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Summer Fellowship Enables Law Students to Serve Community

published June 13, 2005

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A few law firms around the country are making it easier to do summer public interest work through a variety of programs that pay law students out of the firms' pockets to work at nonprofit organizations.

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One such program can be found in Pittsburgh in Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham's U.S. K&LNG Public Interest Fellowship, which pays up to three law students every summer $1,000 per week to work at one of four Pittsburgh area nonprofits for up to four weeks. The fellowships can be combined with a summer-associate position at K&LNG (the applications are separate), work at another firm, or stretched to cover a whole summer of pro bono work.

The K&LNG fellowship, in short, expands the possibilities for a few law students and what they do for their summers, and possibly for their careers.

The four designated organizations for the fellowship are KidsVoice, Neighborhood Legal Services Association, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, and the Education Law Center. These Pittsburg-area groups offer legal services to low-income people and abused children while also providing information and policy advocacy for community development and public education. Once accepted as fellows, law students can choose which group they would like to work with for the summer.

We were able to talk with both a former and a current K&LNG fellow, each of whom chose KidsVoice as his/her organization. A current K&LNG fellow as well as a summer associate with the firm, Kristine Fritz is a rising third-year at Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, and she will start working at KidsVoice later this summer. Fritz sees the fellowship as "a fantastic opportunity to be able to do public interest work."

Jonathan Weiss, currently clerking for Judge Dorothy W. Nelson, a federal appeals court judge on the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena, CA, won the K&LNG fellowship after his first year at Harvard Law. Weiss left a graduate program in philosophy to go to law school, looking for work with a greater practical impact. He found it at KidsVoice, which is "really a wonderful organization," he says.

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KidsVoice serves abused and neglected kids in Allegheny County by providing them with representation. It uses an interdisciplinary approach that teams lawyers with Child Advocacy Specialists—typically social workers or other professionals with backgrounds in mental health, child development, and special education. The teams are assigned to work in different regions of the county. Legal interns at KidsVoice, including the K&LNG fellow, are put on a team for the summer.

This approach allows the group to "bring more to the table for less money," says Executive Director Scott Hollander, because it is less expensive to hire Child Advocacy Specialists than lawyers.

Fritz worked with at-risk youth at a camp throughout her undergraduate years, so KidsVoice was a natural choice for her. She is looking forward to serving kids this summer, as well as getting law firm experience as a K&LNG summer associate. Fritz will explore litigation at the firm and will also get the chance to see if practicing public interest law will be a good fit for her in the future.

Weiss, a 2004 grad of Harvard Law, has explored a wide variety of career possibilities. His clerkship ends later this summer, and he is in the process of examining his options for work after that. While he loves clerking—"It's an incredible experience; unfortunately, I can't do it forever."—Weiss also took a lot away with him after working at KidsVoice.

Although he did not represent kids after just one year of law school, Weiss was assigned to a team and went to several hearings and court appearances with KidsVoice staff. Through a potentially extensive series of dependency hearings, and even termination of parental rights hearings, "the child needs to be represented every step of the way," says Weiss. He learned a great deal watching the KidsVoice staff work with kids. "You absorb a lot," he says.

And some of what he saw was not easy to witness—such as hearings to terminate parental rights, kids who want to go back to their parents no matter what's been done to them, or in some instances, a life-impacting court decision resting on one person's testimony.

Still, it was work that Weiss very much wanted to do. "Public interest law allows you to have a practical impact," he says. This work "makes a tremendous difference—it can make all the difference," to the kids being helped, says Weiss.

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It was "humbling," says Weiss, to see how tough it was for professionals who help these kids on a daily basis. It is very difficult work to do day in and day out, says Weiss, but "it can also be tremendously rewarding."

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published June 13, 2005

( 60 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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