Entering Students Learn about Professional Obligation to Provide Pro Bono Legal Services

Aug 21, 2017

Entering Vanderbilt J.D. students learned that public service is an obligation shared by every member of the legal profession at an orientation session led by Assistant Dean for Public Interest Spring Miller Aug. 13. The new orientation session underscores the law school’s commitment to cultivating a culture of public service and to facilitating opportunities for students to use their legal training in service both during and after law school.

Miller began her presentation by quoting from a 1999 Oregon Law Review article written by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “Public service marks the difference between a business and a profession,” O’Connor wrote. “While a business can afford to focus solely on profits, a profession…must devote itself first to the community it is responsible to serve.”

The Public Interest Orientation session’s goal, Miller said, is to acquaint students with the long tradition of pro bono legal service. “A commitment to public service is embedded in the legal profession—it’s part of being a lawyer,” she told students. “Our legal system is premised on a commitment to equal justice for all, regardless of ability to pay.”

Miller and Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs Sue Kay introduced the incoming law class to basic concepts, such as the right to legal counsel established in Gideon v. Wainwright, and to issues related to access to justice for low-income Americans who experience civil legal problems, for which very limited free legal assistance is available. “A 2014 statewide study of low-income Tennesseans showed that nearly 70 percent had experience at least one civil legal problem in the previous five years and nearly half had more than three problems,” Miller said.

Tennessee, she noted, currently has 25 legal aid offices staffed with 88 attorneys to serve more than one million Tennesseans who qualify for pro bono assistance. “It’s worth noting that the United Nations has identified the Access to Justice gap as a major issue and included ensuring ‘equal access to justice for all’ as one of its targets for the year 2030.”

Students were also introduced to ABA Model Rule 6.1, which states that lawyers should aspire to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services to indigent clients each year. “Vanderbilt’s student-run Legal Aid Society is the oldest student organization at the law school,” Miller said. “Students may also voluntarily take the Pro Bono Pledge to donate at least 75 hours of pro bono legal and community service during their three years at Vanderbilt Law School.” Students may also now apply for one of 10 spaces on Vanderbilt’s annual Pro Bono Spring Break, launched in 2016 by Darrius Woods ’17. In the past two years, teams of students worked with the Orleans Public Defenders and the Mississippi Center for Justice.

The orientation ended with break-out sessions on volunteer opportunities in many areas of law, including arts/entertainment, indigent defense, immigration, community economic development, civil rights, death penalty appeals, environmental law, and education. Led by clinical faculty members, including Dean Kay and Professors Karla McKanders and Lauren Rogal, and by local attorneys, including VLS alums Aisha McWeay ’09 and Beth Cruz ‘10, the sessions provided information about local service needs and opportunities in all of these areas of legal practice.

Miller heads Vanderbilt’s Public Interest office at Vanderbilt, which provides comprehensive resources and support for students interested in pursuing public interest and public service opportunities during and after law school. The law school also provides academic resources and support through its George Barrett Social Justice Program, its Criminal Justice Program and legal clinics.

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