Cooley promotes pro bono work as ethical obligation

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Starting this month, students on all four Cooley campuses are encouraged to take a pledge to perform legal work free of charge to the needy every year for the rest of their education and careers.

The pledge is meant to encourage students to commit to using their talents to support their communities in appreciation of the support they've received, said Heather Spielmaker, Cooley's Director of the Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism, who spearheaded the idea with Amy Timmer, Associate Dean of Students and Professionalism at the Lansing campus.

''As stated in our pledge, we see it as an ethical obligation,'' Spielmaker said. ''We invited active attorneys to take the pledge alongside our students so the students would see that pro bono service is a life long endeavor and not just a function of law school.''

A pledge ceremony was held on the Lansing campus Oct. 14 where Michigan Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh administered the pro bono pledge to approximately 100 students and staff.

Auburn Hills campus dean John Nussbaumer says he never feels better than when he's helping soldiers on a pro bono basis at Camp Grayling.

And that's the feeling he wants his students to know, as well. ''We hope the students will catch that fever,'' said Nussbaumer, noting that the Thomas M. Cooley Law School Voluntary Pro Bono Pledge is also for Cooley graduates, who are being invited to the pledge ceremonies.

Although Cooley students and staff have already been donating many hours of pro bono work each year, a formal pledge before a judge is new this month.

Student Minji Kim has been doing pro bono work since her first term at Cooley, pledge or no pledge. Now she'll make her commitment official.

''Through doing pro bono work, I remind myself why I went to law school in the first place, which is to help people, not just to make a lot of money and have a Pucci bag or Prada outfits,'' said Kim.

Kim, 28, said pro bono works gives her experiences in areas of the law outside of her concentration on taxes, and helps her learn to communicate well with all kinds of people.

''I tell people it benefits us just as much as the people we help,'' she said.

While other law schools' pro bono pledges include community service, Cooley's pledge stipulates legal work for the needy. That's similar to the state's voluntary pro bono standard adopted by the State Bar of Michigan Representative Assembly that recommends that each year each lawyer provides civil legal services to three clients, contributes 30 hours of service, or contribute $300 in support of civil legal services to the poor.

Nussbaumer said there are far more Michigan residents eligible for legal aid than there are legal services lawyers to provide it, and that this service is needed now more than ever.

Pro bono work will also build relationships between law students and attorneys who partner with them to be the attorney on record, he said.

In 2010, students at the four campuses volunteered a total of 14,769 hours to help provide pro bono legal assistance to low-income clients and under-served populations, for which they did not receive any compensation or academic credit.

Cooley partners with many legal services and local bar associations to provide appropriately supervised pro bono opportunities. For example, at the Auburn Hills campus, the school works closely with the award winning Oakland County Bar Association Pro Bono Mentor Match Program and the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association's legal aid clinic, which matches Cooley students with volunteer attorneys from large firms and corporations. The school also sends volunteers to help with cases from the Legal Aid and Defender Association in Detroit, the largest provider of free legal services to the indigent in Michigan.

Nussbaumer said the pledge is a long-lasting commitment.

''Whether they stick to that or not, we'll see,'' he said. ''The idea is to plant the seed and get them involved.''

Published: Mon, Oct 31, 2011

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