At Penn Law, pro-bono work a rite of passage


Students can either conduct their own self-interest projects or participate in pro-bono projects




For third-year Law School student Rekha Nair, getting a legal education has meant far more than sitting in a classroom and reading through case law.

As part of a Penn Law pro-bono requirement, Nair has spent time working in various local prisons, teaching inmates lessons on civil, criminal and family court law.

More than 20 years ago, Penn Law became one of the first law schools in the country to require its students to complete mandatory pro-bono work. Today, while they are enrolled, law students must complete 70 hours of service before graduating.

Half of those requirements must be finished by the end of their second year.

Public service “is a duty and responsibility, and that’s something that the school has always taken seriously,” Penn Law’s Pro Bono and Public Interest Programs Coordinator Emily Sutcliffe said.

Students can get involved in pro-bono legal service in two different ways: either through participating in student pro-bono projects or conducting their own self-interest projects, Sutcliffe explained.

Currently, the Toll Public Interest Center — which oversees pro-bono requirements and coordinates public interest programs at Penn Law — works closely with 24 student-run pro-bono projects, which address topics such as civil rights, child custody and refugee rights.

Students may come up with their own placements, as long as they are supervised by a licensed attorney and are engaged in projects that are both legal in nature and that help an underserved cause or community.

Since the implementation of the pro-bono requirement, Penn Law students have worked on not just projects in Philadelphia, but also projects across the nation and around the globe.

Third-year Penn Law student Lisa Margulies, who has been involved in numerous pro-bono projects such as custody and criminal defense since her first year at Penn, said she has gained real-world knowledge through her work.

“I was really getting [a lot of] experience in the courtroom in front of the judge and learned what lawyers do,” Margulies said. “In fact, a lot of law schools are not much involved in the practice, and [students] mostly learn the law on the book, which is different from learning the law on the ground.”

The pro-bono legal service opportunity not only provides students with professional skills that are necessary when they become lawyers, but also allows them to work in an area about which they are passionate.

“I came to Penn knowing that I wanted to be a public-interest attorney,” Nair said. “I was a teacher before, and I’ve seen many students and their families who were having legal issues, which impact students’ performance in the classroom. And I wanted to address and resolve some of those issues.”

When she worked with the Prisoners’ Education and Advocacy Project — Penn Law’s central organization for criminal justice-related pro-bono work — Nair said she was “amazed that legal education [could] do so much to help someone.”

Nair has also been involved in various other projects, including immigrant rights and custody and support assistance.

“It was amazing when clients said thank you at the end,” Nair said.

Margulies added that pro-bono work represents a great opportunity to provide funding and resources to help people in Philadelphia, one of the neediest cities in the country.

However, she believes there are too few lawyers and organizations that help people in Philadelphia who are in need.

“There are many firms and schools like Penn that do extraordinary things with so much money and resources,” Margulies said. “But there are still so many needs for the victimized population.”

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