For Harvard Law School students providing pro bono services to individuals in need, legal practice looks different in a world fighting a global pandemic, where meeting clients directly and in-person court hearings are either not possible or uncertain.
“It’s been quite an adventure … for a lot of people, including courts,” said Peter Daniels ’21. “They’re going through their own adjustments on how to operate remotely. We’re trying our best to offer our services to parties in a way that can often be more accessible to them.” Daniels is co-president of the Harvard Mediation Program (HMP), one of 11 student practice organizations (SPOs) and 35 legal clinics where students learn to practice law by serving vulnerable clients who might not otherwise be able to get legal help. HMP works with local courts to facilitate mediations between different parties including employers and employees and landlords and tenants.
Promoting pro bono legal work has been a hallmark of Harvard Law School’s approach to legal education for decades. J.D. students are required to complete at least 50 pro bono hours during their time at law school, with the Class of 2020 completing a total of 364,637 hours—an average of nearly 640 hours per student. The reasons for which students are drawn to free legal work are individual and unique.
“Providing simple, understandable direct legal counsel … is a way for us to serve the community as well as give students valuable educational experience,” said Anil Partridge ’22, events co-director for another student practice organization, the Recording Artists Project (RAP). RAP recently partnered with MONDO.NYC to provide free legal consultations to emerging artists at MONDO’s fifth annual music and tech law symposium. “It feels good to be able to provide services to those who haven’t had the chance to get a legal education,” said Partridge.
“One of the key things that I heard before coming to law school and during orientation was the importance of being able to get out there and do pro bono work,” said RAP Oversight Director Chris Zheng ’22. “When you sit in black letter law classes, it’s all very theoretical but you don’t really know what it’s like to practice law. I think working in a SPO is a fantastic way of understanding what the actual legal work that you’re doing is like.”
For some students, the work serves as a means to connect with their interests outside of law school and their inspirations for studying law.
“Music itself is an inspiration for me in my work at RAP and, in this particular time, seeing that law and policy are extremely important in upholding the lives of musicians trying to make it work,” said Lowry Yankwich ’21, co-president of RAP. “One of the things that I like about RAP is you’re helping people realize a creative enterprise … You’re helping create something even though your piece of the puzzle is very small.”
For others, it serves as a reminder of the realities of legal work beyond the classroom.
“I found it really valuable that pro bono opportunities reminded me that the law is always couched in some sort of situation that involves real people,” said Daniels. “It really allowed me to go back into my broader education with a renewed vigor knowing that there were real-world applications for the things that I was learning.”
“Being a part of SPOs and seeing the law work on a nitty-gritty level is really important to remembering that people interact with the law,” said Alison Roberts’22 of her work as co-president of the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP).
While student practice organizations provide consultation and direct representation, many also focus on policy and research relevant to national and international organizations. HLS Advocates for Human Rights, for instance, works to advance global human rights. Advocates assists and partners on projects that cover topics such as election monitoring, corporate accountability, and fair trial rights.
“We are often working behind the scenes of major initiatives,” said Sondra Anton ’22, HLS Advocates’ activism director. “When students join a project, there is rarely any individual recognition. This aspect of our pro bono work allows Advocates’ members not only to gain greater access to complex and delicate human rights work, but also to gain greater insight into what is required to propel meaningful action in the field.”
A large part of the work involves advocating for direct action within local communities in the Greater Boston Area. Project No One Leaves and the Tenant Advocacy Project (TAP) both work regularly with groups such as City Life/Vida Urbana to inform residents of their housing rights while RAP has an ongoing partnership with students at the Berklee College of Music.
“We’re connecting with community partners so we can be a part of that conversation on how to build a movement for sustainable and secure housing in Boston,” said Roberts.
Despite being in uncharted territory amid the coronavirus pandemic, SPOs such as RAP have found that the accommodations made for remote work enable them to have further reach.
“People are becoming increasingly comfortable with remote interactions. We’ve talked to people in D.C., in Texas, in California. We don’t really have to think of ourselves as helping strictly Boston locals and I think that’s a really cool thing. Clients can come from anywhere,” said Yankwich.
Beyond tackling the issues that come with conducting direct client services virtually, some student organizations have found the substance of their work being guided by COVID-19 as well, especially those working in fields particularly effected by the pandemic.
“When we found out that the IRS could not deny CARES act stimulus checks on the basis of someone’s incarceration, so many people became eligible,” said Joan Steffen ’22, policy director at the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, which represents people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons. “There’s a huge symbolic value to it. I was talking to a client and for him, just being able to get that money is just so important, especially for people who get left behind or forgotten in so many economic stimulus efforts. To finally be included in the group of people benefitting was really moving for him.”
From October 25 to-31, HLS’ Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs marked the 2020 National Celebration of Pro Bono through a series of virtual events highlighting the work of outstanding attorneys engaged in pro bono legal work to ensure access to justice. One event focused on eradicating racial disparities in the criminal justice system, another on protecting voting rights. The theme for 2020, A Call to Action, highlighted the way in which lawyers work together with clients, partner organizations, and communities to bring about urgently needed systemic changes that advocate for equal justice for all.
At a keynote event focused on the legacy and values of the late Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants ‘80, nine of late justice’s distinguished friends and colleagues commemorated his life and work and his overarching commitment to access to justice.
With the aim of providing access to justice for all, HLS’ SPOs serve as one of the law school’s leading sources for pro bono work. SPO work is entirely voluntary and students don’t receive any academic credit for the hundreds of hours of legal work they provide to clients, free of charge. Led by student boards and managed by supervising attorneys, SPOs provide direct representation and consultation, as well as research and policy work