Temple Law School: Introducing Students To Careers In The Public Interest

Editor: Would you tell our readers about your professional experience?

Thompson: Since August 2004, I have been Assistant Dean for Career Planning at Temple University Beasley School of Law. In fact, I am an alumnus of the law school's evening division. Before that, I was an academic and wrote test questions for the LSAT examination, which sparked my interest in attending law school. Then I practiced for a number of years at a large firm and clerked for a federal judge before deciding that the best way for me to give something back to the community was to help law students in their career planning choices.

Editor: I understand that Temple Law School has a long-standing commitment to public interest education and training. What is the philosophy behind this commitment?

Thompson: Temple Law School was founded on the principle of access to legal education. Not surprisingly, this principle has evolved to include a very strong commitment to the principle of access to justice. Just as it has been important to ensure that people who have traditionally been denied the opportunity to become lawyers were given that opportunity, so has it become part of our mission to ensure that our students understand that they have a responsibility to reach out to those with little or no access to the justice system.

Editor: Would you say that in recent years there has been an increase in law school applicants interested in public interest law? What has been Temple's experience?

Thompson: While it is difficult to say what the trend is on a national basis, our experience is that we attract a great many people who are interested in careers in public interest law. Over the past few years, between 15 and 18 percent of the students we admit have expressed a desire to pursue public interest law, and these figures appear to be stable. A notable difference has to do with our reach: We have people applying from pretty far afield - from Oklahoma, Texas, California, and so on - because of our reputation for welcoming students who have this career ambition. I find this very gratifying.

Editor: How about Temple's post-graduate placement record?

Thompson: We are extremely proud of our record in placing graduates in public interest jobs. We have always outstripped the national average with respect to these placements, sometimes by a factor of 100 percent. Last year, we placed twice as many graduates into public interests jobs than any other school in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

Editor: What types of positions do students obtain when they take this path?

Thompson: Philadelphia has a rich public interest community, which is part of the reason we do so well. We have people like Carol Tracey, who is the Executive Director of the Women's Law Project, an organization that advocates for legislation promoting women's rights. Rue Landau works on housing issues with Community Legal Services. Two of our alumni - Bob Schwartz and Marcia Levick - founded the Juvenile Law Center, which is one of the nation's leading organizations engaged in advocacy for the rights of juveniles. And, of course, more than a hundred of our graduates have gone to a variety of public defender's offices to represent indigent people accused of crimes.

Editor: In addition to classroom knowledge, hands-on experience is invaluable for developing practical legal skills. Please tell us about Temple's extensive clinical program.

Thompson: Every law school has a clinical program today, but in 1953, when Temple began its legal aid office as a clinical undertaking for law students, we were among the pioneers. Today we have some 250 clinical opportunities available for students in their third or fourth year. They earn academic credit by working with several seasoned attorneys at a variety of agencies providing legal services to people who otherwise would not be able to afford a lawyer. We have, for example, students working at a nationalities service center on behalf of clients seeking asylum or permanent residency. We have people who help migrant workers fill out their tax forms. A very popular clinic, predictably, is housed in the public defender's office. Consumer bankruptcy cases also receive considerable attention. And, not all of what is offered involves litigation. We have many of our students working on the organization, incorporation and tax-exemptions of many different types of non-profit organizations.

If you move beyond the structured legal programs Temple offers, we provide several interesting and unusual public interest law experiences. Last year we collaborated with a local law firm to assist area residents in clearing title to their properties. We had about 40 students working on this project under the guidance of the firm's real estate lawyers.

This fall we will hold a Public Interest Experience Fair, where we invite a number of different agencies to come and meet our students. We anticipate that this will result in some very interesting opportunities. Among the agencies to be invited are the Philadelphia ACLU, an organization called Prevention Point, which is Philadelphia's legal project working on needle exchange, and the Committee of 70, a political watchdog group. We have worked with all of these organizations in the past.

Editor: Has Temple been involved in service projects in New Orleans?

Thompson: Absolutely. Last year 23 Temple law students took a service trip to New Orleans during spring break to assist in continuing efforts to rebuild the city. They were divided among several projects, including helping to organize a FEMA trailer colony, mapping neighborhoods on the verge of collapse and pursuing contractors who had failed to perform work.

Editor: Has globalization impacted Temple's public interest program?

Thompson: Yes. We recognize that all law is eventually going to be global in some respect. As a consequence, we have increased the number of faculty members who are engaged in international law with public service implications. In particular we have a new professor whose work is focused on the effects of immigration law on marginalized individuals. In addition, we also have several students who have been able to connect with various international tribunals around the world. This summer we have a recent graduate doing pro bono work for the Cambodian Genocide Tribunal, and for several years we have placed at least one person with the Rwanda Genocide Tribunals. There are increased opportunities in this area, and we are diligent in attempting to identify them for our students, who continue to express great interest.

Editor: I think everyone is concerned over the cost of a law school education these days. Many students leave law school with a substantial burden of debt, and, of course, public interest jobs do not pay what law firm positions do. What is Temple doing financially to help students afford to pursue public interest careers?

Thompson: There is no question that this is a challenge for the law school community. Speaking for Temple, we take pride in the fact that we offer an affordable, quality legal education. But, we recognize that this is just the first step. Public interest agencies traditionally do not pay a lot, and many students still amass burdensome debts despite our affordability.

At the front end, we try to help public-interest minded people to come to Temple by offering public interest scholarships. We have created the Rubin Presser Public Interest Scholars Program, which provides full tuition scholarships for several entering students who have demonstrated an exceptional affinity for and longstanding commitment to public interest work. During students' time here, we encourage them - and indeed everyone - to consider taking summer jobs with a public interest or community orientation, even when these positions do not pay, in lieu of law firm summer associate jobs. We have a student organization called SPIN - Student Public Interest Network - which raises funds to provide students with grants so they can engage in non-compensated work over the summer. We also work hard to find matching funds for federal work-study programs. At the back end, we have a loan repayment assistance program, understanding that, despite all our best efforts, students are going to graduate with debt. In 1991, through the generosity of Leonard Barrack, one of our alumni, we created a program in which students who work in the public interest receive help in repaying their student loans. Essentially, the longer a person works in the public interest arena, the less they have to repay. Since we started the program, we have provided funding to more than 100 graduates, and that number grows with each class we graduate.

Editor: What other incentives does Temple provide to encourage this kind of activity?

Thompson: The Rubin Presser Public Interest Law Honor Society acknowledges students who provide at least 50 hours of pro bono work over the course of a year. A student who has done100 hours of pro bono work is named a Fellow of the Society. Last year 71 members of the Society performed more than 8,000 hours of pro bono work. Including the various clinics, at least 75 percent of every class at Temple is involved in pro bono activities.

Editor: Does the exposure to pubic interest law that Temple provides its students benefit those who are not prepared to commit to careers in the public interest but instead choose to practice in law firms or with corporate legal departments.

Thompson: Yes, without question. We attempt to instill in all of our students the sense that becoming a lawyer is a great privilege, and that one of the finest things a lawyer can do is take advantage of the many opportunities he or she has to use the special skills of the legal practitioner to give something back to the community. If we are successful in making that lesson understood at the beginning of a person's career - and we believe we are - then we have launched our graduates on a lifelong habit of service which will be of incalculable benefit to those unable to otherwise retain legal counsel, to the communities to which all of us belong, to the profession, and, I think, most importantly, to those called upon to provide these services. Whether one works in the public sector or the private, in a non-profit organization or a law firm, the opportunity to serve is present, and we at Temple Law School believe that one of the most important things we do is instill in our students the desire to take advantage of that opportunity.

Published August 1, 2007.