By Debbie Meyers
This past summer, the Maida Public Interest Fellowships Program provided funding to Rutgers Law School students and one graduate as they worked in public interest law and served New Jersey communities with their expertise.
Since 2015, the Maida Public Interest Fellowships Program has enabled more than 240 Rutgers Law School students to provide more than 90,000 hours of free legal services to public interest legal organizations. Maida Fellows have helped thousands of people experiencing poverty or living with illness and disability, as well as government agencies attempting to address the rights of victims, protect the public from fraud, and find the best solutions for families experiencing violence. The program also supports one post-graduate fellow each year for an intensive public interest law experience in preparation for a full-fledged public interest career. The program models an ideal blend of philanthropy, public interest, and community service.
You could say it all started with rock climbing.
“When our kids started school, their school needed a rock-climbing wall,” says Sharon Maida GSE’97, who along with her husband, James RLAW’90, funds the program. “That was one of our first philanthropic endeavors. When the school needed to cut field trips, we would quietly pay for them.”
That funding for school projects continued a family tradition of philanthropy that they learned from their parents and later instilled in their four children. The tradition grew into a philanthropic portfolio that includes blindness support projects, social justice, and pediatric and geriatric health care. At Rutgers, Sharon and James have turned their philanthropy into a visionary program for law students—with a significant multiplier effect.
“This program gives Rutgers Law pro bono and public interest work a national reach and allows students to give back to their communities before they leave law school,” says James. “Everyone deserves access to justice.”
This summer, I helped a non-English-speaking elderly disability recipient get his benefits reinstated after the Social Security Administration had stopped paying him. He’d been without any income for four months and was down to his last $15. While this case was the most personally rewarding, it’s also the most illustrative of how necessary this work is.
The Multiplier Effect
James says the idea for the program began with thinking about how over the summer, law students often faced the choice of taking an unpaid public interest internship or a paying job that offered no legal experience.
“We thought about how students needed money, and how could they learn to be lawyers—pro bono lawyers—and work for nonprofits,” James says, adding that supporting law students and nonprofits who need a supply of quality lawyers also benefits community members who don’t always have access to great legal services. “We wanted to figure out how to pay it further forward through a multiplier effect of thousands of people receiving hours and hours of free legal services.”
The solution came from Jill Friedman, associate dean of the Pro Bono and Public Interest Program at Rutgers Law School. With input from colleagues, she came up with the public service proposal to present to the Maidas in 2014. “[Sharon and James] loved that they could help create a program for both the Camden and Newark campuses, that it would directly support students, and that every dollar would be going to help people in the community,” says Friedman. “They had the vision that this was more than donating a room or piece of technology. What they’re doing truly changes lives and has changed our law school.”