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Students Start Careers With Good Habits

Pro Bono Services and the Miller Center at Penn State-Dickinson


Desiree Nemec


With the need for pro bono escalating and the constantly busy schedules of attorneys, what better way to ensure representation for Pennsylvania’s impoverished population than to enlist the cooperation of those who are willing to do most anything in order to gain experience and connections within the legal profession?


Through the Miller Center Public Interest Advocacy program, students at the Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law are aiding area attorneys and beginning to represent both underrepresented and unrepresented clients before their career even begins. The center, which was founded through a gift to the law school by Judge G. Thomas Miller and Anne G. Miller, originated in the spring of 2001. The central goal of the Miller Center is to foster students’ understanding of and commitment to their obligation to serve the underrepresented. Students performing at least sixty hours of public service work over the course of their law school careers are then formally recognized as Miller Center Public Interest Advocates upon graduation. In its first semester, the Miller Center certified eight people as advocates. The class of 2003 graduated 39 advocates, nearly one-quarter of the graduating class. Twenty-seven students of the class of 2005 have qualified to become advocates.


Students have many opportunities to serve the public interest including: Pro Bono Projects, which include volunteering to aid public defenders and legal services; the IOLTA Grant Program, which is a school-sponsored program wherein students work full-time in legal services during the summer; and Public Interest Organizations, which includes providing assistance to the ACLU and the Immigrant Resource Center in Philadelphia.


Through the Miller Center and the Miller Advocacy Chair, Professor Gary Gildin, attorneys can enlist the help of students for a variety of tasks such as researching topics, writing memorandums and briefs, and attending pro se clinics. MidPenn Legal Services, for example, often assists students in becoming more familiar with the needs of those who cannot afford the hourly rates of an attorney.


Pro se custody clinics are one of the services that MidPenn Services provides for Dickinson students can attend. While students often can aid lawyers in their researching needs without ever meeting either the lawyer or the client, these clinics give the students an opportunity to meet the people whom they are helping. Both attorneys and law students partake in the clinics, aiding people in the completion of their custody forms. The students and lawyers help to answer any questions, and the attorneys then review the file before the papers are taken to be filed. Only limited knowledge of custody law is needed to contribute in the clinics, making this a great way for students to perform public service work. 


Through the Miller Center, I have begun my pro bono services one-year-and-one-half before graduation. In the middle of my second year, I was looking for opportunities to build my resume and obtain legal experiences. I decided to volunteer for the Miller Center so I could use my spare time to help those without the financial means to help themselves. Since then, I have assisted area attorneys in a variety of projects ranging from researching Pennsylvania’s laws on the competency of defendants to the Fair Housing Act to attending the pro se clinics. Through my research, I have helped six attorneys in their representations and expect to lengthen that list throughout my final year at Dickinson.


Pro bono service is a tremendous way to gain both legal experience and an appreciation for the needs of those who cannot afford legal counsel. And who better to instill the need for pro bono services into than the people who someday soon will be expected to offer such services?