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MJF Programs helps law students form one group in Publice Interest Efforts

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<<This unique nonprofit coordinates public interest programs for Hamline University School of Law, the University of Minnesota Law School, the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and William Mitchell College of Law. MJF programs allow students to choose from several volunteer positions and enable them to apply for coveted public interest summer clerkships that come with a $4,000 or $4,500 stipend.

Becky Evans-Dennison is now a third-year at Hamline University School of Law. The summer after her first year, in 2004, she participated in MJF's Summer Clerkship Program, working in the Johnson City office of Legal Aid of East Tennessee.


While in Tennessee, Evans-Dennison did "a little bit of everything," she says, including legal research and writing on healthcare, family law, and domestic violence issues. As a first-year, she says, it is difficult to find a good clerkship that will enable a student to use legal skills. MJF "offers great clerkships" for both first- and second-year law students, she says.

During her first year, Evans-Dennison found an MJF-volunteer spot with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, working on immigration petitions in both Spanish and English. And after returning from her summer clerkship, she volunteered with the local Ramsey County (MN) Public Defender's Office. "The attorneys there are really great teachers," says Evans-Dennison, who was able to get student attorney certification and appear before a judge in a case. That was a "rare, great experience to have in law school," she says.

Sara Sommarstrom won the Excellence in Public Service Award at graduation last May as she left the University of Minnesota Law School to become a staff attorney with MJF. While in law school, she chaired the MJF student chapter on campus and volunteered as well.

Sommarstrom started off in an MJF-coordinated volunteer position in her second year with StreetLaw, a program that sends law students into the local community to teach people about their legal rights in practical situations that arise in their lives. Sommarstrom was posted at English as a Second Language (ESL) school for adults and taught the Bill of Rights, consumer law, and housing law to a diverse group of international students.

Teaching with StreetLaw was a "fascinating experience," says Sommarstrom, who had to bridge cultural gaps to teach legal concepts. The right to a jury, a concept so natural to most Americans, was unexpectedly difficult to teach, she says. To her students from other cultures, "letting people from the street decide your fate was an odd concept," she says.

While in her third year, Sommarstrom volunteered with the Indian Child Welfare Law Center, working primarily on child protection cases. While there, she also saw cultural differences, and legal differences, between state laws and federal laws applying to Native Americans.

With both experiences, Sommarstrom says, she learned "a sense of responsibility--people really look up to lawyers." It was valuable for her to get off campus and out into the community. "The responsibilities of becoming an attorney are sometimes lost in the day-to-day struggle of law school," Sommarstrom says.

Both as a volunteer and now as an MJF staff attorney, Sommarstrom says that she has learned that there are many opportunities for lawyers in private practice to do public interest law. "Everyone can help," she says, "Not only a small band of harried people working their fingers to the bone."

Jeremy Carvell, a third-year, is the chair of the MJF student chapter at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. He had looked back on his volunteer work to come up with reasons to convince new first-years to participate in MJF. The top reason is that "legal education is something to share," he says, and that giving back to the community is highly rewarding.

There are, of course, other benefits to pro bono work, says Carvell, including gathering real world experience, doing some networking, and finding "a nice study break and an escape from the law library," he says.

Mainly, though, there is a great need for legal services, and volunteering while in law school "is a chance to fill it," he says. Carvell, like Sommarstrom, started off as a teacher with StreetLaw. Teaching students at The City, Inc., a school serving at-risk youth.

Carvell also spent a month that year volunteering a local consumer rights attorney, lobbying state legislators to pass a bill requiring mandatory arbitration for college students involved in credit card disputes. While the bill did not pass, that attorney did offer Carvell a paid clerkship, and he has been working with him ever since.

Carvell's job did not put a damper on his volunteer work, however. He went on, in his second year, to do compliance research with the Minnesota Department of Education looking at mandatory school bussing. He also started to work with the Dakota County Attorney's Office in the juvenile division, doing research and making hearing appearances as a student attorney.

With all this running around, it seems fitting that Carvell is currently organizing the first fundraiser of the year for the St. Thomas chapter of MJF: a five-kilometer run/jog/walk on September 24 benefiting the MJF summer clerkship program, allowing more law students to do public interest work in the community

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