Service trips give law students hands-on legal experience

By Allison Hight
U-M Law

While University of Michigan Law School first-year student Colleen Devine's recommendation to "bring lots of sunscreen" may be a common piece of advice for the average spring break trip, rarely do those trips spend more time doing legal volunteer work than they do at the beach. Yet that is exactly what dozens of Michigan Law students did during this year's Legal Alternative Winter (LAW) Breaks trips.

A Michigan Law tradition since 2011, LAW Breaks are alternative spring break service trips that give students hands-on legal experience while volunteering with a legal services organization. LAW Breaks organized six trips this year to Detroit, Wisconsin, Texas, New Orleans, Belize, and the Navajo Nation. Each group worked in a different area of the law, ranging from housing and foreclosure law in Detroit to LGBTQ rights in Belize.

Many first-year students use LAW Breaks as a chance to get practical legal experience for the first time, and this year was no exception. The group that went to New Orleans, for instance, consisted of seven 1Ls, including trip leaders Elena Malik and Lydia Pincsak. The students worked with Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) and participated in a variety of legal tasks throughout the week, including transcribing footage from body cameras, writing legal memoranda, meeting with clients at the local jail, and observing the closing statements for a murder trial.

"Our group had a mix of students interested in different types of public interest work, so it was a perfect match," said Malik. "The variety of work that we were given was a definite highlight because we had a lot to talk about amongst ourselves after work."

One new trip this year was to Dilley, Texas, to work with the Dilley Pro Bono Project (DPBP), an initiative of the CARA Family Detention Project. The group spent the week working at the South Texas Family Residential Center, an immigration detention center for women and children who are seeking protection in the United States.

Ava Morgenstern, a 3L who participated in the trip, described the work at the detention center as "stressful and trying" while simultaneously emphasizing that she was constantly inspired by the "courage and spirit" of all the detained women.

Each week, DPBP prepares approximately 300 women to undergo a "credible fear interview," the first step in the asylum process. To keep up with the demand, the Texas team worked 12-hour days "with almost no space or time to recuperate," said Morgenstern.

Kara Naseef, a 2L, was one of the volunteers who worked with some of the women one-on-one to prepare them for their credible fear interviews.

"We asked them why they were afraid to return home and pushed them on details of the most horrific violence and abuse they had personally experienced. We sometimes had to explain that it wasn't enough unless their experiences were on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group," Naseef said. "We were often the first people who had ever heard these stories. We reframed women's histories to fit within the confines of U.S. immigration law."

Several of the organizations that the trip participants worked for depend on volunteers throughout the year to supplement the work done by full-time staff members. One such organization is the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC) in Detroit, a nonprofit that Michigan Law students have worked with for several years in a row.

"With one out of three homes in Detroit in foreclosure, UCHC has a huge number of clients," explained 1L Sarah Smith. "In order to be able to complete intakes and keep information organized, UCHC relies on volunteers."

DPBP operates on a similar model. The organization only has five staff members, so it "mainly runs on an all-volunteer model in which teams of law students and lawyers converge on Dilley, tackle the week's workload, and go back home," Morgenstern said.

The students recommended that future participants approach the trips "with an open mind."

John Petoskey, a 2L who co-led the trip to the Navajo Nation, explained that "sensitivity, humility, and respect" are especially crucial for working on reservations.

"Humility is the single most important characteristic one must have to work in Indian law and with tribes," he explained. "Navajo law and trial law incorporate values that are not present in American law. You need to have respect for the differences in the legal systems."

All of the students who participated in a LAW Breaks trip agreed that doing legal service was an excellent way to spend their break. Devine, who traveled to Belize, said that she felt "humbled by the work and dedication of the activists" with whom they worked.

Rana Ayazi, a 2L who co-led the Texas trip, agreed. "CARA is a truly wonderful volunteer organization," she said. "This has been my favorite law school experience, and I highly recommend it to everyone."

Published: Wed, Mar 28, 2018