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Legal Aid

HEARTS OF THE CITY

Law: Foundation's grants allow students to pursue public interest jobs that don't offer a salary--but have other rewards.

February 26, 1997|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Law students considering a summer or a career working for the benefit of the community expect to trade away the grand starting salaries their big-firm friends will earn.

What they often don't count on, however, is that working to help the sick, the elderly and the disenfranchised sometimes pays nothing at all.

And for those with six-figure student loans, a zero-figure summer income is not an option--especially when students who work in large law firms for the summer can expect to make a $1,000 to $1,500 per week.

At USC and an increasing number of law schools nationwide, a student-run group is helping those who want to help others by seeing to it that civic-minded classmates won't have to choose between paying the rent and working in legal aid.

Since 1987, USC's Public Interest Legal Foundation has offered more than 140 law students summer grants of $4,000 each to provide legal aid to Cambodian refugees, people with AIDS, abused children, exploited immigrants and others who need assistance. Six students have also been given yearlong grants to practice public interest law full time after graduation.

"If you want to help people who need your help you go to PILF," said Ted Klaassen, a second-year law student at USC. "You make a decent living--not a whole lot more than that, but a living--and you get to help some people out. I feel really good about that."

Now, a movement that began with a handful of Public Interest Legal Foundation chapters 10 years ago is represented at 138 law schools across the country.

At USC, in order to begin their foundation chapter in 1987, students who established the group asked the student bar association to help fund it by placing a $10 voluntary tax on each student's tuition bill.

Almost all students agreed to pay the self-imposed tax, said Karen Lash, an associate dean at USC Law School and a founding member of the school's chapter of the foundation.

Alumni, hearing about the students' pledges, offered to match those funds. Students soon embarked on other fund-raising efforts, from asking classmates with summer associate jobs to donate one day's pay to selling mugs and T-shirts.

And in what has become one of the most popular events at the law school, the foundation in 1992 began a fund-raising auction, enlisting students and professors' talents as well as their donations. Popular teachers such as Erwin Chemerinsky and Susan Estrich serve as auctioneers. Items up for sale include cheesecakes and gourmet meals prepared by classmates as well as dinners and outings hosted by professors and deans.

The latest auction, held last week before an audience of about 450 students, faculty and alumni, brought in about $20,000.

Klaassen, a 27-year-old Colorado native, said that after his first semester in law school, the classroom seemed too far removed from the real world. Although he plans to go into business law, he started working for El Rescate Legal Services, a Pico-Union organization representing Latino immigrants.

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Klaassen's clients were people who had been defrauded, falsely accused of immigration violations or otherwise taken advantage of by a system that seemed to offer no recourse, he said.

But after a semester's worth of work, he needed money for rent and for extra cash during his next year in school, and El Rescate could not afford to pay him.

Taking a paying summer job would leave his clients further in the lurch, he said, and that was when the public interest foundation came in.

A variety of students apply for foundation grants, Lash said. Some come to law school and the foundation with the intention of working in the public sector. Others, such as Klaassen, plan careers in the corporate arena.

Both, Lash said, are important parts of the program. Those who want to devote their careers to helping people who have no other place to turn deserve the support of the legal community, she said.

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And the foundation is also a place where students such as Klaassen can learn about the benefits of pro bono work--the practice of private attorneys donating their time to people in need.

"Public interest law may not be my primary occupation, but I will always devote time to it," Klaassen said. "I still intend to do corporate law. But at the same time, you can't be human and ignore the fact that there are so many people facing this huge legal system who have absolutely no chance."

The more people the foundation helps in law school, Lash said, the more members of the professional legal community who have a background and an interest in pro bono-type work.

"It just seems really important to me," Klaassen said. "I've always felt I needed to give back to the community."

The Public Interest Legal Foundation wants to make sure students like Klaassen can do just that.

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