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Law Students in Public Service and the Promotion of Social Justice

Law students seem naturally affiliated with ideas of social justice, but public service seems somewhat far-fetched. Yet the legal field has worked diligently on inculcating a commitment to public service in law students, which benefits public agencies in numerous ways. By utilizing law students, public administrators can often build capacity, serve more constituents and reduce the work burden on employees. Several models have proven successful throughout the nation.

Models of law student utilization

Some areas of government are already rife with law students, such as judiciary and congressional offices. In these cases, the students may receive academic credit for their work. If they receive academic credit, it is classified as an externship and would not fall under the American Bar Association’s (ABA’s) definition of pro bono – but would still be pro bono in general, because the work is free to the public who benefits, albeit indirectly. In this manner, the judge’s staff is expanded enabling more research and drafting to be performed. A congressional office is likewise able to perform more work. For example, law students may work in the rules office of a state senate and function as essentially the only researchers aside from the employed attorney. In these cases, the law students may receive a small stipend, but this model varies among schools.

Aside from these traditional examples above, opportunities abound. A simple google search for “law student volunteer” produces such results as the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Labor Relations Board, the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, states attorney general offices, City of Chicago and the White House. Many of these federal placements have a formalized placement process, especially given the security clearance required. However, these are examples of how law students are already being used to support public service and promote social justice. State, county and city agencies would be attractive to law students seeking to gain professional experience and network opportunities. Often, law students desire to work in a particular area of law, such as tax, corporate, human resources, administrative or health. How enticing to learn the practicalities of such areas on the front line, while simultaneously allowing the agency to either accomplish a languishing project, to expand capacity or to simply expand staff without expending funds.

Law schools, state bars and the ABA have rules about the externship model for law students. Typically, work is limited to twenty hours per week, must be law-related and must be supervised by an attorney. However, as the ABA guidance suggests below, community volunteer work may also qualify. This opens the door to many possibilities, especially when one considers the work a public agency does. Law students can review applications for services, read and summarize appeals for denial of service, manage communications from constituents and to the public, assist with contracts, policies and regulatory reviews. For the law students to get academic credit (externships), the agency generally has to go through the law school review process and there may be requirements for the student, such as reporting time, writing a paper, and receiving supervisory reports. Without academic credit, it is a less stringent process. This article does not address potential labor issues with using volunteer workers, but there are many successful models where public services utilize volunteer law students.

Law student volunteer responsibilities and scope of work

Law schools are mainly governed by the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools, and the ABA is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as the accreditation body for law schools. The ABA requires law schools to offer law students a “substantial opportunity” to participate in pro bono (legal services offered free or at a reduced cost). According to the ABA’s interpretation 302-10:

Each law school is encouraged to be creative in developing substantial opportunities for student participation in pro bono activities. Pro bono opportunities should at a minimum involve the rendering of meaningful law-related service to persons of limited means or to organizations that serve such persons; however volunteer programs that involve meaningful services that are not law-related also may be included within the law school’s overall program.

The ABA formally tracks law school pro bono programs and reports that the overwhelming majority of law schools have a voluntary pro bono program, but that 39 schools require law students to participate in pro bono as a requirement to graduate. The opportunities can range from what the legal profession would consider traditional pro bono to structured programs through non-profits and public service.

The ABA posits that legal education consists of learning professional skills along with academics. These necessary skills relate to the responsibilities they will perform as professionals, such as advocacy, dispute resolution, counseling, negotiating, problem solving, fact determinations, interviewing, organization, time management, document review, collaboration, teamwork, accountability, supervising, reporting to a manager and other general work-life skills. Public administration provides an excellent opportunity for a budding lawyer to learn these professional and work-life skills, given the government’s proclivity for rules and regulations.

Furthermore, the students are learning the tenets of public administration and what it means to serve the citizens – challenges, needs, and rewards. It is not uncommon for a law student to have never spoken to the economically disadvantaged – and now they must listen, learn, and be able to serve this population. The law students are engaged in service learning and social justice. Once they become lawyers, perhaps they will take a public service job, volunteer as an attorney, or advocate for the general populace – because the issues are no longer nameless or faceless. The law students are no longer disengaged or ignorant. They are actively serving the citizens.


More than 43,000 people graduated from law school in 2011, according to an article by Lincoln Caplan in the New York Times, (July 14, 2012). If ten percent of these students did one summer (eight weeks) in a public agency at 20 hours per week, that would be 688,000 hours of free work – the equivalent of 2,150 full-time workers. That is a lot of public service. If you are interested in this possibility, contact the law school near you. And perhaps the opportunity you can offer a law student, possibly processing requests for city planning, also starts a passion in a young, socially unaware law student – who has now not only learned professional and work-life skills, but also learned what public service and social justice means on a personal level.


Author: K Royal is the in-house privacy counsel for a global company and also a Ph.D. candidate in public affairs at the University of Texas at Dallas. [email protected]


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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