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Widener University School of Law launches Public Interest Initiative

For immediate release
Contact Mary Allen, public relations officer
Office 302-477-2175; cell 302-562-9239
March 16, 2005

Student volunteers provide free legal assistance to the indigen

Widener University School of Law has launched an initiative on its Harrisburg campus dedicated to the promotion of public interest work by Widener law students.

The school will coordinate with outside organizations to establish opportunities for students to be trained and supervised so they can provide volunteer assistance to agencies that serve the community in the pursuit of justice.

The effort, known as the Public Interest Initiative, is led by Dean of Students Elizabeth G. Simcox and Director of Career Development Karen Durkin, Esq.

Law students who serve the community through the initiative will receive neither pay nor credit for their work. But Durkin said the work will provide them with valuable legal experience, make them more attractive to future employers and hopefully bolster a spirit of public service in those who choose private-sector careers.

“I don’t think students realize how gratifying this work can be,” she said. “We hope this experience can be a spark that gets many of them thinking about the rewards of public service.”

Law School Dean Douglas Ray agreed, stating: “We think that students who experience the satisfaction of using their skills to serve the less fortunate while in law school will be likely to uphold the bar’s tradition of pro bono service to the poor throughout their careers.”

The public benefits too. Simcox and Durkin are working to form alliances with public service agencies where the Law School can place student volunteers. Representatives of several organizations interested in learning more about the program, forming alliances or maintaining existing alliances attended an initiative kickoff celebration March 3 at the Law School.

Those agencies included:

Mid-Penn Legal Services Group and The Dauphin County Bar Association, who will collaborate in training students to work on custody disputes so that they may work alongside practicing attorneys who are handling those kinds of cases pro bono.

Clean Air Council, which seeks assistance in its efforts to measure restaurant smoking and non-smoking seating compliance.

Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham LLP, which will put students in its Harrisburg office to work with attorneys who are already doing pro bono work.

The Educational Advocacy Project, where students will assist pro bono attorneys in community presentations on children’s legal rights to free and appropriate educations. Students will also help attorneys on pro bono cases. The project is run in conjunction with the Dauphin County Bar Association and Mid Penn Legal Services.

Several other community-service minded programs already in place at the Law School will now move under the initiative umbrella. Those include partnerships with:

U.S. Department of Probation and Parole where students have long assisted the agency and at least 10 more students are interested in placement under the new initiative.

Pennsylvania Legal Services, which provides funding and oversight to organizations that provide legal assistance to low-income Pennsylvanians.

Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, where students already work doing research and writing in areas that include contracts, bankruptcies and labor disputes.

IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, run in conjunction with the Dauphin County Bar Association, where a student volunteer provides free assistance to low-income people, the elderly, disabled and people with a limited English proficiency who require help preparing their tax returns.

Dauphin County attorney Mark Silliker of Silliker & Reinhold spoke at the kickoff celebration. Silliker is well known for his dedication to pro bono work, which has received recognition from many organizations, including the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Silliker said members of the bar look forward to working with the school to make the initiative a success that benefits the public.

“We’re very grateful,” he said. “The contributions are noticed by all.”

The school is anxious to learn of other opportunities available for public service work in the community and hopes a media spotlight on the initiative might lead to more connections between law students and potential clients or service organizations in need.