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The Roots of the Public Service Program

Howard Lesnick
Howard Lesnick
In 1989, the faculty approved a proposal by Howard Lesnick to institute a requirement that students do 35 hours of unpaid public service legal work during each of their second and third years. Penn Law was the first leading national law school to do so.

Since then, hundreds upon hundreds of students have performed nearly 400,000 hours of pro bono service, from the streets of Philadelphia to the barrios of Mexico and the villages of Cambodia. As effects go, thatís pretty impressive.

And itís been rewarded. In 2000, Penn Law became the first law school to win the ABA Pro Bono Publico Award. This past spring, the law school created the Howard Lesnick Pro Bono Award, which will go annually to a graduate who has demonstrated a sustained commitment to pro bono work.

Lesnick, who has taught Professional Responsibility for 38 years, sat down to discuss his role in the program and why public service is important to the legal profession.

Why is it important for students to perform public service?
The idea is to for students to learn to build it into their professional lives. And it aids law students to come to think that law school is not simply a prelude to oneís professional life but an integral part of it.

Why do lawyers have an obligation to the common good?
Lawyers are in a pretty privileged situation. Theyíre the beneficiary of a lot of social investment. Many people and organizations, public and private (including the U.S. Treasury), participate in that. The hallmark of a profession, especially ours, is that one has a responsibility to people that may include but goes beyond oneís self and family ó people affected by our work, the legal system as a whole. And thatís what law is supposed to be about: social ordering for the common good.

What has been the impact of the program?
Unpaid public service is now taken for granted, not only here, but throughout legal education. For 10 years now, people come here knowing that this is part of the deal. We have designed the program so that students realize that no matter what their particular interests, or their politics, are, they have a choice that will meet the requirement. They can work on litigation, they can work on policy formulation, they can work on deals; they can do securities work, criminal trials, or immigration work ó and on and on. The only requirement is that the work be part of the school year, call on specifically legal skills, be unpaid, and be done for a nonprofit organization or a law firm that isnít billing for their time.

The Law School has long had in place a loan forgiveness program to encourage alumni to pursue public service careers. How important is that?
Loan forgiveness is important because the school, including its faculty, is the beneficiary of the high tuition students pay. People have all sorts of career aspirations, and educational debt constrains their choices terribly. I think itís important for us to do what we can to reduce some of the pressures. The gap between what young lawyers earn working for a large commercial firm and what they earn working for a public interest office is often well over $100,000 a year. Loan forgiveness canít make up for that but it can deal with the sudden shock of having to start paying back school loans. It frees some graduates to do the kind of work they want to do. Itís more than a drop in the bucket - and itís less than a solution to the problem.