By Sheila Pursglove
South Africa has been a constitutional democracy for about two decades, with many civil rights and constitutional interpretation issues yet to be litigated — giving students in the South Africa Externship program at the University of Michigan Law School amazing opportunities.
“Our students are very highly regarded by the organizations we’ve partnered with, so they are given unparalleled opportunities for diving into hands-on work affecting numerous under-served populations,” says Amy (Harwell) Sankaran, a clinical assistant professor and director of the U-M Law Externship and Pro Bono programs. “Alums of the South Africa program universally call the program life-changing and say it was the best thing they did in law school.”
Externs work in a number of cities, including Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. Michigan Law also has externships in Switzerland, England, India, and France, to name just a few international destinations.
On the home front, externs are placed locally and all around the country in either a non-profit organization or a government agency, such as the Department of Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Legal Aid of North Carolina.
Sankaran enjoys helping students find opportunities to try out lawyering in a variety of settings — stateside and abroad — and learn a variety of skills, including substantive law and numerous legal skills: research and writing, client interviewing, negotiation, and more.
“Our students have so much enthusiasm for helping others and doing something practical,” she says. “Perhaps even more importantly, they see first hand what it’s like to be a lawyer in the agency they’ve chosen. It gives them another perspective they didn’t gain during summer jobs. I push them to set goals and reflect on their work, which almost no one does during summer work.”
Conversations with her students push them to start to develop their professional identity: what they like and dislike about the work and why; and thoughts about types of clients, office environments, supervision, work hours and flexibility, and much more. “This experience gives them perspective they might not gain otherwise into the type of lawyer they want to be over their whole career — not just what do they want to do for their first job, but
also discussing what they want their last job to be,” Sankaran says.
Clients get the benefit of enthusiastic and motivated students who often have more time than a regular staff attorney to spend pursuing novel claims or investigating things that seem, at first glance, to be dead ends, she notes.
“Clients also get the benefit of the supervisor, who looks over all of the student’s work and adds experience and wisdom — it’s the best of both worlds.”
Similarly, pro bono work gives U-M students a chance to try out their budding legal skills while serving the community.
“Students value pro bono work because they are spending lots of their time learning legal theory and doctrine, which can feel disconnected from the practice of law and real problems that people face,” Sankaran says. “They appreciate opportunities to connect to what brought them to law school in the first place and apply what they are learning to particular communities who need legal help.”
A member of the Michigan Bar and its Pro Bono Initiative, Sankaran believes attorneys are given a special place in society, charged with upholding the rules of the legal system — and in return for this privilege, are obligated to provide some services for free to citizens who cannot afford access to an attorney.
“It’s important to expose students to this important aspect of our profession — they can do pro bono work now and get exposed to areas of law and communities that might fuel a lifetime of service in that area,” she explains. “At a time of decreasing funding and increasing need, students can be a part of filling a large need for pro bono service to our communities.”
In 2009, Sankaran launched a Pro Bono Pledge that asks students to commit to completing at least 50 hours of pro bono work during their three years.
“While our students have been doing pro bono work long before I arrived here, the Pledge seeks to centralize, support, and recognize the vast amount of pro bono work our students complete every year, and then expand the number of students who are doing pro bono work, both while they are at Michigan and for their lifetime,” says Sankaran, who devotes some of her own time to pro bono matters and is currently involved in a child advocacy case and a domestic violence family law case.
In her own student days, Sankaran was determined to follow her father into law. “I’m not sure I even gave other careers much of a look,” she says.
After earning her undergrad degree in political science, summa cum laude, from Missouri State University, she earned her J.D., cum laude, from Michigan Law in 2001. It was a return to the city of her birth, having left Ann Arbor at the age of 3 when her family moved to Springdale, Ark.
After graduating, she clerked for the Hon. Arthur J. Tarnow of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, then worked as a litigation associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washington, D.C., and as an adoption attorney at the Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. She returned to Michigan Law in 2005 as assistant director of admissions; in 2008, became an attorney-adviser focused on government and nonprofit careers, and pro bono manager; and in 2011, became director of externship and pro bono programs.
“I enjoyed researching and writing legal memos as a clerk, which was a fantastic extension of law school but with a much more practical application,” she says. “Then I loved applying what I learned about how to be an effective advocate for my clients — along with a number of lessons about what not to do! I feel each job I’ve held, spanning a wide variety of sectors — clerkship, public interest, and private law firm — has prepared me to supervise students who are working, whether as an extern or a pro bono student, in the wide variety of placements our students pursue.”
Sankaran and her husband Vivek — a clinical professor of law in the U-M Child Advocacy Law Clinic and director of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy — met in 1998 as first year law students. Married in 2003, the couple has three sons, ages 6, 4, and 1.
Her leisure pursuits include reading, playing tennis, singing, and exercising — “Though I rarely get to do all of those things these days,” she says with a smile.