The James and Sharon Maida Community Justice Suite was dedicated in 2015 at the Rutgers Law School’s clinic space in Camden, but the true impact of the couple’s $1 million gift is the fellowship program it funds to connect law students and recent graduates with public interest organizations throughout the region.
Why the Maidas decided to make such an investment in Rutgers Law School could be understood from a quote from James, a 1990 Rutgers Law School alumnus, that read,“Supporting the pro bono and public interest program at Rutgers Law School means our gift will have a multiplier effect: it helps students, who in turn help underserved clients access good legal service. Sharon and I are pleased and proud to pay it forward in this way.”
These words will live on through permanent display inside the clinic as well, to inspire the students, faculty, and staff who each year provide more than 30,000 hours of free legal support to those in need and handle hundreds of cases that address issues like domestic violence, immigration, and children’s justice.
“The lawyering program does the most important work of the law school,” noted former Acting Co-Dean John Oberdiek, who began the dedication. “Because of the Maidas’ extraordinary generosity, Rutgers Law School will always be a pillar of this community.” He added, “It’s been a real joy to preside over the institution that will receive a gift of this magnitude.”
While the legal support offered to vulnerable populations through clinic and pro bono programs has long been a tradition at Rutgers Law School’s locations in Camden and Newark, now thanks to the James and Sharon Maida Public Interest Fellowship Program the reach of Rutgers Law will impact even more individuals in need.
More than a dozen nonprofits agreed to serve as inaugural partnering organizations to welcome a Rutgers Law student from Camden or Newark as a summer fellow or as a full-year post-graduate fellow. Organizations that have partnered with the program include American Civil Liberties Union affiliates of New Jersey and Pennsylvania; AIDS Law Project; American Friends Service Committee; Community Legal Services; HIAS Pennsylvania; Kids in Need of Defense; Pennsylvania Innocence Project; New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; Fair Share Housing; Philadelphia VIP; Senior Law Center; and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice.
In addition, through the Maida Fellowship Program Rutgers Law School students who secure unpaid summer legal positions at non-profits advancing the public good on their own also are eligible for funding. By this summer, up to 40 Maida Public Interest Summer Fellowships will provide $4,000 for 10 weeks.
Associate Dean for Pro Bono and Public Interest Jill Friedman says the impact of the Maidas’ gift is beyond description and has made her busier than ever connecting law students with so many impressive organizations. “We are helping the most vulnerable people in our society, while advancing an already outstanding program into the very top echelon of public law schools for support of public interest lawyering.”
During the dedication, the first Maida Post-Graduate Public Interest Fellow Joshua Bauers, a 2015 Rutgers Law graduate, talked about his experience at Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, where he has been earning a stipend approaching $50,000 since last summer advocating for lower-income New Jerseyans in redeveloping municipalities with inadequate housing plans.
“The opportunity to do this work is a dream come true for me. I grew up in a low-income community near here - Gloucester City. A lot of kids I grew up with didn’t graduate high school,” said Bauers. “Only a few went on to college, and even fewer graduated college and went on to a graduate program like law school. I realized early on in my law school career that I had been given a tremendous opportunity to do good work and to help folks from neighborhoods like mine. With the contribution from the Maidas, I am able to give back and help other families and children from areas like where I grew up.”
Rutgers Law students from Camden and Newark, who will be Maida Summer Fellows, also attended the dedication. Danielle Panizzi, a first-year student at Rutgers Law’s Newark location, is thrilled to join Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, which last year assisted 3,460 people and whose volunteers provided $1.8 million in free legal services.
“I will get to hone my legal skills and serve my community at the same time,” she says. “I am most excited to be able to interview clients, draft synopses of cases, and assist with legal clinics. The Maida Fellowship is providing me with the opportunity to have my first legal internship at a prestigious organization like Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. I am so grateful.”
James Maida is the founder, president, and CEO of Gaming Laboratories International, LLC, headquartered in Lakewood, N.J., with additional worldwide locations. The first and largest testing lab of its kind, Gaming Laboratories International specializes in the testing, certification and security of gaming as well as consultation to gaming boards, lotteries, and casino operators globally. Sharon O'Mara Maida, Ed.D, a 1997 Rutgers University Graduate School of Education alumna, is a pioneer in the area of orientation and mobility of blind and visually impaired children and is nationally recognized for her work in this area. She also maintains a private practice specializing in children with visual impairments. They are the trustees of the James and Sharon Maida Foundation, Inc., which creates opportunities for young people to continue their education, the couple is passionate about “paying it forward.”
When James was first entering law school he was newly married to Sharon and says private education was not in the works. He says he was happy to have found financial support at Rutgers coupled with a strong legal education. The merger of Rutgers’ law schools to become Rutgers Law School last summer is an affirmation of the momentum of the institution and why this gift is designed to benefit students in Camden and Newark.
“I could not run my business every day,” remarked James of his overseeing 1,000 employees at Gaming Laboratories. “I couldn’t navigate what I have to navigate on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, if I did not have a great law school education behind me.”