University of Oregon School of Law pro bono program wins state bar association award

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The thousands of hours worked by Oregon Law students were done on a truly volunteer basis, since pro bono work is not required for graduation. The bar association will present a plaque to the law student who worked the highest number of pro bono hours.

Pro bono work gives a law student "an instant sense of gratification," says Jane Steckbeck, Associate Director for Career Service a the law school and Pro Bono Service Director. There are real life problems that the law students can help to solve, and this serves to take the law out of the textbook and "make it real" for the student, she says.

The University of Oregon School of Law's pro bono program gives a certificate to any student who completes 40 hours of pro bono work over the three years of law school. This year, 65 out of about 180 third-year law students will receive the certificate.

Currently, students simply have to choose a venue in which to work, start working there, and track their hours, have a supervisor sign off on those hours, and then notify the career services office. The program will move to an honor system soon to mirror the reporting requirements for the Oregon Bar's Pro Bono Challenge. The Bar asks that students record their hours on line, with no confirming signature required. The law school will follow the same model, but it will also conduct spot checks with organizations to confirm student hours, says Steckbeck.

Last week, the law school had an awards ceremony of its own, recognizing students who had worked 40 hours or more in the program and lauding the members of each class who had worked the most hours, with a special award for most impact made.

Third-year Misha Dunlap worked the longest pro bono stretch in her year, clocking 530 hours working for clients at the law firm of Lauren Regan. Tippi Pearse topped the second-years, working 520 pro bono hours for the Multnomah County District Attorney. And Jeremy Dickman won the award for greatest impact for his work in the Street Law program.

Oregon Law is working to increase the number of in-house pro bono opportunities available to students, says Steckbeck, as part of the effort to encourage more students to participate in the program. One example of an in-house program is Street Law, which sends law students to local high school classrooms to teach students about their constitutional rights in a practical context.

Another in-house program at the law school is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA). A law school alum comes to the school and teaches an IRS-supplied curriculum over the course of four Saturdays, giving law students certification to do tax preparation. Law students then assist low-income and elderly clients with filing their income taxes.

The Oregon Law program allows for a "broad definition" of pro bono work, says Steckbeck, saying that Legal Aid is not for everyone. The goal of the program is to "cultivate that service ethic," she says. "Where students are doing that is less of a concern."

Above and beyond giving back to the community, and possibly winning an award, doing pro bono work can both focus and forward a student's career goals, says Steckbeck. One law student, who graduated last year, came to Steckbeck as a first-year and told her that she was unsure about her career goals. Steckbeck recommended that the student work with victims of domestic violence. The student did the work pro bono during the summer after her first year and then in a paid position for her second summer. Now, the student wants to pursue this path professionally. The pro bono work "helped shape a career," says Steckbeck.

In another example, Steckbeck tells of a student who did a federal judicial clerkship two summers ago in Washington, DC. While the student worked full time for the judge, he also did 40 hours of pro bono work for Catholic Charities that summer. He cited this work in a cover letter to a large law firm to demonstrate his commitment to public service, and he will start at the firm after graduation.

Sometimes, pro bono work can help a student define what he or she does not want to do in a future legal career. One student Steckbeck knows was sure, at the start of law school, that work with juveniles was her vocation. The student did pro bono work with the Juvenile Rights Project, in Portland and, by her third year, felt burnt out on the field. The student went on to work in mainstream legal aid, says Steckbeck, and now "she is loving it."

Overall, Steckbeck says, "The things these students do are impressive. Public service is the heart and soul of the law."

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University of Oregon School of Law


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