Spotlight on Sections: Section on Pro Bono and Public Service Opportunities

By Barbra Elenbaas

AALS sections provide opportunities for law school faculty and staff to connect on issues of shared interest. Each section is focused on a different academic discipline, affinity group, or administrative area. For a full list of sections and information on how to join, please visit the AALS Sections webpage.

The Section on Pro Bono and Public Service Opportunities promotes the communication of ideas, interests and activities among members of the section and makes recommendations to the association on matters concerning pro bono and public service opportunities.

Chair: Stephen Rispoli, Baylor University Law School

Chair-Elect: Sande Buhai, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles

 Stephen Rispoli
Stephen Rispoli, Baylor University Law School

 Sande Buhai
Sande Buhai, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles

What can you tell me about your members and the work you do?

Stephen Rispoli: The section is a collaborative resource for everybody working in the pro bono realm at law schools. We try to spark conversations among members, initiate ideas, and talk through challenges. Many people in the section have been doing this for a long time; they’ve seen it all. When I can’t figure something out or I need some ideas, I’ll just call on them and someone usually has thoughts.

Sande Buhai: Our section is made up of people who hold lots of different kinds of positions at their law schools. Unlike many subject-matter sections, ours has tenured faculty, contract faculty, people who work in career development, people in the dean’s suite, etc. That variety of viewpoints gives us a lot of great information about how to make pro bono work effectively across a school.

Pro bono by nature cuts across many different parts of a law school. At my school, it cuts across career development and all our clinics, but also alumni affairs because we try to get alums involved in pro bono activities. There are so many different models for pro bono; every school is different. Mine has a mandatory pro bono requirement, but most schools don’t. Sometimes efforts are more student-led, and other times it comes more from faculty. We have that type of diversity as well.

The one challenge the section faces is that, because many of our members are not traditional faculty, there are many other opportunities for people to get together outside of AALS. For example, the ABA has a pro bono meeting every year.

SR: Throughout the year, we have a quarterly newsletter run by Pamela Robinson (University of South Carolina Law). The focus of that newsletter is to share updates, provide thought-provoking content, to send out a short survey, and usually to spotlight something going on or to highlight one of our members. We also have a listserv, which is very active and serves as a good community builder.

As a highly interdisciplinary group, what do you have planned for the 2020 Annual Meeting?

SR: We are co-sponsoring with the Section on Leadership and the Section on Empirical Study of Legal Education and the Legal Profession. Our program will discuss some of the issues that organizations such as the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and various state access to justice commissions have faced. For example, LSC had their funding zeroed out in the last couple of years, but Congress then replenished it. We’re going to talk about how de-funding those organizations, if that were to happen, would impact pro bono. How would it impact access to justice? Is pro bono effective at closing the access to justice gap? Finally, the most important piece, what can law schools be doing to help? I think it’s important to have these conversations about what access to justice means for the rule of law in our society. As a law school, I feel like we have an obligation to do as much as we can about it.

SB: I’m excited about this panel because many of our participants are on the ground working on these issues, not necessarily at law schools. We hope to learn from them about what law schools can do better to be more effective. I think that, in some ways, this is the crisis of our time. Whether we’re talking about people who can’t access housing, people who can’t access asylum, or any kind of injustice, what I’m seeing is that my students are very motivated to make a difference. All my students are required to do 40 hours of pro bono before they graduate. The last couple of years have been exciting because the students are clamoring to do this kind of work.

Our Before the JD study found that the number-one reason prospective law students said they wanted to go to law school was for public service reasons. Have you seen a shift in the last few years toward more people being interested in public service or doing pro bono work?

SR: Anecdotally, yes. I don’t know that there is any empirical research about that. I see it a lot here. Public service issues have been a focus at Baylor Law for a long time. But I get the sense that students lose some of that during the course of law school. Maybe it’s just my perception, but sometimes it feels like they focus on “being a lawyer” — learning how to think like a lawyer, learning how to practice, and understanding the practical skills they need to know to get a job and pay off their student debt. When those things eventually creep in, it feels like the students sometimes lose the reason they came to law school. At Baylor Law, I’ve been focusing more on making sure students don’t lose that. Every entering class I have, a large majority says something to the effect of, “I want to become a lawyer because I want to help people.” I always tell them that’s great, because if they want to come to law school to make lots of money, they’re in the wrong profession.

SB: I think Stephen may have just identified our program for the 2021 Annual Meeting. It seems to be a common belief among people in law schools that students do shift from wanting to do public interest work to losing interest after their first year. But I also can’t get upset with students who think, “I’ve got $100,000 in debt. I can’t go work for Legal Aid right away because I’m just never going to be able to pay it off.” Uncertainty about loan forgiveness and finding jobs is hard on students. The reality is that legal services is not big enough and there aren’t enough jobs.

While there are many practical reasons why students don’t go directly into legal services work, that doesn’t mean they can’t keep doing pro bono. That’s one of the things our section focuses on: that any lawyer can be a public interest lawyer. You can work for a big law firm, small law firm, government, or legal services and do pro bono work. These all help in the quest for access to justice.

Section on Pro Bono and Public Service Opportunities session at the 2019 AALS Annual MeetingSection on Pro Bono and Public Service Opportunities session at the 2019 AALS Annual Meeting.

What does this mean for you in terms of how you teach? Since you first became a faculty member, what, if anything, has shifted in how you teach pro bono and public service?

SB: It’s hard to say that we teach pro bono and public interest. We’re adding a first-year elective at Loyola, Los Angeles that focuses on public interest law. Over the past couple years, we’ve tried to work with our faculty to include this issue in every class they teach. I’ve often thought we should do a “pro bono by the pervasive method” book, where we could come up with little parts of the class. “If you teach contracts and you want to get a focus on pro bono and public interest, here is a short lesson you can use.”

SR: We talk about it in the intro to legal profession class and in their third-year mandatory Practice Court course. I tell students whenever I get the chance that — as Sande said — you don’t have to be a public interest lawyer to do pro bono. It can actually be a huge benefit to their career if they’re intentional about it. Trying to help students see the positives of pro bono work is one of my main goals. If it’s a chore, they won’t continue long term. If they see it as a benefit and it turns out to benefit them, I think it becomes a lifelong commitment.

What are some current issues in your section regarding pro bono and public service opportunities in general? What are some of the things that you’re talking about?

SR: The biggest issue I see for the legal profession is that we’re in an identity crisis. It’s not all about the business of the practice of law, though that is more important every day. We are a profession, but what does it mean to be a profession? To me, pro bono and leadership are our north stars. It’s what we’re supposed to do. If we solve problems for people, do we do it even when they can’t afford it because it’s the right thing to do? That’s an important question for every lawyer to ask themselves.

I think the section has a calling to think about these issues. As we prepare the next generation of students for the practice of law, we need to let students wrestle with those questions. That’s the reason we talk about access-to-justice issues and the importance of pro bono work. It’s why we talk about the importance of public service in all forms, whether it’s serving in a non-profit organization or serving in Congress.

We’re all familiar with the traditional notion of two trial lawyers walking into the courtroom, going to battle, and having dinner with each other at the end of the night. We could use more of the ability to disagree without being disagreeable in our modern society. I hope that we in law schools are doing our best to train our students that way. While those are big aspirational statements, I try to focus on breaking it down into “What can I do and what will be effective?” for students.

SB: Law is a business, but it’s also a profession. We have responsibilities beyond getting up, clocking in, and serving the person that pays us. I don’t think you’d get much of an argument from most lawyers about that. The key is to figure out how, in the very busy lives that lawyers have, they can make space to do this.

I hope we can use our program this year, because we have many leaders coming in, to encourage law firms to make this a priority as well. We all know that our times are very stressful. We’re all spread thin. It’s difficult to balance all those things, but we must continue pushing to make this a top priority.

Have you seen a progression in the importance of encouraging pro bono and public service work?

SB: I remember the old days when legal services organizations would say that pro bono wasn’t helpful and they’d prefer money for a staff attorney because it would be more efficient. I think people have come around to the idea that there are lots of benefits to having pro bono lawyers. I also think technology has helped. For example, it’s easier to send requests online between our local legal services and the law firms.

SR: Pro bono is not the only answer, but it’s part of the answer. If we leave it out then we don’t have a complete answer. Technology will be huge in doing more to close the access to justice gap as lawyers get more efficient. I was talking to a couple of lawyers who started a law firm together with a core value of providing good service to anybody who walks in the door, regardless of whether or not the person hires them. Anybody who calls about something that they specialize in gets a 30-minute visit. They also shut down the firm once per quarter for a service day. They said that these values are good for them personally in that they feel good about what they do, they don’t feel burnout, and they feel less of the pressure of practicing of law. They’ve also been very successful, and they believe it is, in part, due to this service mindset.

What is your section structure?

SB: We have a board. People usually progress from executive committee in some capacity, to chair-elect, then chair. We really want to encourage involvement, so if somebody is interested in being involved, we will include them on anything they want. That’s one great thing about both the listserv and the newsletter: because of them, people know how to get involved. We also intentionally look for diversity — not just gender and race, but also geographic and position diversity. We try to get a mix of faculty, staff, and deans.

SR: Every year we also give out the Deborah Rhode and Father Robert Drinan Awards. The Deborah Rhode Award is focused on faculty members who made an outstanding contribution to pro bono. The Father Robert Drinan Award is focused on professional staff lawyers in law schools that have made outstanding contributions to pro bono.

What are your goals for the future of the section?

SR: My hope is that we continue to grow the section and its collaborative nature. I recognize that access to justice, rule of law, and pro bono conversations are always going to be present. Each generation of board members will be facing a specific issue at the time, so their focus will be more nuanced. For me, it’s just continuing to help this community work together and collaborate.

Every time I leave the AALS Annual Meeting, I leave with at least five ideas of things that I want to implement at Baylor Law. That means my time spent was well worth it.

SB: I would love to do a systematic look at exactly who our members are, and make sure that we have at least one member from every law school. Assuming we do, I would also like to look at who the second person is. At my school, I’m the one who receives the calls from the front office when a caller has a pro bono question, but often I end up sending them to someone else because it turns out they really have an immigration issue and our immigration clinic can help them. My guess is that there isn’t just one pro bono or public service person at most schools, but that there are many people who do it. I want to get a little more depth, as well as breadth.