By Adrienne Packard, Assistant Director, CPIL
Most agree that the time we spend in law school provides an opportunity to learn the letter of the law, make lifelong friends, and gain invaluable experiences in our field of interest. It is also important to take advantage of the opportunity to learn the practice of law and to experience the full benefit of providing service to those in need.
Several law students learned this firsthand during the inaugural Pro Bono Staycation held over spring break in Chicago. Rather than spend their spring break relaxing or traveling, Kevin O’Donnell (’13), Brooke Tucker (’14), Jennifer Thomas (’15) and Sylvia Zarski (’15) decided to work with the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services and The Center for Disability and Elder Law (CDEL). The students started off the week at the Legal Aid Society where they assisted the family law practice group in wrapping up their open files and shadowing attorneys in court. By having the students close cases, attorneys were able to focus more of their energy on the advocacy aspect of their work, rather than the administrative. They also provided the students opportunities to see firsthand the daily work of legal aid family law attorneys.
The students spent the remainder of their week volunteering with CDEL, where they interviewed clients and assisted in drafting powers of attorneys for healthcare and property for low-income senior citizens as part of CDEL’s Senior Legal Assistance Clinics. Despite the fact that the services provided by the students spanned the course of only a few days, participants were able to see the immediate impact of their work and walk away knowing they had helped clients with something they may not have accomplished on their own. These clients, who were elderly and spoke limited English, worked with the students and interpreters to complete and execute documents that, if needed, will make their care and protection seamless.
Tom Wendt, legal director at CDEL, explains the impact and importance of student volunteer service: “Having students in our office allows CDEL to provide services to a greater number of low-income seniors and people with disabilities. As a volunteer-based organization, CDEL literally could not exist without the dedicated volunteers that offer their time and talents to CDEL and its clients.”
Wendt advocated for students to commit to regular volunteer work. He maintains, “The impact that volunteering has on the students is really three-fold. First, student volunteers learn valuable, practical legal skills, which can augment the more theoretical learning in the law school classroom. Second, it provides students with the opportunity to hone various skills, [such as] drafting, interpersonal and client-relations skills, etc. Finally, volunteering at an organization like CDEL provides students with an introduction into the world of pro bono legal service, something that they can take with them into private practice.”
Although DePaul offers many opportunities for students to participate in spring break service projects outside the Chicago area, the Staycation is unique in that the work is provided in our own backyard. Cheryl Price, director of the Pro Bono & Community Service Initiative, explains it best: “One of the wonderful things about the pro bono Staycation is the opportunity to work locally with programs in the Chicago area and with client populations in our local community. Although you can provide service anywhere, working outside of the Chicago area does not provide the opportunity to build relationships with community partners or potential future employers in the Chicago area.”