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Law school programs advance pro bono ethic, spirit of volunteerism among students

Students apply legal knowledge, skills to help those in need

Giving back to the community is a vital part of life as an attorney and a professional obligation. More importantly, it can be one of the most rewarding parts of a lawyers life. Just ask Emily Plocki, Natalie Powers or dozens of other very busy law students who spent hours working with lawyers and legal organizations to help the community and obtain real-life legal experience.

Dean Douglas Ray launched the Pro Bono Commendation Program in January 2007. It builds upon and encourages student interest in helping the community, supplements the legal services provided by
College of Law clinics and provides a way to recognize those who perform significant public service. In Rays view, "this program gives students the opportunity to work with wonderful role model attorneys in legal aid and the Toledo Bar Associations Pro Bono Program, the opportunity to learn legal skills and build confidence, and, most importantly, to learn the difference a lawyer can make in a persons life."

By all accounts, the program has been a smashing success, helping the law school become more involved in the community and boosting its reputation for community service. Over the last three years, law students provided nearly 10,000 hours of law-related services to the poor and disadvantaged of Toledo and northwest Ohio through the program.

Students provide help in pro se juvenile, bankruptcy, expungement and family court clinics administered by the Toledo Bar Associations pro se legal-services program; facilitate "know your rights" seminars at community centers; advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children through the Lucas County Juvenile Courts court appointed special advocates program; staff the Domestic Violence Resource Center housed at the Family Court; and help pro bono attorneys in a wide range of private cases. Students also work at agencies such as Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Toledo Bar Association, City of Toledo Law Department, and the Lucas County prosecutor and public defender offices.

Students who commit 30 hours a semester to volunteer law-related public service projects receive commendation certificates at an annual Public Service Awards Reception held each spring. They are also listed in the honors graduation bulletin. James E. Yavorcik 79, resident of the Toledo Bar Association, spoke at the Awards Reception and explained that public service helps fulfill attorneys idealism and professional responsibility to give back to their communities. "What drives us as lawyers are not nice cars or nice salaries, but the feeling that we can make a difference in the lives of others," he said.

Plocki, Powers and seven other law students were recognized for their public service at this years Award Reception. Others honored were:
Thomas Marino, a second-year student and recipient of the Cooper & Walinski Fellowship. He worked at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland;
Cassia Pangas, Mia Gonzalez, Allma-Tedeam Spencer and Miranda Vollmer, recipients of UT Law/Public Interest Law Association fellowships;
Andrew Howard, recipient of the Joel A. and Shirley A. Levine Fellowship in Alternative Dispute Resolution; and
Brooke Stokke, recipient of the Levison Alternative Dispute Resolution Award.

A native of Mount Vernon, Ohio, and Kenyon College graduate, Plocki received the Patrick M. Burns Memorial Outstanding Clinical Student Award. She served as a legal intern with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, the College of Law Legal Clinic, Washtenaw County (Mich.) Probate Court, and Legal Aid of Western Ohio/Advocates for Basic Legal Equality. She helped clients in tax preparations, child adoptions, contentious divorces, and estate filings and assisted State Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) in researching and drafting Senate Bill 126 to address the problem of
cyberbullying among Ohios school children. She will begin the one-year LL.M graduate program in taxation at Georgetown University this fall.

She said her pro bono work was one of the most rewarding parts of her studies. It provided context to her studies and helped her understand how the law can aid people struggling for justice and see a problem in a broader community context. It also provided her with a great deal of personal satisfaction in helping those who could not afford legal services.

"It helps you to take the course material and implement it in real life," she said. "It helps you go from ground zero and to become a lawyer."

Natalie Powers, a graduate of Baldwin Wallace College and a native of Seven Hills, Ohio, near Cleveland, received the University's coveted Jefferson Award, a program that UT began last year to recognize volunteerism at the University.

During her three years at Toledo Law, Powers worked in the TBAs pro bono legal services program, the Toledo Legal Aid public defenders office and the College of Law Domestic Violence Legal Clinic. She also worked with the Reentry Coalition of Northwest Ohio, a group that helps ex-offenders reintegrate into the community by finding housing, getting a job, reuniting with their families and clearing up past legal issues.

Working with the organizations was a huge confidence booster for her that also helped her better define her career path.

"It helped me realize that I can do things on my own," she said. "It helped my confidence in meeting with clients, my confidence with different areas of the law and with speaking with other attorneys when I needed help."

She also enjoyed the role of problem solver, which attracted her to the profession in the first place. "Clients come to you with a problem and you have to come up with a resolution that they're happy with," she said.

Pro bono short for pro bono publico, meaning "for the public good" is of growing importance in legal education for several reasons, according to Clinical Professor Robert Salem, who directs the law schools Legal Clinic. He applauds the law school's new emphasis on public service and on the need to educate students about "the service aspects of the profession." The Clinic has trained students and helped low-income clients in cases involving discrimination, housing disputes, domestic violence, divorce and child custody, civil rights, and consumer rights for some 40 years.

Recent studies underscore the need for law clinics and law school pro bono programs. Surveys by the American Bar Association and other organizations conclude that 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income families are not being served.

"What I've seen is that many students come to legal clinic thinking they are going to learn practical skills," Salem noted. "And certainly they do. But the most important thing they learn, I think, is something far more intangible and that is an appreciation for the service aspects of our profession, an appreciation for the needs of the community they serve and an increased motivation to go out and practice law. I think they get more excited about going out there and practicing law because they have had the experience of helping people, of getting that personal satisfaction."

In addition to expanding their legal skills, Salem said students grow in "empathy, understanding and temperament that they are going to need to be effective lawyers."

"We really try to teach students to stand in the shoes of their client," Salem explained. "We teach them to be client-centered as opposed to lawyer-centered. We tell them that lawyer-centered lawyers are not effective attorneys because they are not seeing through the eyes of their clients."

The appeal of pro bono work to young lawyers goes beyond just altruism, acknowledges Pat Intagliata, Esq.,'79, director of the Toledo Bar Association's pro bono legal-services program. The program, which began in 1981, operates pro se family, juvenile and bankruptcy law clinics as well as an expungement clinic and draws from a pool of more than 680 Toledo area attorneys who provide their services free of charge.

The pro bono experience, she said, is an important part of legal education because it allows students to see the real, raw legal needs of the community and gives them a chance to develop a variety of practical lawyering skills interviewing clients, gaining their trust, conducting research, drawing motions, preserving attorney-client confidentiality, problem-solving and negotiating as well as learning compassion and empathy.

"It is important for law students to see what the law looks like in the courtroom," said Intagliata, who became director in 1985, and who oversees the work of law students at the TBA. "It also shows them that there are a lot of less fortunate people who need help."

She thinks clinic and pro bono experiences are invaluable because they let students see close up what the law can do, even for someone unable to afford an attorney. She said that she would like to see every student have such an experience. Once students develop a strong respect and taste for public service, the less likely it is that they will dismiss their pro bono responsibilities once in practice. Often, the experience is satisfying enough to cause students to shift their career paths toward legal aid and public service.

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