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Profile: Dean Wagner
Earning stripes with Tiger statue
Student embarks on jungle adventure
Football by Fuente
U of M scores big at conference
Law students pro bono work
Getting spoked with bike share
Names in the news


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School of Law students excel with pro bono work

By Laura Fenton 

Chris Martin can thank “street court” for bringing his motivation back.

Martin, a second-year student at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, volunteered this past summer to work in a local criminal defense clinic that is nicknamed “street court.” There, Martin helped coordinate Project Homeless Connect 2, a national effort that provides basic services (including legal advice) and housing options for the homeless.

This is the civil legal clinic at Project Homeless Connect.  Law students serving in the civil clinic, such as the 2Ls in the picture above, helped clients fill out intake forms, articulate their legal issues, and matched them with local attorneys, who gave the clients legal advice.
This is the civil legal clinic at Project Homeless Connect. Law students serving in the civil clinic helped clients fill out intake forms, articulate their legal issues, and matched them with local attorneys, who gave the clients legal advice.

Martin, president of the U of M’s Public Action Law Society (PALS), assisted a client named Joshua who was frustrated about a traffic violation on his record.

The chronically homeless man’s seven-year-overdue parking ticket had turned into a violation that took away his right to obtain a driver’s license, which in turn prevented him from getting a job. It also stopped him from opening a bank account. The domino effect of the parking ticket meant Joshua had lost everything. He, too, was having difficulty finding a remedy for his situation.

Martin assisted the man by briefing him on legal matters before he went to street court. The counseling paid off: the judge would expunge the ticket from his record, allowing Joshua to start life anew.            

“It really crystalized in me how something that can take a lawyer just five minutes to do can really change a person’s life,” Martin said. “As law students, we can do a pro bono service project like that and really make a difference.”

Starting this fall, all incoming law students at the U of M will be required to complete 40 hours of pro bono work prior to graduation. More than 75 pro bono opportunities are available thus far.

Students are not permitted to do pro bono work until completing 15 hours of coursework. The U of M is the first American Bar Association accredited law school in Tennessee to have the requirement.  

Pro bono services count as any non-paid, non-credit hours spent working with a judge, public defender, representative from Memphis Legal Services, an attorney with a non-profit organization or project approved by Callie Caldwell, public interest coordinator for the School of Law. Hours will be recorded in an online database.

Before this requirement, most students completed pro bono work anyway, accumulating about 10,000 hours as a whole during the 2011-12 year.

“I think even the law students who wouldn’t necessarily do it on their own will certainly enjoy (volunteering) when they get out there,” Caldwell said. “It’s really fun. It’s meeting different professionals and attorneys in a different setting than what they’re used to. In these situations, they’re working with attorneys toward the greater good, so they get clear and thoughtful guidance on how to treat clients.”

Christina Zawisza, faculty adviser for PALS and director of the Child and Family Litigation Clinic, said pro bono work is an integral piece of a lawyer’s purpose under the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct. Every state has a similar code of professional responsibility.

“Nationally, the Judiciary and the Bar are clamoring for practice-ready attorneys,” Zawisza said. “Around the country we’ve concentrated on the third year (students), but we’ve found that’s not enough. You’ve got to start (volunteering) the first year, so you don’t talk about civil procedure in a vacuum; you actually show (students) a subpoena or show them a motion for a discovery, and we’re not there yet. To the extent that the placement can help students begin to learn that ‘this is what layers do on a daily basis,’ (it is) a great tool for increasing experiential legal education at low cost.”

Plus, the right to an attorney is not just for those who can afford the court costs, Zawisza said.

When the class of 2015 begins pro bono work in January, Martin will be there to encourage classmates to become involved with organizations like PALS. But, he’ll remind students that volunteering is more than accumulating the required hours.

“You get to roll up your sleeves and actually help somebody,” Martin said. “Then you come back to law school and suddenly it’s a lot more interesting.”

To learn more about the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct, visit http://www.law.cornell.edu/ethics/tn/code/TN_CODE.HTM. Contact Caldwell at callie.caldwell@memphis.edu for more information about pro bono opportunities.

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Last Updated: 9/5/12