Law students tackle pro bono work

Law students tackle pro bono work

Taking on public-interest cases pro bono – meaning without a fee – is a critical part of most significant law practices, says Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey region, and “ADL depends on these firms for assistance.”

Noting the help ADL received in filing an amicus brief in the religious discrimination case Cutler v. Dorn (see Jewish Standard, Aug. 15), Neuer pointed out that “many law firms take a strong interest in the work we do. It’s a natural marriage.”

Also important, he said, is exposing law students to the civil liberties issues tackled by his organization. To help accomplish that goal, ADL created a summer associate research program last year. Participating in the venture this summer were Sills, Cummis & Gross P.C. (Newark) and Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland Perretti LLP (Morristown), who gave their summer interns, among other assignments, projects relating to issues of concern to the ADL.

ADL summer associate Jorge Sanchez is flanked by Riker Danzig partner Lance Kalik and Lawrence Cooper, board chair of the ADL’s New Jersey region.

“We’re excited about this on many levels,” said Neuer. “It gives the ADL a chance to work with young people, and we give them a sample of the work we’re doing.”

“We’re asked to weigh in on so many issues that are civil-rights related,” said Neuer, explaining that the organization gives various law firms a number of cases over the course of the year.

“It’s common for law firms to hire law students as summer associates. Among other cases, many firms show these associates a sliver of their pro bono work as well, exposing them to cutting-edge civil rights issues.”

Neuer said students are asked to work on issues “ripped from the headlines.”

“The students focus on very specific cases,” he said. “They are looking for answers, not only searching for legal precedents but also doing original research.”

According to Neuer, the civil liberties topics explored this summer arose from fact-based scenarios that ADL’s national and regional offices encountered over the past year.

Some of the topics researched by the students included whether a town may restrict an extremist group’s speech in order to avoid onerous overtime police costs; to what extent public and private nursing homes are required to accommodate proselytizing; the liability of an airline that orders a praying passenger off the plane; the claims of a university student who is the subject of defamatory comments on a social networking Website; and the conflict between a school’s code of conduct and free speech in a case involving a student wearing a swastika patch on his knapsack.

Tenafly resident Jorge Sanchez, now entering his second year at Rutgers Law School, was one of this year’s summer research associates. Working with Riker Danzig, Sanchez was given a “general fact pattern” concerning the case of the praying passenger. (The fact sheet did not note the man’s religion, but he was Jewish, Neuer later told the Standard.) The man, praying at the back of the plane, was asked by the flight attendant to sit down so that the plane could take off. Despite the airline’s request, he did not sit down until he was finished praying. Subsequently, he was ordered off the plane.

“I was asked to find out if there was any liability on the part of the airline,” said Sanchez. At the end of the summer, he submitted a research memo to ADL to be used, he said, “in whatever way it chooses, or it could decide that it’s not a viable case.”

Working on the case was a “nice change of pace from the [law firm’s] commercial litigation cases,” he said, noting that he came from a “pro bono background,” working two years as a paralegal for the legal health unit of the New York Legal Assistance Group and as an intern for the Middlesex County Public Defenders office.

“I have a passion for public-interest work,” he said, adding that “Rutgers is very much a public-interest [law] school” and that he would consider doing this kind of work in the future.

“Law students should definitely be exposed to [pro bono] work,” he said. “It’s not stressed enough. Most people go to law school so they can make money in big commercial transactions. This shows that there are other things out there, things worth more than money.”

read more: