Public interest conversations: now more than ever

As the election results sink in, it seems important to reaffirm the commitment of the Sheller Center – and many other projects and programs at the Law School – to social justice and to the practice of public-interest law.  We’re grateful for the extraordinary energy that Temple students and faculty bring to the task of making life better for the most disadvantaged people in our communities. And we continue to believe that by offering legal support to organizing efforts, collaborating with non-profit and governmental partners when that’s possible, and representing people in administrative and court proceedings, we can make a difference.

We believe, too, that part of our work is to support each other.  A few weeks ago, the Center started a series of “Public Interest Conversations” aimed at helping students navigate the sometimes-confusing array of public-interest opportunities that the Law School offers – courses, clinics, connections to external organizations, fellowships, career planning, and more.  Providing a venue for these conversations, both organized and informal, was important before the election, and seems even more so now. We look forward to continuing to be there for students and faculty who are seeking to make America a more just society.

A legal incubator for Philadelphia?

Legal “incubators” help young lawyers gain the practical skills they need in order to set up moderately-priced law practices in local communities.  Thus, incubators serve a dual purpose:  they expand career options for law graduates, while also supporting the creation of affordable services for people of low and moderate incomes (who, studies show, are increasingly unable to access legal help).

The first incubator opened in 2007 at CUNY Law School.  Now, there are over fifty — in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, as well as dozens of other locations around the country.  In an issue brief, “A Legal Incubator for Philadelphia?,” Temple law student Stephen Fox examines the incubator movement, and argues that the time has come to consider establishing an incubator here.

Finding time for some important questions

The students participating in the Sheller Center’s “practicum discussion series” this spring are all working in real-life legal settings –a women’s rights organization, a district attorney’s office, an immigrant services organization, a growing business, and others.  What happens when students have a chance to talk, across subject-matter lines, around some of the questions that confront new lawyers — especially those committed to social justice?

As it turns out, quite a lot.  Many of our conversations are about day-to-day problems, such as how to relate to clients and to supervisors.  Others involve larger themes, such as last week’s issue of how young lawyers can think about, and where necessary challenge, the “status quo’s” that they encounter in the world of legal practice.

Some of those status-quo’s — aspects of legal practice, that is, that don’t necessarily make sense but are accepted because “this is how it’s done” — involve how lawyers work together (or don’t). Others have to do with how clients are treated.  Still others involve laws and practices that result in systemic injustices.

We encourage students to question these practices.  So when one student saw unrepresented clients struggling to make sense of nearly-incomprehensible Family Court procedures, he came up with an idea for a chart that would help simplify things.  Another student was struck that the younger lawyers at the government agency where he works don’t last very long; perhaps, he reflected, some aspects of the work environment at the agency could be changed.  Another student wondered why, in immigration proceedings, single men seem to be at a disadvantage as compared to women and children – even though their legal claims are essentially identical.

Too often, students and new graduates are viewed as “baby lawyers.”  We don’t see it that way.  In our view, young lawyers have fresh insights and perspectives that our sometimes conservative profession badly needs.   Hopefully, our discussions are leading students to see themselves in that light too.