Civic Engagement in Camden and Newark: Pro Bono Service

Our home communities of Camden and Newark are the perfect cities in which to learn and serve. By performing direct service and policy work, Rutgers Law School students develop an appreciation for structural inequities and help real people. Students perform pro bono work in a variety of settings. Most of our projects are in-house partnerships with legal services providers, focused on bankruptcy; community legal education; life planning (medical directives, etc.); international refugee assistance; LGBTQ rights and legal needs; re-entry for returning citizens; and many othe rareas. In addition, students often gain approval to work with partner entities such as the ACLU, various innocence organizations, etc. Students also often organize winter and spring break service projects in New Jersey and throughout the United States.

Rutgers Law strives to inculcate an ethic of service in all law students. Through the Pro Bono Program, students have the opportunity to engage in pro bono work to increase access to justice, build their lawyering skills, and develop a lifelong commitment to public interest. The program supports this vision by collaborating with our home communities, and with students, faculty and attorneys to create meaningful and structured pro bono opportunities for Rutgers law students.

The Rutgers Pro Bono Program is aligned with the university's goals of promoting service-learning; integrating existing resources to create innovative collaborative programs; and promoting publicly-engaged scholarship.

 

Information for Pro Bono Involvement
  • Pro Bono Projects
  • Project and Hours Eligibility, Approval, and Ethics Memo
  • Graduation Awards
  • Information for Supervisors
  • NY Pro Bono Bar Admission

The Pro Bono Program is informed and guided by American Bar Association Model Rule 6.1, which says that "(e)very lawyer has a professional repsonsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay" and directs lawyers to provide pro bono services to "(1) persons of limited means; or (2) charitable, religious, civil, community, governmental and educational organizations in matters which are designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means."

Camden Pro Bono Projects

The Alternate Spring Break Project enables students to hone their legal skills in underserved locations during this traditional vacation week in the academic calendar.  ASB volunteers have traveled to New Orleans, Nashville, and other locations.   

COVID-19 Projects include tenant and prisoner advocacy, and community education for small business owners.

The Domestic Violence Project trains and places students in the Domestic Violence Unit of the Camden County Family Court, where they help survivors of domestic violence complete complaints and obtain temporary restraining orders.  Students also provide community education and develop materials for survivors.

The Honorable Judith H. Wizmur Bankruptcy Pro Bono Project pairs students with volunteer attorneys, many of whom are Rutgers alumni, to interview low-income clients and to prepare and file bankruptcy petitions. This project is generously funded by the American College of Bankruptcy Foundation and the New Jersey Bankruptcy Lawyers Foundation.

Through the Mediation Project, students earn the designation of “Trained Mediator” by the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts after completing a rigorous multi-day training course and observing/apprenticing with experienced student mediators. Volunteers work with parties in the local Municipal and Superior Courts.  

Volunteers at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project assist with case investigation and analysis for clients asserting actual innocence.

Through the Planning Estates (PEP) Project, students prepare wills, powers of attorney, and living wills for elderly, Camden-area residents who have low income, under the supervision of faculty and alumni pro bono lawyers.

Developed and administered with Professor Sarah Ricks , the Pro Bono Research Project offers free legal research services to public interest and government lawyers, and private attorneys handling pro bono cases. Students provide pro bono service while improving their own research and writing skills.

The Street Law Project trains and places law students in area high schools and youth programs to teach about legal issues pertinent to their lives. 

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Project (“VITA”) partners with the Campaign for Working Families, Inc. to provide e-filing for clients, which results in faster processing and faster refunds.  Many clients of the VITA project are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Care Tax Credit; annually, the Project successfully files for nearly $500,000 in returns for Camden residents.

The Voters Rights Project trains students to monitor voting sites during primary and general elections. On Election Day in November, our students fan out all over Camden, both monitoring and assisting the Camden County Board of Elections in its efforts to ensure compliance with all applicable law. Each year a comprehensive, detailed, well-documented report is created and delivered to the Camden County Board of Elections.

Archived Projects

The Financial Literacy Project (FLiP) provides information on  credit, credit scoring, building and maintaining credit, saving, budgeting and identity protection. 

Through the Hurricane Sandy Project students assisted Legal Services of New Jersey lawyers with Sandy-related legal issues.   A three-way partnership among the Pro Bono Program, the Law School’s student public interest group, and LSNJ, the Sandy Legal Relief Project assisted low-income New Jersey residents with Hurricane Sandy-related problems, including landlord-tenant, consumer and insurance issues, among others.

The Youth Court Project, an outgrowth of Street Law, guides Camden school children in restorative justice practices 

Newark Pro Bono Projects

Courtroom Advocates Program:  The Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP) trains law students to help survivors of domestic violence obtain orders of protection in Family Court. Once trained, students assist clients in drafting and filing petitions; accompany clients to court appearances; advocate for their clients before a judge; educate clients about their legal rights and remedies, and provide safety planning and referrals to community resources.  

Immigrant Rights Collective:  Students assist Make the Road NJ with weekly citizenship clinics and other immigration legal work.

Honorable Morris Stern Bankruptcy Assistance Project: The Honorable Morris Stern Bankruptcy Project recruits and trains student and attorney volunteers who provide legal representation to low-income clients in Chapter 7, no asset bankruptcy cases.  The Pro Bono Program organizes the training and hosts  community education workshops. 

The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) organizes law students and lawyers to develop and enforce a set of legal rights for refugees and displaced persons. Mobilizing direct legal aid, litigation, and systemic advocacy, IRAP serves the world's most persecuted individuals and empowers the next generation of human rights leaders.  

LGBTQ Legal Education and Outreach Project: This project, a joint initiative of Rutgers Law School’s Pro Bono Program, the NYC Bar Association, and the North Jersey Community Research Initiative, provides student and attorney volunteers with the opportunity to participate in weekly clinics where they conduct intakes for members of the LGBTQ community on poverty law and discrimination matters.  

Newark Housing Rights Pro Bono Project:  Through this student-founded pro bono project, Rutgers law students are working with the McCarter English law firm,  Volunteer Lawyers for Justice,  and the Ironbound Corporation to provide law-related education to communities about their right to counsel. In addition, the group is currently engaged in statewide court observing and various law reform efforts. 

Volunteer Lawyers for Justice (VLJ) partners with Rutgers Law students on a variety of pro se legal clinics,  in  downtown Newark, Elizabeth, and East Orange. This project provides the opportunity to practice client interviewing skills, work with experienced attorneys from NJ law firms and corporations, and complete work in areas including divorce, criminal record expungement, consumer debt defense, bankruptcy, and veterans’ issues.  

 

Eligible pro bono work must be:
•    uncompensated (no pay, no academic credit); and
•    supervised by an attorney legally responsible for the work; and
•    substantive (primarily not clerical and not administrative)
Supervised by:
•    Lawyers at organizations providing legal services to low-income clients; or
•    Lawyers at government agencies; or
•    Lawyers at non-profit organizations (excluding trade associations and political organizations); or
•    Private lawyers performing pro bono work; or
•    Faculty members performing pro bono work; or
•    Judges or court staff for judicial internships (assistance to pro se litigants preferred but not required)
Timing
•    Pro bono hours may be accumulated during:
•    the academic year
•    spring break (30-hour maximum)
•    the summer (50-hour maximum)

Approval
Every student is advised to meet with Pro Bono Program professionals or with a faculty mentor to discuss suitable pro bono placements. The Program retains discretion to limit or deny participation in any project or by any student.
N.B. In order to be recognized, pro bono work that is not part of an in-house Rutgers project must be approved in advance using the External Pro Bono Project Approval Form.  

    

•    Hours must be recorded on PHARS (Camden) or Student Log (Newark).

•    For Full-Time Students:
•    Pro Bono Publico Award: recognizes 50 or more hours of pro bono service
•    Dean's Pro Bono Publico Award for Exceptional Service: recognizes 100 or more hours of pro bono service
•    Dean’s Pro Bono Publico Award for Exceptional Service with Distinction: recognizes 200 or more hours of pro bono service

•    For Part-Time Students:
•    Pro Bono Publico Award: recognizes 35 or more hours of pro bono service
•    Dean’s Pro Bono Publico Award for Exceptional Service: recognizes 70 or more hours of pro bono service
•    Dean’s Pro Bono Publico Award for Exceptional Service with Distinction: recognizes 140 or more hours of pro bono service

TIPS FOR COMMUNITY PARTNERS   

Assignments, Training and Feedback
In order for community partners and students to benefit from the pro bono program,  we have found that it is critical that supervisors provide adequate upfront training and supervision to students. The following describes the following key elements of effective partnerships: crafting effective assignments, providing meaningful supervision, and providing ongoing feedback.

Framing Assignments:
The following are among the assignments that we have found are suitable for law student interns in the pro bono program:
•    Client intake. Students gain client interaction skills and improve their ability to spot issues.  
•    Memo drafting. Provide students with a file and ask them to write a memo summarizing the case to date or particular documents (i.e., medical records). Have students draft opening or closing memos, which provides students with a great opportunity to summarize a client’s situation or the result of a particular case. Students fine-tune their writing skills and gain substantive knowledge.
•    Client meetings and follow-up. Have students attend client meetings or court proceedings with you and ask that they take notes in order to send a follow-up letter to the client. Having a specific task makes it more meaningful for the student to ensure that clients fully understand and retain what happened and what will happen next in their case. Students gain understanding of the importance of recording client interactions and proceedings, as well as the nuances to client meetings and background work in the course of legal representation.
•    Research projects. These projects can be case-specific or on background, or for the purpose of creating client self-help or informational materials. Students will improve their legal research and writing skills while becoming an “expert” in a specific issue area.
•    Draft court documents, motions, or pleadings.

Effectively Supervising Interns:  
A key to a successful internship is the ability of a supervising attorney or clerk to give assignments to the intern effectively. When any project is assigned, it is important to know exactly what you expect from the student and communicate your expectation to him or her. Below is a checklist you may find helpful to limit confusion and enhance productivity for both you and your law student intern:  
•    Provide context.  Explain the assignment in a manner that takes into account the student’s relative experience.  A thoughtful explanation will also help to ensure that the end product is indeed what was requested.
•    Discuss objectives.   Explain to the student how this particular assignment fits into the overall case and what the assignment will help you or the judge accomplish or resolve.
•    Articulate time commitment. Effective supervisors take the time to explain when drafts of the assignment are due, when the final product is due, and how much time you expect the student to spend on the assignment, including time for research and drafting. Keep in mind that students are often inexperienced and require extra time for thorough research.
•    Describe desired final work product.   formatting, style, rough v. polished draft, etc. If possible, provide an example of the desired format to assist the student in better understanding your expectation.
•    Build in follow Up: explain how to follow up with you. If progress meetings are desired, be sure to explain how often and the means by which such meetings should occur. If possible, provide the student with an alternate contact in case you cannot be reached.
•    Give a deadline. Even if you do not need a memo by a certain date, provide a due date to the student. This due date should take into account their remaining workload and how long you anticipate the assignment should take.
•    Provide an opportunity for a high level of feedback. Develop projects that allow for feedback and arrange opportunities for such feedback to be provided to the students.

Above all else, follow up with your student. As students begin working on assignments they often need additional and periodic help, assignment clarification, reassurance, or relief. Redefinition of the task is common as the student gathers information and gains a more precise understanding of the assignment. Informal and brief check-ins are entirely appropriate, but it also is important to schedule more formal meetings regularly.

Providing Constructive Feedback:
Most intern supervisors are very concerned with making the students’ internship pleasant and, as a result, may shy away from the sometimes uncomfortable task of critiquing the students' work. While this impulse is understandable, students need, deserve, and actually want honest feedback on their work. Students often assume that "no news is good news," and will continue to repeat the same errors unless they are given specific notice that improvement is necessary. All supervisors should provide feedback early on, so any problems can be addressed before the project proceeds too far. Most students are eager to become good lawyers and welcome specific advice on how they can sharpen their skills. 

When giving feedback, it is always a good idea to start off on a positive note. For example, even if the student's writing needs improvement, you may be honestly able to commend the student's research abilities. And if the research was weak, perhaps the student's eagerness and curiosity warrant a compliment. While you should not be reluctant to criticize the work where necessary, students are apt to be less defensive if they hear some good news first. .

The most effective feedback is specific and direct. To the extent possible, try to show students directly how to revise their work for resubmission instead of merely stating that writing must be ‘tightened’ or ‘only rely on relevant facts.’  While this kind of feedback can be time-consuming, it is also the most helpful. Below are seven categories to consider when reviewing a student’s performance. You may not need or want to touch on each of these categories during every feedback session, but if you assess the student’s performance on a specific assignment with these categories in mind, it may help both you and the student to focus on the areas of concern.

Ethical Considerations in the Context of Pro Bono: Students are expected to work in an ethical and professional manner while completing their pro bono service. All members of the Rutgers University community are expected to behave in an ethical and moral fashion, respecting the human dignity of all members of the community and resisting behavior that may cause danger or harm to others through violence, theft, or bigotry. All members of the Rutgers University community are expected to adhere to the civil and criminal laws of the local community, state, and nation, and to regulations promulgated by the University. All members of the Rutgers University community are expected to observe established standards of scholarship and academic freedom by respecting the intellectual property of others and by honoring the right of all students to pursue their education in an environment free from harassment and intimidation. In addition, all members of the Rutgers Law School Community are expected to behave in accordance with the Rules of Professional Conduct governing lawyers, both to comply with the University Code of Student Conduct, paragraph 10(p), and not to jeopardize admission to the practice of law.

Law students, like other non-lawyer employees of partner sites, must abide by the New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct. Thus, pro bono participants are subject to the same rules of ethics as the attorney who supervise them; supervising attorneys are responsible for the conduct of students working under their direction. If you experience difficulty with a pro bono participant or have any questions about the ethics of what they are doing, please do not ignore the problem. Address it with the student as quickly and as constructively as possible (see above section on Feedback). At the same time, please talk to the supervising Rutgers Law School dean. 

Confidentiality:  Students carrying out pro bono work should pay particular attention to issues concerning the preservation of client confidence and, must protect client information and maintain confidentiality. Pursuant to the Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.6, a lawyer should not reveal the confidences or secrets of a client. The contents of client files and communications with clients are privileged material. Students should discuss cases only with their supervising attorney, not with other students, employers, co-workers, family, friends, or public service program staff. Breaches of confidentiality should be reported to the supervising dean.

Conflicts of Interest:   The best way to avoid a conflict of interest problem is to have the student perform a conflict check each time they start a new assignment at your office. Make sure your student understands how your organization handles conflict checks.

Legal Advice vs. Legal Information:  The line between legal information and legal advice can often be unclear. Even if your pro bono student is working under a practice order, they must be careful not to create the impression that they are dispensing legal advice. Only an attorney can give legal advice. Please discuss what kinds of information students may ethically provide to clients at the beginning of the student’s placement.  Legal information is just that: general information about what the law says or how the court works. If the person seeking assistance is asking “how to” questions, they are seeking legal information. Students may answer these questions with information about how to fill out forms or general procedures. Legal advice consists of advising a client to take a particular course of action based on the facts of their case. If the person is asking about what will happen in their particular case or what they should do, they are seeking legal advice. 

The state of New York requires that all graduates applying for admission by examination certify that they have performed 50 hours of law-related pro bono service.  See Rule (22 NYCRR § 520.16).

The Law School and the Pro Bono Program cannot officially confirm that any project qualifies for the New York Rule.  To seek prior approval of a project, please email the Advocacy Committee on New York State Pro Boo Bar Admission Requirement at ProBonoRule@nycourts.gove.  Like all components of the NYS Bar application, completion and certification of these pro bono hours is your responsibility.  Students must provide proof of compliance by submitting the Form Affidavit of Compliance.