Center for Public Service helps students find pro bono opportunities

For the good of the people

In January 2015, Emory Law established a center that would be dedicated to supporting students who plan for careers in public interest and government and who seek postgraduate judicial clerkships or postgraduate public interest fellowships. The new Center for Public Service also began helping students find pro bono volunteer opportunities to satisfy their personal goals and professional requirements.

The center’s students, staff, and faculty often work closely with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. In fact, the society—which provides free civil legal aid to low-income people across metro Atlanta—hosted a training session for students in the fall of this academic year. In this session, students learned how to assist with client intake and screening. This is a common activity for students, especially during the fall. October is regularly a month of show and tell for the center, as the spotlight is on pro bono activities nationwide. The American Bar Association celebrates Pro Bono week then, and many state bar associations and other organizations have adopted month-long celebrations for pro bono activities and education. Emory Law has unofficially extended the week to include the entire month.

Also in October, the school held its annual pro bono dinner recognizing returning students who received certificates for providing 25 or more pro bono hours during the previous year. This event kick-started the 2018–2019 Public Interest Dinner Series, during which Stephen Bright, former director, president, and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, shared his experiences with the crowd.

The Emory Public Interest Committee (EPIC) held its annual conference during October. This year’s conference focused on miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions. There was a Pro Bono Fair featuring representatives from several dozen legal non-profit organizations, a panel featuring alumni working as public defenders in Georgia, and the Atlanta Bar Association’s Celebrating Service Luncheon. Assistant Dean Rita Sheffey 20L, director of the Center for Public Service, received the Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s 2018 Extraordinary Pro Bono Service Award during this celebration, and she helped present the 2018 Rita A. Sheffey Public Interest Award to Alpa Amin, legal services director for the Georgia Asylum and Legal Services network.

The annual honor, which was first awarded in 2012 to Sheffey herself, celebrates the assistant dean as the creator of the Public Interest Law Section and former president of the boards of the Atlanta Bar Association, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.

Public service is an essential element of being a professional, Sheffey says, and it comes in many forms: pro bono legal work for low-income individuals and non-profit organizations, service on non-profit boards, government service, and holding elected office, among other things.

The Center for Public Service has helped to stoke interest in public interest careers among students. Just four years into Sheffey’s stint as director of the center, its profile has been expanded and students have been exposed to opportunities that might broaden their experience, expand their capacity for empathy, and provide access to legal representation for a population who might never have found such help before.

“Public service makes a lawyer, and law student, happier and more well-rounded, and it benefits the communities in which we live and work. As lawyers, we are uniquely suited to provide access to justice for those who otherwise could not afford it,” Sheffey says.

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