The rigors of law school can draw students deep into their coursework, sometimes obscuring the opportunities to turn what they’re learning into real-life legal assistance for people in need.
At Rutgers Law School, an emphasis on real-world experience encourages law students to learn by doing; legal lessons come alive in the classroom and are also made manifest through pro bono projects that support the surrounding communities of Camden and Newark.
Alumna Hillary Ladov’s decision during law school to devote her time to give back to Camden has been an investment in the livelihoods of various community groups—from a low-income housing development, an animal sanctuary, to a marching band booster club, among others—by helping them receive tax exempt status.
The Rutgers 501(c)(3) Pro Bono Project was founded by Ladov ‘13, now an associate at Wade Clark Mulcahy; Matan Shmuel ‘13, now an associate at Saul Ewing; and Christopher Weidman ‘13, now a trial lawyer at Rosner & Tucker, P.C., while they were in law school. Ladov continues to serve as the project’s managing attorney and Shmuel has returned this year as a supervising attorney for tax issues. Christine McDevitt ’11, an associate at Stradley Ronon, has volunteered as a supervising attorney for several years and was honored as an exceptional alumna for her contributions in 2015.
According to Ladov, who clerked for the Honorable Anne E. Lazarus of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, this project was launched because she and her co-founders saw a need in the community that was going unserved.
“At the time, local legal services providers did not provide nonprofit incorporation assistance, nor did any of the regional law schools,” says Ladov. “Meanwhile, we had friends and colleagues asking for guidance on how to start nonprofits. In addition, we each felt that while the rigors of law school sometimes prevented us from doing as much community service as we would have liked, the project would facilitate nonprofits getting ‘boots on the ground’ to perform service in their respective communities.”
The project continues to connect volunteer law students with community groups that are exploring the process of tax exempt status. If it’s appropriate for the groups to apply for 501(c)(3) status, the Rutgers Law project helps. Currently the project represents regional community organizations that include a church organization that provided scholarships to college-bound students, multiple youth empowerment organizations, a veterans’ recognition organization, a motorcycle club, and several organizations focused female support and empowerment.
Some of these innovative and high-impact organizations, like Distributing Dignity, an enterprise that began in Camden in 2012 and provides homeless women and teens with undergarments and sanitary products, have received national attention. Because of Rutgers Law, the 501(c)(3) status appears on the company’s website, as does what motivated the initiative: “As women, we couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to have an inadequate bra or none at all. Moreover, we couldn’t comprehend rationing out monthly supplies or worse…going without them.”
Ladov says staying involved with the project she founded in law school allows her to do good for others while staying connected to Rutgers. “I cherish enabling those people who have dedicated their blood, sweat, and tears to grassroots efforts to transition those organizations to the next level as they continue to carry out the organizations’ charitable missions,” she adds.
The Rutgers Law 501(c)(3) Project in Camden is also a terrific opportunity for current law students to gain practical skills, like interviewing clients, reviewing corporate documents, writing memos, and managing cases in a professional manner, under the supervision of practicing attorneys from regional firms.
“The students have a fair deal of agency in running their cases, which I think is scary for them at first because they have to think through critical issues and make decisions about next steps,” Ladov points out. “It’s a great preview of what a summer associate or first year will be asked to do. In addition, supervising attorneys are very generous with their time and advice and are always happy to talk with students about classes, job opportunities, bar exams, etc.”