Law students get a foot in the door

By Mike Scott

Legal News

Earlier this month Wayne State University Law School announced its second group of Public Interest Law Fellowship recipients, a program that it started last year.

This year's fellows include Eric Berg, Adam Clements, Bradley Dembs, Anupama Gokarn, Andrew Hoff, Phyllis Jeden, Jeffrey Kerby, Elizabeth Kruman, Natalia Santanna, Aisa Villarosa, and Chelsea Zuzindlak. Each of the students will gain practical legal experience during fellowships that will permit them to work for a variety of agencies and clinics in Michigan and Washington, D.C.

The Law School created the fellowships last year to provide students additional opportunities to gain practical experience prior to graduation, ease financial pressures, and offer needed support to organizations providing legal services to underserved community. Fellowship recipients will hold public interest jobs during summer 2010. A committee of Wayne Law faculty and alumni chose the recipients.

One of the goals of the fellowship program is to help reduce the indebtedness that Wayne State law school students experience, said Dean Robert Ackerman. This can particularly be an issue of concern for students who enter into the field of public law work and thus may not have "six-figure" starting salaries.

"We want to provide students with opportunities to participate in whatever modes of practice they seek," Ackerman said.

It is a philosophy that permeates Wayne State Law, and Ackerman said that he wants to position the law school as the "leading public interest law school in the Midwest." That brand wouldn't come at the exclusion of the law school's other recognized programs, but it is an example of why the fellowship program is so vital, according to Ackerman.

There are certain career benefits to the students as well because those who are fellows can gain a sense of what their possible options are in the field of public law, Ackerman said. This summer fellows will be working for such organizations as the city of Highland Park, the U.S. Justice Department, the ACLU, legal services and aid offices such as Free Legal Aid and Lakeshore Legal Aid.

"We hope that these opportunities help our students get their foot in the door," Ackerman said. "Although there is no formal agreement that fellows will be offered jobs by such organizations, it is likely to be a natural outcome. It's fair to say we do hope that there will be job opportunities coming out of these programs for many of our students."

Last year, Ackerman required the 10 fellows to keep in touch with him throughout the summer about their experiences.

"One of the things we found is that of the students who may have been a bit ambivalent going in, they all became very committed by the end of the summer," Ackerman said.

It is the second consecutive year that Villarosa has been a Law Fellowship recipient. The second-year student, who grew up in Detroit and Farmington Hills, is spending this summer at the Children's Law Center in Detroit. She hopes to work in a public capacity in juvenile law after graduating from law school in May 2011.

Villarosa's main responsibilities as part of her work with the Children's Law Center are juvenile delinquency, and abuse and neglect cases. She is working 40 hours a week and taking two summer classes at the law school. Any funding she receives from the fellowship is applied toward some of her law school tuition costs from this summer.

"In this role (lawyers from the Children's Law Center) are court-appointed so we are really out in the community and are able to observe the challenges so many children have," Villarosa said. "These challenges aren't exclusively in Detroit though."

What has inspired Villarosa in this role is not only the will of so many children she is able to help, but also the dedication of the Children's Law Center staff.

"No one here is in it for the money and that goes against what many people may think about the (law profession)," Villarosa said. "But these are lawyers who want to work in the community and help make Detroit a better city to live in. It's what I want to do."

Her experience also has shed light on the fact that more funding is needed in the state's foster care system to support children's legal efforts and to help protect them against physical, mental, and social threats.

Villarosa spent last summer working for the Michigan Poverty Law Program in Ann Arbor as part of her summer fellowship. In that role she worked with seniors and other adults clients helping to secure public benefits.

"It's a different type of public (law) service and it is just as important as what I am doing this summer," she said. "But there's something unique about working with kids."

Royal Oak resident and third-year law school student Elizabeth Kruman is spending her summer in Washington performing a clerkship with the U.S. Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division. She will be a law clerk with the division, conducting legal research, assisting in trial preparation, and attending depositions and hearings when they are held in the metro Washington area.

Kruman also plans to pursue a career in the public sector.

"The fellowship is making it possible for me to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity with the Department of Justice," Kruman said. "The work I am involved in this summer is a tremendous learning experience, not only because of the substantive legal work that I am involved in, but also because it gives me the opportunity to explore one of the many public interest career options."

And these organizations certainly need the help, particularly in these challenging economic times, Dean Ackerman said. Many public service agencies and organizations are hard-pressed for funds at a time when the demand for their services has never been higher.

"We'd like to have as many placements in the local region, particularly in and around Detroit as possible because we want to help out this community," Ackerman said. "In many cases we're able to do that although when a great opportunity comes about for a student in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere we definitely want to take advantage."

For now the fellowship program is being funded on a "shoestring" budget, Ackerman said. He hopes that alumni donations and other private contributions will help to fund future fellowship programs in the public sector. If that happens, Ackerman is looking for ways to expand the program even further. One option is to have international-based fellowship placements at agencies that handle poverty, human rights, or other issues on a global level.

"Ideally we hope to grow the program even further so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," Ackerman said.

Published: Thu, Jun 24, 2010