Fellowship given for public service


January 21, 1991|By Graeme Browning

The '80s were big-money years for the legal profession, when takeovers generated millions in legal fees and mergers-and-acquisitions departments, or "M&A," were the hot ticket to law firm stardom.

In contrast, the '90s seem to be fostering more public service and "pro bono," or the providing of legal services to the poor.

Less than two years ago, for example, the Maryland State Bar Association started a program to encourage lawyers to make free legal help available for those who can't afford it. The first of its kind in the nation, the program has been widely copied.

At the same time, the University of Maryland Law School and four other schools of law began requiring students to do free, hands-on legal work during their studies in order to graduate.

This month Susan L. Waysdorf, a third-year UM law student, won a $32,500-per-year fellowship from the New York-based law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom to spend up to two years working with a public service organization.

Ms. Waysdorf, who will join the Legal Services Project of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a Washington organization that serves AIDS patients and their families, says she chose public service work because of the influence of her father.

"He was a Holocaust survivor and that has always had an impact on me. I have always felt that if at all possible each of us should try to make a difference," she said recently.

The Skadden Fellowship Program, which grants funds to 25 law students and law clerks a year, was begun two years ago to encourage a career-long commitment to public interest law among young lawyers and "to lend impetus to the national pro bono effort by all lawyers and law firms," according to the program's prospectus.

But this national effort has been slow in coming, some lawyers say. Legal scholars have argued for years that pro bono work is one of the profession's most important ethical obligations.

As the number of lawyers, and the competition among them, increased in the '80s, however, lawyers began to shy away from such work, said Richard C. Boldt, a UM law professor who helped design the school's "legal theory and practice" program.

Because lawyers are "the gatekeepers to the legal system, we have an obligation to see that people have a fair shot at getting their cases heard in the courts," he said. "We have to begin to balance our incomes against our larger public obligations."

At the University of Maryland, one law school course each semester offers a legal theory and practice component through which law students put the principles they are learning into action to help people who need, but can't afford, a lawyer.

Members of a recent first-year property class, for example, represented tenants in Baltimore rent court and counseled others referred by tenants' rights groups.

Pro bono work in other semesters has involved counseling domestic violence victims, researching laws against lead paint poisoning and advising parents seeking special education for their children, said Mr. Boldt, who was one of six law professors hired to establish the program.

"People's self-image gets set very early in their legal training. If we can make this sense of obligation to the larger community a part of their self-image, then it becomes a powerful force that may well endure throughout their entire legal career," he said.

Law schools at the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane University, Valparaiso University and Florida State University also have mandatory pro bono programs. Like UM, program organizers at those schools say they hope to affect the way students see their obligations as lawyers.

While the University of Baltimore Law School doesn't require students to do public interest work, it does offer as many as 56 slots in clinical programs offering free legal help to low-income clients in housing, family, civil and criminal matters.

"We'd love to have a program like the University of Maryland's program," said Associate Dean M. Michele Gilligan. "Our problem is money. Our budget is much smaller than theirs."

Some law school administrators, however, have questioned the effectiveness of mandatory programs, saying they impose a moral code on unwilling students and could cause young lawyers to avoid pro bono work altogether.

Even after law students graduate and begin practicing law, competitive pressures make it hard for them to find time for pro bono work, admits Sharon E. Goldsmith, executive director of People's Pro Bono Action Center Inc., the clearinghouse established in part by the bar association's campaign.

Still, "my sense is that there was a lot of the 'Me Generation' driving people in previous years, but now people are coming back to the realization that there's more to contribute in the law, and it's part of their responsibility as lawyers," Ms. Goldsmith said.

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