Law Students Step Up As Legal Needs From Virus Grow

By Cara Bayles | May 10, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

It was spring break, and Alyssa Leader, a third-year law student at the University of North Carolina, had some free time and plenty of frustration over the rate of coronavirus infection in jails and detention centers. She wanted to help.

So she did what she does every day: She took to Twitter.

"Do any defense or immigration attorneys (preferably working in public defense/legal aid) need law student research or writing support on bail/release motions related to COVID?" she wrote. "I have the capacity to work on one right now (pro bono.)"

The question soon garnered 221 likes and 17 responses, from both overwhelmed attorneys and eager students.

"The amount of folks who responded initially was more than I had the capacity to do as one person, but I kind of figured surely other people were interested in this, and it turned out that they were," Leader told Law360 in an interview.

The next day, the COVID-19 Pro Bono Support Listserv was born.

Leader set up two online forms — one for attorneys in need of assistance and one for law students and paralegals to sign up for a group email list. Every day, she sends new volunteer opportunities to the email list. She vets the first people who raise their hands, to ensure they are indeed qualified, then plays matchmaker, introducing the attorneys to their new helpers.

In less than two months, her project has garnered a following of more than 4,000 law students, and matched about 250 volunteers with 80 pro bono opportunities.

"I guess you should never underestimate the fact that law students are enthusiastic and want to be involved and are all sitting at home doing nothing right now," she said.

Volunteering is a welcome respite for students struggling with the uncertainty COVID-19 has wreaked on the legal profession. Some of the summer internships or post-graduation jobs they'd lined up have gone virtual or vanished amid a slumping economy.

Recent graduates are in licensing limbo, as more states cancel the July bar exam. But that has created some volunteering leeway, according to Sam Halpert, director of public service initiatives at the National Association for Law Placement.

Usually, there are restrictions under various state regulations on how law students can assist with legal work. But now, states like Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri and Texas have temporarily eased some restrictions on practicing by unlicensed law students and graduates.

"Because the pandemic has forced many states to delay or cancel their upcoming bar exams, various jurisdictions have been issuing special rules accommodating law students graduating this spring who may be unable to obtain bar licenses in a timely fashion," he said. "In at least some of these jurisdictions, these special rules are built out of existing student practice rules."

Many students who are still in law school have seen their classes switch to pass/fail, easing some of the pressure that accompanies law school. Meanwhile, as they study torts and contracts, there's the sense that the world is burning outside their windows and they want to do something to help put the fire out.

That's why Tyler McClure decided to volunteer. A first-year law student at Stanford, she's interested in working with emerging companies. She jumped at the chance to research whether members of the Colorado Nonprofit Association could apply for loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

"I'd been hearing about how the CARES Act and the way it was rolled out had been really confusing for a lot of companies," McClure said. "This seemed like a good way I could lend my time to researching and helping to decode the act to help some of these nonprofits get some money to stay afloat."

McClure's supervisor on the project, Virginia Fitt, works as in-house counsel at a pharmaceutical company. She too is volunteering through We The Action, a group that formed in 2017 to connect volunteer lawyers with nonprofit organizations.

Fitt knew that in order to do her day job well and help as many nonprofits as possible, she'd need some assistance. Working with McClure and another law student gave her the opportunity to mentor young attorneys, and it also saved time.

"I think people fear taking on law students because they believe it may take more time to get someone up to speed than just doing it yourself," she said. "That was not my experience. They were able to almost immediately contribute and help the clients."

Those clients ranged from small, local nonprofits to national organizations, and their focus spanned the gambit of social causes, from the environment to suicide prevention, to education.

Many of those groups didn't realize that they were eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, which was originally pitched as offering relief to small businesses. Nonprofits weren't sure whether they qualified, how they should calculate their loans, and what their repayment obligations might be. In their applications, they were unclear on how to deal with specific expenses, which employees could be considered full time, what would happen if an employee were to quit.

"The guidance was done on very short notice, and sections of it seemed to conflict, or were maybe inartfully worded grammatically," Fitt said. "But with the assistance of lawyers, it became a little clearer to the organizations."

At least one organization Fitt advised has already received a loan through the PPP, according to Mariah Taylor, the Colorado Nonprofit Association's membership coordinator. She said she's still waiting to hear from two more member organizations about the status of their loan applications.

She added that Fitt's work was "an amazing contribution" and that she'd been in contact with McClure, who was "very responsive with us and seemed to have actively participated in the program."

McClure researched the language of the CARES Act and crafted initial responses to the nonprofits' questions. Fitt would then check her work and discuss strategy.

In those talks, McClure learned to communicate with clients clearly without resorting to legalese, how to keep them fully informed without overwhelming them with information.

That was something law school hadn't taught her. It prepared her for the actual practice of lawyering, she said.

"A big part of being an attorney, especially in the field I'm interested in, is working with clients directly, and advising them and breaking down things that can be complicated in ways that help them make informed decisions," she said. "This has obviously been a very different experience than studying for a doctrinal class."

That's why Fitt recommends taking on law students right now — not only so attorneys can ease their own workload, but so they can mentor the next generation of attorneys.

"There are a lot of law students right now in the United States who are worried about what they're going to do this summer," she said. "I encourage other practicing attorneys, now more than ever, to consider taking on pro bono work and also having law students assist on that."

Leader said her email list is still looking for any volunteer opportunities that are coronavirus-related. She doesn't mind if the attorney seeking volunteers is taking payment from a client, as long as the work benefits a small business or individual.

"We're still taking requests," she said. "We plan on doing this for as long as there's a need."

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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