Law in Contemporary Society
OK, everybody is worried about jobs, internships. It does not matter you are 1L, 2L, 3L or associates, or partners. Everybody is at risk. I, for one, don't have a job for the summer. yet. I hope something will come up. But I got a better idea, why not start your own student-run public interest organization (SPIO)?

Business Model of the SPIO: Chasing the Ambulance

Instead of begging internship/jobs from the status quo public interest organizations, we can just do the jobs they do, but much better. We can literally chase the "ambulances", e.g. court houses (including housing court, family court, probate court, traffic court, immigration court etc), admin agencies (e.g. city, state and federal agencies), police stations, shelters, prison-bound buses stops. We can find the clients where the clients needs legal aid the most. I am sick and tired of all these public interest organizations telling you that they got all the man power they need, which is obviously a white lie. There are millions of people who need help desperately and don't know where to turn to. If we can find our own client, we at least have work to do. When Ray Bekerman (author of RIAA v People Blog) came here to give a talk, he asked how come there is not organization at Columbia to help those who are sued RIAA. Our SPIO is that kind of organization which can do that kind of job. In essence, the SPIO is not a one trick pony, it is a proactive multi-service legal aid society.

How do We Get Paid?

At the start up phase, the SPIO won't get paid for its job. But that does not mean the student members are not getting paid. 1. we have the guaranteed funding for the summer. Once we persuade the law school the recognize SPIO as a bona-fide public interest organization, all will at least get paid for living expenses. 2. donation. If this works well, I am sure we can just use the old PILF trick to get some donors. 3. sanctions. I envision that SPIO will file its own suits and if we win, we will get paid by our adversaries. Once the organization is up and running, we can act sort of temp agency for all the public interest organization out there. We will have a talent pool including foreign language speakers of Arabic to Zulu, MDs, scientist, engineers, painters, musicians. If these public interest organization has something they cannot handle by themselves, they will call us. Of course, we need to share our costs with them if they can afford it.

Transform Internship into a Real Job

If this model works well, there is no reason the SPIO cannot evolve into a real public interest law firm (PILF). Why work for someone else if you have something passionate to work on and you want to be the general leading the battle?

-- XinpingZhu - 17 Mar 2009

I think this is an interesting idea, but I have to be honest, I'm not sure I understand completely how it would work. We can't actually provide legal aid without a license. Are there any SPIOs out there at other schools (although not necessary, it would be interesting to see how they function)? How would the temporary nature of the organization be handled - many cases and problems take longer than 3 years. I'm not trying to condemn your idea, but would be interested in hearing you explain this idea in greater depth.

-- MichaelPanfil - 17 Mar 2009

I have several comments about your post, Xinping.

First, it's important to me to have guidance from seasoned professionals who can help to guide me as I develop as a lawyer. We all have great intentions and high aspirations, but it seems that you are suggesting that we put a band-aid on the wounds that established PI organizations are attempting to mend. As Professor Moglen said in class, why aim to help out 10 or 100 people when we can help thousands.

Next, it is one thing to propose that there is an population in need of help that has not been identified, but suggesting that public interest organizations on the whole are failing to give help where it is needed most is insulting to the numerous lawyers who have dedicated their careers to solving social problems and helping people with legal issues. Many, if not most of these lawyers focus not only on how to solve problems but on how to solve them most efficiently and in a lasting way.

On the other hand, it may be your proposition that having an excess in the labor supply of the public interest sector should be impossible as long as there are still problems to be solved and people to be assisted. I suspect that the limited ability of PI firms to hire is based not only on funding for salaries, but also on the ability to supervise employees and keep their work tightly focused on effective advocacy.

For this reason, it is some ways concerning that the private firms that are suffering in these uncertain economic times are diverting labor to public interest organizations for what might only be a very short amount of time. Many of the firms are offering some portion of a 1st year attorney's annual salary to graduating 3Ls in return for them finding positions with public interest organizations for one year. This is obviously good in many ways. It gives these students a way to continue to develop their skills and contribute to society. It should not matter that they originally intended to go to the private sector. But at the same time, it is unsettling to think that some people who have had their hearts set on working in PI are being turned away because limited spots have been filled by people who won't be around for long. The real concern is that by filling spots with the temporary labor diverted from the private firms, public interest practices will not be self sustaining, as lawyers return to the firms. Nevertheless, another possibility is that a whole new generation of public interest attorneys will be generated by people who realize that they have found jobs in which they are fulfilled as professionals.

In any case, we are seeing a shift in the way labor is distributed across legal jobs, and in sparking a conversation on innovation in developing new frontiers of employment, I think you have helped us take a step in the right direction

-- JonathanFriedman - 18 Mar 2009

I admire the concept, and think it could theoretically fill a crucial niche as a general legal aid provider. By creating what seems to be an open access/need group, it would allow people in need of advice to find enthusiastic and intellectually curious practitioners to help solve various issues. It tangentially shares a lot in common with the Wiki concept, because as SPIO cases increased, so would the knowledge and expertise of those running it.

The problems though are manifold, especially with regards to our inability to actually give legal advice (something Michael brought up). The organization would need to get veteran lawyers to actually run the program, which would be a tough sell given the indefinite nature of the funding. Furthermore, while I'm sure eventually student participation could be kept at a consistent level, I would imagine that those students would move on to other professional opportunities. This could be for financial reasons, or to specialize in a public interest field that they feel drawn to. This brings up another issue, which is something Jonathan mentioned, and that is that there are already an incredible amount of specialists that would cover the work done by SPIO. Unless SPIO acted as sort of a clearing house and directory for issues (not something I think you intended), what incentive would someone have to work with SPIO instead of an established group? This is not to condemn your idea, I just think there are practical difficulties. Despite these though, I really think this could be a fantastic way of giving law students a broad array of public service experience, and would love to hear responses to the difficulties proposed.

On the subject Jon also brought up, regarding firms sending people to PI jobs, I think this is a fantastic development quite frankly. Clearly there will be problems with turnover, but it seems that the public interest domain can never have enough good legal minds.

-- AaronShepard - 23 Mar 2009

Aaron, my point was that an interesting dilemma arises when PI firms are given incentive to hire the private sector's deferrals (because they are free labor) over a potentially more dedicated class of labor (those who have chosen PI work to the exclusion of private firm jobs) resulting in a shortage of another necessary and limited resource (supervisory ability of PI employers). Intuitively, it seems that the PI labor market should not equilibrate until all issues and problems are addressed, but this simply isn't the case, and as the flood of private firm deferrals will show, money is not the only limiting resource. This was a point I came to in response to Xingping's comment: "I am sick and tired of all these public interest organizations telling you that they got all the man power they need, which is obviously a white lie."

-- JonathanFriedman - 23 Mar 2009

Xinping asked: "Why work for someone else if you have something passionate to work on and you want to be the general leading the battle?"

Because, as Jon touched on very briefly, part of the value of a position after one's first year of law school is the training and exposure you get to real legal work. We now write memos, draft appellant briefs and shape moot court arguments, but in truth, none of it really counts. Even if Legal Writing was for a letter grade, it still doesn't really "count" for much. It's not affecting someone's life, determining where they will live or how they will support their families. It is probably the single ounce of our Columbia Law education that is practical rather than theoretical, and with a pass-pass system and student editors that are understandably not devoting all free time to legal writing issues, that's not saying much. An SPIO might be a good idea for a second or third year student (or perhaps a first year who is that confident in their abilities -- to whom I suggest, go for it), but for the general student body, I think it is a little early to be jumping into making independent decisions about individual lives. Yes, you could say that of course the students would be supervised by attorneys, but with attorneys legally having to provide the final word, what then makes your SPIO distinguishable from a general public interest firm? Wouldn't you feel more confident taking on these significant matters knowing that, as an upperclassmen, you have delved outside the prescribed 1L curriculum and given yourself the opportunity to develop your expertise so that it can be put towards most efficiently helping others in your public interest positions?

To add another point, I find it interesting that so often, the legal community is quick to assume public interest positions are inferior to or completed isolated from law firm positions. For one, we assume they are easy to come by (as evidenced by Jon's highlighting of the firms who so easily advise their associates to use the recession to spend a year in a secured job in the public interest field.)In reality, one should know these organizations and their staffs are just as affected by funding restrictions and failed fund-raising goals as anyone else. Secondly, it seems as though the prevailing idea is evidenced in the proposition for an SPIO. Putting aside the practical limitations, we would never suggest a group of rising 1Ls is mentally/intellectually ready to spend their first summer creating their own fully operable firm, so why is it ok to suggest the same group is ready to take the jobs of the "failing" PI organizations and tackle the issues of clients more vulnerable than that seen in the alternative context?


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r7 - 07 Jan 2010 - 22:34:20 - IanSullivan
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