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Penn Law celebrates 25th anniversary of public service program with year-long series of events

September 02, 2014

Marking a major milestone in legal education and emblematic of the service ethic at the core of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, this academic year Penn Law will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of its public interest program, featuring a year-long series of lectures, workshops, conferences focusing on the power and impacts of public service lawyering.

Guided into being through the advocacy of Howard Lesnick, the Jefferson B. Fordham Professor of Law, in 1989 the Penn Law faculty voted to create a public service program that enshrined the ideal that “service is embedded in the very notion of a profession,” as Lesnick would later write in an essay titled “Why Pro Bono in Law Schools.”

Penn Law’s program was one of the first in the country requiring JD students to complete at least 70 hours of pro bono service as a prerequisite to graduation, and to this day the Law School’s requirement is the most rigorous in the nation. In 2006 the public service program was named the Toll Public Interest Center in recognition of the ongoing generosity and support of Robert Toll L’66 and Jane Toll GSE’66.

The ideal of service is the cornerstone of Penn Law’s academic programming, and includes the work of the Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC), the Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies, and the Law School’s Externship Program, all of which affords students opportunities to engage in real-world lawyering in service of communities with pressing legal needs.

“For Penn Law students, public service begins during Orientation and continues through to graduation and beyond,” said Wendell Pritchett, Interim Dean of Penn Law and Presidential Term Professor, whose own public service includes a stint as Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Policy to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, and three years’ service on the School Reform Commission. “To instill such a deep sense of service in an institution takes determination and commitment, qualities that Penn Law students, faculty, and alumni have in excess.”

Over the past 25 years, more than 6,000 student participants have worked in virtually every area of legal assistance, including placements in civil rights groups, environmental organizations, youth advocacy groups, women’s rights organizations, and immigrant and prisoner advocacy legal services programs. Over the years TPIC has established over 300 community partners across the United States and around the world, including more than 170 partnerships with organizations in the Philadelphia area.

“Our students have embraced public service as an integral part of their education, and not merely a graduation requirement,” noted Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean for Public Interest Programs and Executive Director of the Toll Public Interest Center. “Through their work with TPIC, they earn valuable legal experience while making a real difference in the communities they serve.”

From 1989 to the present, Penn Law students have completed over 500,000 of service, with most of that service dedicated to student-initiated pro bono projects. These projects are led and run by students with the support and guidance of TPIC and attorney supervisors.

“Each year, more students discover that service is not just something they have to do, it’s something they very much want to do,” says Rivera Finkelstein. In the Class of 1992, the first class subject to the requirement, 24 percent of the graduating class exceeded the 70-hour pro bono requirement; by 2014 over 90 percent of graduating students exceeded 70 hours of pro bono work. During the same period, the total amount of pro bono hours completed by the graduating class more than doubled, from around 16,000 to nearly 34,000.

At the founding of the public service program, there was one student-led project, the Guild Food Stamp Clinic, which had launched in 1984. Today TPIC supports 27 student-led projects, covering a wide range of legal issues, with anticipated strategic growth in the years ahead. Current projects include the Animal Law Project, the Civil Rights Law Project, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, Penn Law Advocates for the Homeless, the Service Members and Veterans’ Legal Assistance Project, and Students Against Gender-Based Exploitation.

“These projects are wholly initiated by the students,” added Finkelstein. “Our students are highly motivated to advocate for the underrepresented causes and communities that in many cases brought them to law school in the first place. Working with our expert community partners, our students  find the best way to meet community needs, and to provide high-quality legal services to people who might not otherwise be able to obtain representation.”

Since 2006, the number of student-led pro bono programs has increased from 10 to 27, and the annual Public Interest Week — which now includes the 30-year-old Sparer Symposium — was inaugurated, annual funding for the Toll Loan Repayment Assistance Program (TolLRAP) reached nearly $1,000,000, and Postgraduate Fellowships and Catalyst Grants have funded student public service work both at home and abroad.

The celebration of public service will continue throughout the academic year, from orientation to graduation.

Selected events include:

  • August 26–28, 2014: TPIC sponsored service events during 1L orientation week.
  • October 20, 2014: TPIC will host a distinguished panel of lawyers to discuss service as part of National Pro Bono Week.
  • November 14, 2014:  The 34th Annual Edward Sparer Symposium focused on technology and justice – Law 2.0: Progress & Challenges for Justice in the Digital Age
  • February 23, 2015 through February 28, 2015: Public Interest Week celebrated the power of public service.
  • April 15, 2015: The annual public interest recognition event celebrated service accomplishments through the year.
  • May 17, 2015: Penn Law’s graduation provided an opportunity to close out the year by looking ahead to the future of service for graduates.

For more information, please visit the TPIC 25th anniversary website for schedule updates, agendas, and RSVP information.