TYLA eNews | ATJ UPDATE
By Catherine Galloway
Essential to the Texas Access to Justice Commission’s mission is its focus on future lawyers to instill a culture of service and pro bono in law students before they graduate. In law school lecture halls, students learn the rules of civil procedure, components of contracts, and the ins and outs of torts. However, one of the less tangible skills cultivated is the value attorneys add by providing service to their communities.
Did you know there are more than 5.3 million people in Texas who qualify for legal aid? Sadly, only about 20 percent ever get the access to justice they need. Opportunities like Pro Bono Spring Break and the Access to Justice Internship Program give students hands-on experience working with legal aid on matters involving housing, employment, public benefits, and domestic violence issues. Law students have a much deeper understanding of the trials low-income families face and the need for legal help following their participation in these programs.
Pro Bono Spring Break is made possible by a partnership with all 10 Texas law schools. For one week in March every year, law students and supervising faculty members travel across the state volunteering their time to help low-income Texans resolve their civil legal problems. Law students exercise the legal skills they learned in the classroom, and legal services providers receive a team of skilled and well-supervised volunteers who can relieve some of their workload.
One of the participating legal services providers is Disability Rights Texas. “PBSB interns are given the opportunity to cultivate soft skills while applying classroom skills towards helping real people with disabilities,” said Cicely C. Reid, pro bono coordinator and staff attorney for Disability Rights Texas. “They offer new and unique perspectives and solutions and improve the quality and increase the quantity of short-term advice and assistance we can provide, which ultimately gives more persons with disabilities access to justice and the courts and more rapid resolution of their legal issues/challenges.” Nearly 400 students have participated in the program at more than 30 legal services organizations since the program’s inception five years ago.
The Access to Justice Internship Program started in the summer of 2006 as a pilot project and was made possible by partnering with, at the time, nine Texas law schools. Internships require a 400-hour or 10-week commitment and are designed to educate students about the civil legal needs of low-income people. “We at SMU Dedman School of Law are strong supporters of the TAJC Pro Bono Spring Break and Internship Program!” said attorney Laura G. Burstein, director of public service and academic success at SMU Dedman School of Law. “The benefits to our students are manifold: it helps sensitize our students to the lack of resources and critical legal needs of the underserved community; it helps our students gain hands-on experience in the practice of lawyering; it instills in our students a sense of responsibility and a culture of service; and it models the value of incorporating pro bono work into their future practice as they join the bar. Equally important to SMU is the value this pro bono requirement adds to the community.”
ATJIP participants, with the guidance of legal services attorneys, provide direct legal services to low-income clients, which raises their awareness as to why access to justice is so important. Ten years later, nearly 200 law students from Texas and around the nation have participated in the 10-week internship opportunity that is now available throughout the year. “Since entering the workforce, it hasn't been as easy to continue participating in community service, but I take every opportunity to do so. The ATJ internship was a very valuable experience that gave me a unique perspective into the challenges facing the poor that most people in the legal profession are too far removed from to fully understand,” said Christina Castell, attorney with KPMG, LLP, and 2009 ATJIP participant.
What do you remember about your law school experience? Did your law school instill or fan the flames of a culture of service or the importance of doing pro bono in your community? Each year, roughly 3,000 law students become licensed Texas attorneys. There are more than 98,600 active licensed Texas attorneys as of December 2015. Astonishingly, attorneys employed at a civil legal aid office represent a tiny fraction of that, which is why it is so important that attorneys like you, reading this, are encouraged to do pro bono.
Legal aid can’t help everyone, but if every attorney chooses to take a pro bono case to help low-income Texans, together we become part of the growing statewide effort with the Commission and its access to justice partners in increasing access to the courthouse.
Catherine Galloway is the Development and Communications Manager at the Texas Access to Justice Commission. Prior to working as the Development and Communications Manager, she worked as a program developer for the Commission and the Legal Access Division of the State Bar and with the Communications Division and the Executive Department of the State Bar of Texas.