Spring break options

The words spring break may make you think about relaxing on a tropical beach. But many law school students have turned the one-or two-week break into a lot more: everything from studying the legal system in faraway places to helping low-income families.

Maybe your law school doesn’t provide spring recess opportunities like these. You can sometimes find them at other schools that will let you enroll or participate. Some schools offer at least one credit if the studies involved are ABA approved.

Hofstra University School of Law in Hempstead, N.Y., will again hold its Cuba Field Study, a one-credit program that complies with U.S. government travel rules. It is available to 25 to 35 students from Hofstra or elsewhere who have completed their first year of law school.

“We’ve been running this program for a few years — ever since U.S. restrictions were lifted on travel to Cuba,” said Steven Richman, associate director of global initiatives at Hofstra. “It seemed like a natural opportunity for students to see a place in the world that has been closed for some time.”

For the past couple of years, the topic for the Cuba trip has been export law, but this spring it will be civil and common law legal systems with a focus on how law regulates family lives including family formation, dissolution and relational rights. Professor J. Herbie DiFonzo will also discuss how the Cuban legal system emerged and how it deals with families. Hofstra has also done a similar trip to Ecuador in the past, but will not do so this year.

Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson will launch its first spring break study program in Havana in 2014, according to Susan Copeland, coordinator for the trip. This Cuban study will be open to law students from other schools. Teaching will focus on comparative constitutional law and will be done by Professor John Anderson and Judge Louise Guirola, chief justice for the Southern District of Mississippi. Guirola has American and Cuban dual citizenship.

These schools make all the arrangements using travel agencies that have experience with Cuba; and guides accompany the students. Charter flights to Cuba generally originate in Tampa or Miami.

Many foreign study opportunities, however, are limited to students at specific law schools who start out with a class studying legal issues involved in a specific country. Then during spring break, class members travel to the country for research. That’s been the case with the international team projects that students themselves organize at Northwestern Law in Chicago.

Begun in 1999, with students studying legal issues in Ghana and Tanzania, the program has expanded. Now about 125 students participate in an independent team project each year. Research has been done in: Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Greece, India, Italy, Malawi, Morocco, Namibia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Panama, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, and Vietnam.

Twelve students from the University of Iowa College of Law did a study trip last spring a lot closer to home base. Their destination — the state capital in Des Moines  less than two hours from campus.   

“I had previously worked in governmental relations with a financial firm in Des Moines,” said Sara Raaii, now in her second year at University of Iowa. “So I was really interested in getting back into the area and connecting again with attorneys and other people I knew at the capital. I had previously seen government with a firm that tried to influence lawmakers, but this time I was assigned to shadow a legislator and I got to see the capital from the other side.”

According to Linda McGuire, the associate dean who organized the event, students’ calendars were packed. They spent three mornings with the legal counsel to the governor of Iowa who also led a tour of the Capitol building. Students spent a day and a half paired up with legislators and during that time attended caucus and committee meetings and even talked with constituents. Students paid their own way and many stayed with friends and family members.

In the past, University of Iowa has sponsored spring breaks during which students provided legal aid in New Orleans after the Katrina hurricane, on Indian reservations in South Dakota and in low-income neighborhoods in Chicago. This was the first trip to the capital city for the law school.

Other similar alternative spring breaks take place around the country in which law students provide pro bono legal services as a way of giving back to the community or the world. They often are eager to enroll volunteer workers from many different law schools. That’s the case with the spring 2014 alternative spring break being planned by the Public Action Law Society at the University of Memphis School of Law, according to Holly Palmer, a student and president of the society.

“Last year we had 40 participants including 15 to 20 from out of town law schools,” Palmer said. “We really want to get our name out there and attract a national base.”

The group hopes to provide services to low-income Memphis residents that would include arranging waivers of fees for criminal defendants, helping veterans file disability claims, aiding residents in arranging pro se divorces, and assisting immigrants with naturalization issues.