A few weeks ago, Pro Bono Net’s Adam Friedl and I had the opportunity to attend Practising Law Institute’s 15th Annual Supreme Court Review, a day of lively panel discussions about the Court’s October 2012 term that assembled an enviable lineup of prominent legal scholars. The morning session featured panels covering some of the term’s most high-profile issues including the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Voting Rights Act (VRA), and affirmative action. The afternoon portion delved into fascinating but less publicized topics such as the taking of DNA samples from arrestees under the Fourth Amendment, the Court increasing the difficulty of bringing class actions, and the growing debate on genetic patents.
During the lunch break, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky (University of California, Irvine School of Law), a conference co-chair and leading constitutional scholar, generously sat down with us to discuss the need for more pro bono and public interest lawyers, recent happenings in constitutional law, and exciting new developments at UC Irvine. In line with the event’s main themes, Dean Chemerinsky emphasized how the Shelby County (VRA) and Windsor (DOMA) cases will increase the need for legal services in the coming years. In Shelby County, the Supreme Court struck down the formula for determining what jurisdictions must obtain preclearance for their voting procedures from the Justice Department. Dean Chemerinsky believes the main avenue for enforcing the law will likely now be Section 2 litigation – proving that voting practices have a discriminatory effect. This is an expensive and time-intensive process that is beyond the resources of many individuals and smaller nonprofits, creating a massive new need for pro bono and public interest work to ensure VRA enforcement. According to Dean Chemerinsky, the Windsor decision raises a host of new legal issues around same-sex couples’ benefits eligibility and tax concerns that pro bono efforts can help to address.
In light of the enormous need for legal assistance in the U.S., Dean Chemerinsky was eager to discuss the unique programs at UC Irvine School of Law and its emphasis on developing a strong public interest and pro bono commitment in its graduates. UCI encourages public interest work before, during, and after law school. Scholarships are given to students with a background in or demonstrated commitment to public interest work, and students can obtain financial grants that allow them to pass up law firm summer associate programs and instead work for public interest or legal services organizations. One of UCI’s graduation requirements is that all students work at an in-house clinic providing legal services to the poor and indigent, while graduates who have not yet found employment are eligible for a bridge program that will fund temporary public interest work while they look for permanent positions. Additionally, UCI offers its graduates working in public interest law one of the best loan repayment assistance programs in the country. Dean Chemerinsky is hopeful that these programs will encourage a new generation of lawyers to dedicate their professional practices to helping those in need.