May 13, 2008 — The Public Interest Law Association at the University of Virginia School of Law is distributing a record $350,000 in grants to 72 law students working in public service jobs this summer, according to PILA organizers.
"We're really proud of both the unending support of student body, faculty and staff, as well as our fund-raising efforts," said PILA President Katie Schleeter. "It's so exciting that people want to dedicate their summers to public service."
Twenty more students will receive grants this year than did last year; 22 second-year law students will pocket grants of $7,083 and 50 first-year law students will each get $4,123. Students take home $6,000 and $3,500 after taxes.
More than 100 students applied for the grants, Schleeter said.
"This year applications just skyrocketed," she said. "We had no idea that interest was that high."
Last year, the number of second-year law students receiving grants decreased because many decided to split their summer between firm and public service jobs, making them ineligible for a grant.
"This year we have 22 second-year law students who are just completely dedicated to this as their career path, and it's a good feeling," Schleeter said.
Throughout the year PILA raised $160,000 in grant funds through events such as the annual auction and book sale. The Law School Foundation then matched the funds dollar-for-dollar. PILA also had money left over from last year after some students turned down grants, Schleeter said.
Students receiving the grants will explore a range of public service work, from international human rights efforts to serving with a public defender or prosecutor.
First-year law student Kathleen Doherty will work for the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, Alaska. The PILA grant "helps because you don't have to take out more loans or find a job on the side," she said. "I hope to learn a lot more about how legal aid works in the real world."
Doherty will work with two attorneys on cases involving translating election ballots into native languages and the right of tribes to hunt and fish for subsistence living. Both cases are expected to go to trial.
"The right to vote is so essential. I just don't see how you can justify [not translating ballots] by saying there are practical difficulties," said Doherty, who has a master's degree in linguistics and majored in anthropology.
Most students work hard to find one summer job that interests them; Chris and Jamie Schoen, who are married, wanted to find two in the same location. The Schoens will be traveling to South Asia to work with International Justice Mission on prosecuting slavery cases. Because mission staffers are involved in undercover investigations of human rights abuses, their specific work locations remain undisclosed.
Slavery in the region typically begins when a family is suffering from some kind of financial struggle for which they need a small loan, which could be as low as $15 to $50, Jamie explained. The lender structures the agreement so that the family or child receiving the loan is bonded for life.
"The amount that the owner pays the individual is less than the amount that the loan increases per day, so they can never actually pay it off because they're not allowed to work for anyone else," Jamie said.
The money the slave receives pays for food and rent required to work in the mill or factory. "Oftentimes that may be simply rice and water in the morning and no food later on, and living on a dirt floor in a hut outside of the owner's home."
In some cases future generations also are enslaved, based on a bond made as many as 70 years ago.
The couple, who had spent a semester in Africa as undergraduates, knew they wanted to pursue human-rights work.
"Long-term it's certainly a goal for both of us to go to work in some public service area or to at least be involved with a group like [ International Justice Mission]," Chris said.
With plane tickets and other expenses to pay for, "We were very thankful for the PILA grant; it's made the financial stress of the situation much easier to handle," Jamie said.
While five other students are pursuing work abroad like the Schoens, many PILA grant recipients will stick closer to the Law School. First-year law student Kyle Wamstad is one of nine PILA grantees working for the Legal Aid Justice Center's Civil Advocacy Program in Charlottesville, where he will focus on housing, consumer and employment law issues affecting low-income residents.
Public service work is "one thing you want to get into to get a taste of, to see if it's something up your alley," said Wamstad, who also received Buffett and Equal Justice Works fellowships. "Even in private firms, it's just as important to have citizen or public service-minded lawyers."
Second-year law student Jessica De Vera will return to her college hometown of Tallahassee, Fla., where she will use her fellowship to split her summer between Legal Services of North Florida and Tallahassee's public defender's office. Her two employers share many of the same clients: troubled children.
"It turns out that they actually work in tandem on these cases," De Vera said. "It's going to be a really great way to see the entire scope of juvenile public service work."
The legal aid portion of her summer will focus on a program called Team Child, which helps children facing placement into foster homes and residential treatment centers instead be provided with legal, social and mental health services in a way that allows them to remain with their parents.
De Vera said she found her calling in public service last summer when she volunteered for the American Civil Liberties Union's School to Prison Pipeline Project in Austin, Texas. The project examined how students get disciplined in schools and how they are sometimes pushed toward alternative schools.
During one trial she observed, a young boy was caught up in gang participation charges after a schoolyard mishap.
"He pulls out this little manila file folder and in it are all these certificates of achievement, attendance — all this recognition of what a great student he was — and yet he still got roped into this because he is the child of immigrants, and English isn't his first language," she said. "He's getting pushed into this because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." The boy pled no contest and was assigned to a tutoring program by an understanding judge, De Vera said.
She came back invigorated about juvenile law, and took the Child Advocacy Clinic. "That in turn kind of pushed me into looking at what kind of opportunities would be available in Tallahassee doing juvenile work."