has prepared a list of competitive grants and fellowships available to law students for summer funding, sometimes limited by geography or practice area. While many deadlines have already passed, some applications are still being accepted. That the announcement came six weeks earlier this year, before the NYU PILC Fair and some fellowship deadlines, and after promotional materials sent to prospective students were carefully scraped of any mention of a specific dollar figure, seem to have ameliorated some likely critics.
One of the hardest parts of being a public interest lawyer is maintaining an ever-optimistic disposition. It means believing that hard work will eventually be rewarded, that justice is its own reward, and that just because you are financially limited does not mean that you cannot achieve success. This is one of the reasons I chose Brooklyn Law School— because it is a Mecca for public-service minded students, supporting them to ensure the perpetuation of these important legal fields. Up until the last couple years, BLS has promised time and again that it will fund public service jobs so that students can work hard without worrying about making ends meet. So, having endured several rounds of funding cuts, I must say I am lucky to have attended BLS when I did because, unlike students in other years, I have been put on notice that the pursuit of a public interest career will require my own funding and independent endeavors.
Cut #1: In the clear
During my first year, the law school eliminated work-study funding for public service internships that had been available to former students during the fall and spring semesters. Regardless of this cut, summer and post-graduate stipends were not affected, and so, my plans remained the same. Further, I was on notice for the upper-class semesters in which I would be working: clinical credits, no pay. What seemed to be a fantastic summer stipend became something that would have to cover me through the fall semester, but that was OK, because I am not someone who needs much beyond rent and food (although I am a big eater). With an up to $5,000 grant, I optimistically took a job in DC, a city with a lower cost of living. I sublet my apartment, albeit at a discounted rate, and paid even less to share a two-bedroom apartment with three other girls. It was like college again! While there, I still had to work other jobs, bartending and babysitting. (Two side jobs I continue to do here in New York. Please tell your friends.) When I returned to New York, President Wexler raised tuition, partly in the name of maintaining public service programming [see Letter to Students-Tuition-Jul 2010]. Sure, our loans were going up, but that was fine because that money was a direct investment in my public service career: I would be paid the following summer in a stipend and later for post-graduate work—if I needed it.
Cut #2: Close call
On March 1, 2011, Interim Dean Gerber sent a letter to students, informing us that, after much deliberation, the public service summer grant was to be cut from $5,000 to $3,000 [see Memo to Students -Public Service Grants. He did not encourage or bar the pursuit of outside funding. Outcries echoed around the school. We had already attended the NYU PILC Fair and accepted jobs across the nation and world, relying on the full $5k. I was lucky to have received the BLSPI Fellowship, which promised $5,000 for my public interest work, but this cut affected everyone because our tuition was supposed to be taking care of our summer. Regardless, I joined my classmates in discussing the issues and remedies to seek, but a divide became apparent: redressing grievances against your own school cannot have very good repercussions when you apply for a job. Were we biting the hand that feeds us, or were we not being fed at all?
Before we could answer that troubling question, the deans were somehow able to restore the full promised stipend back to 5k, and we were fortunate to have one more summer of decent wages, being put on notice that we should be prepared for the real cut in FY 2012. Sorry, incoming 1Ls.
Cut #3: Not out of money, not out of luck
While the first and second year students could keep the full stipend one more year last summer, the 3Ls could not keep the post-graduate fellowship as they knew it when entering school. In maintaining summer funding, the school reduced the usual $5,000 for 200 hours ($12/hour) of public service to $3000. For a moment, I wondered where our rising tuition was going if not toward public service funding? Quickly, however, my optimism dismissed these ponderings. These 3Ls were lucky because the school still afforded them an opportunity to keep their resumes fresh and refrigerators full while struggling to find full-time work. Right?
Further, this 2011 cut clearly forewarned me that the post-graduate program may actually be a hindrance to my job search. After all, working below a living wage at least part-time would mean that I have to work that second job and make time in between for interviews, were I lucky to get them. In a down-turned economy, living 3,000 miles away from home, I appreciated the tough-love of my academic institution. It kept me creative and working hard.
Going into my third year of law school with this awareness (Oh! And with a brand new, snazzy marble quad in front of BLS! Now that is an investment in our future), I reconsidered my course for finding a job before I am off student loans and the BLS campus. Fortuitously, I found a part-time legal job this semester (for pay!) so that I can save up for post-bar life. It has been difficult pushing through what is sometimes a 14 hour day of work and school, but I figure it “builds character,” as my dad used to say, and diversifies my resume as the one non-public interest item (I guess bartending and representing Pieper Bar Review are the others, but that’s questionable).
As I gear up to graduate, I realize that my public interest commitment would not be as strong without the internships and mentors I acquired through BLS (Thank you, Betsy Kane, Danielle Sorken and Linda Feldman). Because of that, I am grateful to my school. However, the most important lesson of all is that while I thought I was relying on Brooklyn Law School’s promise of financial and career support to public interest law students, BLS has taught me more about self-reliance than I could have ever imagined, and really that means my legal career thus far has been based on sheer luck.
Meredith is a graduating 3L and former co-chair of Brooklyn Law Students for the Public Interest (BLSPI). This article is independent of her affiliation with BLSPI. She is pursuing a career in public defense, but is open to suggestion and opportunity. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions, comments, or scheduling any of the above side-jobs.
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.”