Class of 2016 gave more than $52 million in legal services

Cities and towns need a number of key institutions to keep them safe, healthy and vibrant. 

Some are obvious, such as hospitals, police and fire departments. A thriving arts community elevates the hipster factor. Colleges are vital.   

However, there’s one institution — also educational — that often flies well below the radar when it comes to its effect on the community.

That would be a law school.  

Law schools offer more than just nice libraries. They attract bright, ambitious people, many of whom are willing and eager to augment the local legal community while they learn their profession. Indeed, a big part of the law school mission is to offer low-cost legal services through clinics, externships and pro bono work.

Law schools do remarkable work in their communities. And, if anything, the recent push toward more practical training has increased legal education’s local effect. 

This year, both National Jurist and the Association of American Law Schools wanted to find out just how much schools contribute.

AALS conducted a survey in November, and 80 law schools reported that 17,899 law students in the class of 2016 contributed more than 2.2 million hours in legal services as part of their legal education. That’s an average of about 124 hours per student.

Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization coalition, estimates the value of volunteer time to be $23.56 an hour. Using this number, the total value of the students' time at these schools is estimated to be in excess of $52.2 million. 

Let’s say that again: $52.2 million. 

And that’s probably on the low side. Several schools indicated that many hours go unreported, or are difficult to track, and actual contributions are likely to be significantly higher. The project also did not include hours contributed by students in law school master degree programs. 

“Access to justice regardless of means is a guiding principle of the legal profession and legal education,” said Paul Marcus, 2017 AALS president and professor at The College of William and Mary Law School. “We are pleased to report these significant contributions by law students toward equal justice for all. Through these important efforts, thousands of clients and communities receive quality legal services while providing students with hands-on educational opportunities to help them become more effective lawyers upon graduation.”

AALS plans to continue the survey annually.

Meanwhile, the winter issues of National Jurist and preLaw magazine honor those schools that contribute the most in legal services to their local communities, based on our own survey. We look at which schools have the greatest impact on their communities, and those with the total number of hours and the highest hours per student.  

We found some incredible stories. Look at West Virginia University College of Law. It’s the only law school in a state that’s been hit hard economically because of a drop in the demand for coal. Only 53 percent of West Virginia’s adults are in the work force — the lowest percentage in the nation.

Is there a need for legal help for the poor? You bet. During the 2015-16 school year, West Virginia University’s law students and faculty served more than 500 clients or client groups through its nine clinics, for a total of 40,000 hours. Students also worked a host of pro bono cases and externships.

“We’re a public university and a land grant one at that,” said Dean Gregory Bowman. “Our mission is to serve the public. We take that very seriously.” 

To read more about what students are doing across the country, look for the winter issue of National Jurist and preLaw. 

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