In spring 2009, Vanderbilt Bar Association President Charlie Gearing '09 and Vanderbilt Legal Aid President Georgia Sims '09 formed a brainstorming group of other student leaders to explore ways to encourage Vanderbilt Law students to engage in pro bono legal service during law school. One proposal was immediately adopted: a Pro Bono Pledge, which students may opt to sign at any time during law school. J.D. students who sign the Pledge promise to perform at least 75 service hours before they graduate, most of which must be law-related and directly supervised by an attorney.
The student leaders also opted to launch the program immediately, and in fall 2009, 121 of Vanderbilt's 630 students, or approximately one fifth of the student body, signed up. At the first Pledge awards ceremony shortly before Commencement last May, proud program director Renee Erickson '09 congratulated 23 3Ls and 11 2Ls for completing the Pledge, and Vanderbilt Law students who reported their service had collectively completed more than 12,600 hours of pro bono legal and community service. "Our student body has always been very active in the community," Erickson said. "We felt that the Pledge was an excellent way to continue and encourage the longstanding tradition of public service here at Vanderbilt."
Currently, 31 members of the Class of 2011, 75 members of the Class of 2012, and 32 members of the Class of 2013, including one LL.M. student, have signed the Pledge. J.D. students who sign the Pledge may complete fewer than 25 hours in any single year as long as they complete at least 75 service hours during their three years at Vanderbilt; ten hours of service each year must be completed in Nashville to provide a direct benefit to the community where Vanderbilt is located. "Some students complete the Pledge in a single year," Jenna Farleigh '12, who now directs the Pledge program, said. While the program's primary purpose is to promote law-related community service, students in the program say they benefit by gaining practical legal experience.
The Pledge is also open to transfer and LL.M. students, who may pledge to perform 50 or 25 hours of service, respectively, during the time they spend studying law at Vanderbilt. "LL.M. students who take the Pledge make a commitment to perform 25 hours of service during their single year at Vanderbilt," said LL.M. Program Director Cynthia Coleman. "I think it's incredibly impressive that a student who is taking law classes in a second language would also make such a significant public service commitment."
Directing the program was a natural fit for Farleigh, a second-year law student who was a management consultant before starting law school. Farleigh hopes to continue to provide management and legal advice to corporations and non-profit organizations after earning her J.D. She is currently working with members of a newly formed Student Organization Leadership Committee, on which the presidents of several organizations serve, not only to administer the Pledge, but also to expand its reach. "We want to move the Pro Bono Pledge out of the Legal Aid Society and give ownership to the student body as a whole," Farleigh said.
Farleigh emphasizes that, while many student organizations offer opportunities to provide law-related community service, students are free to find or develop their own service opportunities. "Many students who are completing the Pledge volunteer at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee or at other community legal service groups," she said. "Student organizations provide many opportunities, such as Street Law, a program through which students teach legal basics to high school students, victims of domestic violence, and homeless citizens. But those aren't the only opportunities out there. We want students to take ownership of this program, run it, and find legal service opportunities that meet Pledge requirements and appeal to their individual interests."Top of page