On August 9, 2012, Pro Bono Net had the opportunity to attend the Annual Supreme Court Review: 2011 hosted by our corporate sponsor Practising Law Institute (PLI). This year’s review brought together a distinguished panel of PLI faculty that represented leading constitutional scholars, civil rights experts, a law school dean, and a Supreme Court journalist to analyze, discuss, and debate the leading Supreme Court decisions of the October 2011 Term. The program is available on-demand on PLI’s website

Now in its fourteenth year, this program is organized by Erwin Chemerinsky, Founding Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, and Martin Schwartz, Professor of Law at Touro Law Center. We spoke with Dean Chemerinsky about the program and his dedication to pro bono work.

The Annual Supreme Court Review has become one of the most popular of PLI’s programs.  This year, more than 350 people gathered at PLI’s New York City office and another 150 participated online. “The first year we had 60 people,” says Chemerinsky.  “But every year people come to the event, realize it is worthwhile, and tell others.” The idea for the program came out of a brainstorming session between Chemerinsky and Schwartz and resulted in an annual in-depth analysis of the Supreme Court’s decisions including their precedential, doctrinal and, where appropriate, societal and litigation significance.

Chemerinsky is inspired by the civil rights lawyers of the 1950s and 1960s and firmly believes that law is a tool for social change.  “I still believe the law can inspire social change, but social change seems more difficult to achieve [today]. You can see its influence in both litigation and legislation. I look at Brown [vs. Board of Education] to see what litigation can do,” says Chemerinsky.  He adds that understanding and reviewing the decisions of the Supreme Court is important to pro bono work as its decisions impact the outcome of much pro bono work.

Chemerinsky tries to instill in his students a drive to work for social change. Says Chemerinsky, “I try hard to communicate that as a lawyer they have the opportunity to change society and use law to make it better. That’s not a political stance. They [the students] have to determine their own view of society and work to make it better.  The opportunities they have to make a difference are part of their duty to their profession. I hope I lead by example. My students know I’ve been involved in pro bono litigation; I try to involve my students as researchers or conduct moot courts at the school. I hope, in that way, to lead by example.” Chemerinsky has regularly argued appellate cases, criminal and civil—virtually always pro bono—in the Supreme Court, federal courts of appeals and state supreme courts.

When asked to lead the School of Law at UCI, Chemerinksy sought to create the ideal law school. “I think a [21st century] law school has to put tremendous emphasis on experiential learning, teaching students to be lawyers,” says Chemerinsky. “Being the dean of a new law school I was given the opportunity to work with a blank slate, which is a great benefit.  We knew we needed to do it differently and better. We had great community support.”  UCI, the first new public law school in California in more than 40 years, opened its doors to its first class in August 2009.

Chemerinsky says that at UCI there is “tremendous emphasis on preparing students for the law.” He points to three specific ways the school is helping do this. First, UCI is one of the few law schools in the country that requires clinical experience of all its students. Students also must do intake interviews with legal aid or the public defender.  The required intakes are part of the first year Lawyering Skills course, and the requirement is separate from the required clinical course, which students are required to take during their 3rd year. “This gives students experience under close supervision,” says Chemerinsky. Secondly, the externship program offers students the skills they will need in the future. And thirdly, the school puts a strong emphasis on pro bono work.  “They [the students] do pro bono of all sorts. We do other things to promote public service including bridge funding, a loan forgiveness program, and a scholarship program for students doing public interest work.”

Pro bono work is strongly encouraged at UCI. “I encourage students to get appointed to pro se court of appeals to get an experience many lawyers don’t get. We all want to feel we’re doing something important. Here, they get the social benefit but also the career benefit,” says Chemerinsky.  As an example, Chemerinsky points to his own son’s recent experience arguing a pro bono immigration case. “Here he was, three years out of law school, at a day long immigration hearing.  The benefit of that is tremendous,” he says.

One of the first things Chemerinsky did when he was appointed was hire Anna Davis as the school’s Pro Bono Director to inspire the students and help them find pro bono opportunities. More than 90% of UCI students have participated in the Pro Bono Program. The class of 2012 saw 98% participation and more than 42% put in 120 hours or more, earning them a notation on their transcript and special recognition at graduation. Over the past three years, the Class of 2012 has contributed more than 5,600 hours. Collectively, UCI law students have contributed more than 6,700 hours to 92 different projects from May 2011 to May 2012.

As Pro Bono Director, Davis coordinates projects with local legal services organizations and, in some cases, based upon the interests of the students. Davis arranges 35-45 projects each semester, often partnering with law firms in the area.  A few of the projects that Davis is especially excited about include:

  • In the spring of 2012, students began conducting intakes with Legal Aid Society of Orange County on Social Security Insurance cases, significantly expanding the service for low income clients in Orange County.
  • Los Angeles nonprofit The Learning Rights Law Center (“LRLC”), a legal services agency whose mission is to ensure equitable access to public education for all students, will have students from UCI conducting intakes for children whose educational needs are not being met.
  • Last fall, Davis organized a partnership with an attorney from Spokane, WA to have students assist in research on the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Native American children were sent to boarding schools to be indoctrinated in the Euro-American standard, a practice that continued through the 1970’s.  The children were separated from their families and tribes, forced to abandon their Native American language and culture, and were severely disciplined, resulting in many documented cases of physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the schools. The project was brought to Davis through a student, who is now the point person.
  • Since the spring of 2011, students have worked with The Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).  French-speaking students prepared a paper that was submitted to the United Nations on Human Rights violations, and then flew to Geneva to lobby the United Nations.
  • For the 2012 Fall Semester, Davis was approached by Mike Gaitley of the Legal Aid Society—Employment Law Center, based in San Francisco, to run a Workers’ Right Clinic. Students will conduct intakes on a variety of employment issues among low-income workers.  Gaitley arranged for Orange County employment attorneys to offer their help supervising the students.