Located in the same town with three law schools, the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program has no shortage of quality legal help within its reach.
And the nonprofit organization has taken advantage, employing hundreds of students in internships and volunteer roles throughout the years.
“We can expand the number of people we help because law students can do extra research, extra intake and can call back the clients,” said Amy Fitzpatrick, executive director of SDVLP. “They expand our reach.
“Secondly, we form a link with law students so they can see the importance of doing community work, and when they become lawyers, they very often continue doing pro bono work.”
The partnership SDVLP shares with California Western School of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law and the University of San Diego School of Law is mutually beneficial.
“They are learning what it’s like to practice law, how to deal with clients and difficult situations,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not theoretical; it’s not case studies. These are real people with real problems, and they realize how important law is and finding remedies for people.”
California Western’s partnership with SDVLP dates back to 1991, when some of the school’s faculty members wanted to give students more hands-on experience and practical training.
The program has since expanded to include other area nonprofit agencies like the Legal Aid Society of San Diego and the Public Defenders Office.
“They get really, really great hands-on experience,” said Jill Blatchley, California Western’s career advisor. “They get mentoring and training.” While working for SDVLP, the students interview clients, ascertain facts, determine case merits, recommend claims and help draft and complete legal forms. “These experiences, provided under supervision of top-notch SDVLP and volunteer lawyers in the community, enable our students to develop as attorneys while achieving one of the service missions of our school,” said Cara Mitnick, assistant dean for career services at the USD School of Law.
She said the experience SDVLP provides students is crucial.
“USD students graduate with the skills and training that allow them to make positive and strong contributions to the legal community,” Mitnick said. “The practical training SDVLP law students receive is a critical part of that classroom/practical training equation.”
The students discover that all of their classroom work comes into play when they find that SDVLP’s clients rarely have just one issue.
“They also see what it’s like to help people who don’t have the same access to justice,” Blatchley said. “They get client interviewing experience. They might get oral advocacy experience, research and writing experience, and they just learn a variety of skills.”
The number of internships SDVLP offers can vary from year to year, depending on the availability of office space supervising attorneys. The organization’s San Diego office typically can support eight to 10 interns a semester.
SDVLP takes students following their first year of law school. They also have a lot of grads looking to help, including many who are awaiting their bar exam results.
The organization interviews for all of its internships spots, making them competitive.
“We get bright students,” Fitzpatrick said. “We find they’re very motivated and well prepared. We find the schools support these kids very much, and we want to do the same.”
She said agency officials like to place students in the area that interests them.
Mitnick said USD’s students get a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from their SDVLP work.
“Not only do students feel good about contributing their time and legal abilities to community members in need,” she said, “they also realize they are able to apply their outstanding classroom training in a real-world setting.”
Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s Public Interest Law Foundation awarded SDVLP a student choice award for its domestic violence restraining order clinic.
“That says a lot,” Fitzpatrick said. “It means the students are getting a lot out of the experience, and they valued it. It’s like a People’s Choice award; it’s coming from the students themselves that we mentor.”
California Western School of Law has a Pro Bono Honors Society, which began in the 1990s to recognized students for their pro bono work with SDVLP. It’s expanded to include those who volunteer with other nonprofit organizations in San Diego, and the school recently added a Public Service Honors Society.
Hundreds of students are involved in the ceremony every year. Participants receive certificates personally signed by the California Western dean and get special mention on their transcripts.
“It’s really blossomed,” Fitzpatrick said. USD law school dean Kevin Cole and California Western dean Steven Smith sit on SDVLP’s board of directors, and all three schools participated in the organization’s annual LAF-Off comedy fundraising event this year.
“It’s a terrific partnership, and it’s a logical one,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s mutually beneficial all around.”