Students to Perform Pro Bono Work for Social Justice Groups Nationwide During Spring Break

Public Affairs, 212-854-2650
New York, March 10, 2011—Wausau, Wis., isn’t your typical destination for spring break. But for 10 Columbia Law School students, that’s exactly the point.

The students will forsake sun and surf to spend their spring break performing pro bono work at Wisconsin Judicare, Inc., a non-profit law firm that is the civil legal services provider for 33 northern Wisconsin counties and 11 federally recognized Indian tribes.
It is one of eight projects that are part of the Law School’s annual “Spring Break Caravans,” which matches volunteers with social justice organizations around the country eager for extra help. 



This is the first year Caravans students will go to Wisconsin, after Andrea Johnson ’12, founder and co-chair of the Law School’s Midwest Society, contacted legal services organizations in Wisconsin and her native Minnesota. Judicare wrote back and said it would be eager to host Columbia students.

“They have never done this before. There’s definitely a need,” Johnson said.

Johnson reached out to organizations that worked with Indian tribes, as many members of the Midwest Society also belong to the Law School’s Native American Law Students Association (NALSA). Members of the latter group are expected to make up the bulk of the Wisconsin contingent.

“Part of the education is going to be what it’s like to be in and among Indian people, but also about what makes one tribe distinct from another,” said Shawn Watts ’12, the NALSA chapter president.

After a day of training, the students will spend a day each working with residents of four reservations—the Lac du Flambeau Band, the Red Cliff Band, and Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa tribe, and the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of the Ojibwa tribe. Students will assist staff attorneys who will conduct a clinic on wills. Students will also have the opportunity to spend one day at a criminal law clinic at the Menominee Tribal Court.

“We want to take students out of their zone of comfort and put them in communities that are dealing with real problems on the ground,” Johnson said.

To be sure, some students will caravan to warmer locales than Wisconsin, such as ACLU Puerto Rico, the Miami-Dade (FL) Public Defender’s office, and The California Appellate Project, a non-profit corporation established by the State Bar of California in 1983 as a legal resource center to implement the constitutional right to counsel for indigent persons facing execution.  The students will all work as advocates for prisoners’ rights, improved indigent defense, and the abolition of the death penalty.

"The Caravans program gives our students the opportunity to experience how satisfying, necessary and, often, fun, pro bono work can be," said Ellen Chapnick, Dean for Columbia Law School's Social Justice Initiatives. "It also spurs a deep personal commitment to the professional obligation lawyers have to put their education and time to good use on behalf of underserved individuals, communities and issues."  

About a dozen students will also travel to New Orleans, to assist the Capital Appeals Project and the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice with projects involving challenges to racial discrimination in jury selection, as well as projects involving the rights of day laborers, guestworkers, and homeless residents still struggling in the post-Katrina landscape.

Closer to home, several students will tackle projects for The Bronx Defenders, which employs a groundbreaking system of holistic defense to fight the causes and consequences of getting caught up in the criminal justice system.

Funding for Spring Break Caravans, which offers eligible students a stipend to cover the cost of travel and accommodations, is being provided again by the law firms Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett and Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
The Spring Break Caravans is designed, in part, to help students fulfill a requirement of 40 hours of pro bono work before they graduate. However, many find the work so rewarding they voluntarily exceed that number, Chapnick said.

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