LAWBreaks means law immersion for students

By Allison Hight
U-M Law

Michigan Law’s annual Legal Alternative Winter (LAW) Breaks  is an opportunity for students to use legal skills outside the classroom to work with organizations around the country and abroad. Six groups traveled to Arizona, San Francisco, Minnesota, Detroit, and Belize last month.

The Minnesota trip, which focused on environmental law, worked with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, an organization that, as trip leader Amy Roberts described, “works to protect Minnesota’s environment and natural resources by challenging big industry projects that risk impacting the environment and human health.” Students  assisted with litigation preparation for one case. “We got insight into how an organization prepares for litigation,” Roberts, who is a 2L, said. "We saw how they structure and strategize, and how different environmental groups collaborate to achieve their goals.”

Two groups stayed in Michigan to work with organizations in Detroit: the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), which assists low-income clients with mortgage foreclosure prevention and landlord-tenant disputes, and the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office (WCPO). While Michigan Law has collaborated with UCHC for several years, the trip to the WCPO was new this year.
“LAWBreaks has had a public defense site for many years, and I felt it was important that people be able to work on the other side too,” explained 2L Nicholas Schmidt, who planned and organized the trip. “I felt that the WCPO could offer the students attending valuable experiences and interesting work.”

The group of students who traveled the farthest went to Belize to work with two different human rights organizations: the Child Development Foundation (CDF), and the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM). “Those working with CDF visited a local high school and elementary school to facilitate discussion of students’experiences with cyber bullying,” trip leader and first-year student Kara Naseef explained. “Those working with UNIBAM met with the attorney general’s office, ombudsman's office, and a chief magistrate to ask about footholds in the law for LGBT rights.” Because Belize's legal system does not recognize LGBT rights apart from a recent declaration that anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional, the students had to approach the work creatively. “It was different than what a pro bono project would ask of a law student,” Naseef said. “It showed that in Belize, we can be useful differently than we are in Michigan.”

Some students used LAWBreaks as an opportunity to try out a new area of law, while others focused on gaining experience in areas in which they plan to practice in the future. Allison Horwitz and Selena Alonzo, who are both 1Ls and led the group going to San Francisco, said that they chose the trip because they both hope to be public defenders after graduation. “We were especially excited to have the opportunity to do death penalty work because there had never been a LAWBreaks trip that had done that type of work before,” they said. “Learning more about this complicated area of defense was both rewarding and challenging.”

The students who participated in LAWBreaks overwhelmingly recommended that other students consider attending trips in future years. “Law school is great, but at times it can become very isolating,” said Kyle Smith and Jamila Odeh, both 1Ls, after their week with UCHC in Detroit. “Participating in this trip was a great way to break out of the routine of classes and reading, to become closer friends with a number of our classmates, and do some good in the world.”

Austin Perry, a 2L who participated in the Arizona trip for the second year in a row, encouraged students to continue the work past groups have accomplished. The Arizona group, which worked with the Navajo Nation, conducted intakes for divorce and adoption cases, assisted clients with their public benefits, and wrote motions to dismiss. However, there is more to be done. “With more than 300,000 people living across 27,000 square miles, it’s the largest and most populated reservation in the United States,” he said. “There's a lot to learn, and we barely scratched the surface.”

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