Increasing Summer Public Interest Grants for Pepperdine Law Students Allows for Greater Community Outreach

For graduates going into public interest, public defender, or prosecutor positions, Pepperdine Law joins other top law schools with debt-relief schemes in the gradual rollout of its own plan. The Pepperdine Law loan forgiveness program will be endowed for $1 million. The law school will give small awards this year and for the next few years until the endowment has grown to the full amount.

Meanwhile, for first- and second-years who want to work in public interest, nonprofit, or government offices over the summer, grant money can now come from both the student-run Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL) and also from the school itself.

In early May 2005, Pepperdine Law awarded $40,000 to 23 law students who will be working pro bono for public interest and nonprofit organizations this summer. The students will use the award money of slightly more than $1,700 each towards their living expenses, enabling students to take unpaid work. "I'm very proud of that," says Laurie Buchan, Director of Clinical Programs and Assistant Professor of Law at Pepperdine.

Another source of summer public interest student funding is generated by law students themselves in the APIL student organization. The group holds a fundraising auction and encourages law students in paid summer positions to donate one day's pay. The money endows summer fellowships to eight law students—six of whom were fully funded (receiving $4,000 each) and two of whom were partially funded for their unpaid summer positions. This year, the groups awarded $27,000 total in fellowship grants.

Members of APIL decide who will receive its fellowships. The group's criteria are more stringent than for the law school awards, says APIL board-member Virginia Monken, because there is less money to go around. Also, the group tries to encourage law students to do nongovernmental work because nongovernmental public interest work is the lowest paid. So the APIL awards go to students doing strictly public interest work and not those going to public defender offices.

For the law school awards, students submit letters of interest to Buchan, along with information on the organizations for which they will be working over the summer and how long they will be working there. Buchan, who was a public interest lawyer before joining Pepperdine, is very familiar with many of the groups students choose, most of which are in the Los Angeles area.

This summer, however, one student will use the money to help her defray costs of working in Honduras in a human rights program, says Buchan. Another will work with a human rights lawyer training program in India. Others are sticking closer to home. One student will join Children's Court in Los Angeles, where child neglect and abuse cases are heard; another will work with the Western Center for Disability Rights; and another will work with the YWCA's domestic violence project.

Students must secure their positions before they know whether they will receive an award from the school; however, there are groups (such as legal aid organizations) that are good bets. Most of the applicants are first-years, but there are some second-year students pursuing pubic interest careers who also apply. "That's the group I most want to help out," says Buchan.

Those students going into public interest legal careers "are never going to make a lot of money," says Buchan. This is why the launch of Pepperdine's loan forgiveness program is so important, in addition to the summer funding, she says.

True, $1,700 will not stretch to cover a law student's rent and food over four months in a major metropolitan area. Contrary to popular belief, Buchan says, Pepperdine law students are not all rich; many are on loans. Some students will need additional grants, such as the APIL award, or a side job to make these public interest summers fly, she says.

Still, the $40,000 award pool for law students, raised by the law school from a private donor, is nearly double the $25,000 awarded last year. The award is in its fourth year, and the amount is expected to keep growing. "The program is just booming," says Buchan.

The law school award was started because "there was a real need," says Buchan; but the award money originally went toward course units for academic credit. Last year, that changed, and the administration decided to award the money directly to the students. Pepperdine School of Law Dean Kenneth Starr, who joined the school this past fall, is a "huge supporter" of programs to assist students pursuing public interest law, says Buchan.

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