Southwestern Celebrates Students' Public Service
Taking a break from studying, over 250 students were invited to join Dean Parrish, faculty, staff and supervising attorneys from the community at a luncheon to honor and congratulate them for the impressive pro bono legal services they provided to the community during the year. The program included a keynote address by the Hon. Terry B. Friedman, a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge and former Executive Director of Bet Tzedek.
Since its founding, Southwestern has held public interest as a central component of its curriculum and philosophy, and encourages public service through a wide spectrum of programs, courses, activities and individual pursuits. This year, Southwestern students collectively provided more than 10,000 hours of pro bono service under the auspices of the law school's Public Service Program. Fifty-seven graduating students received signed letters of recognition from the Dean and special stoles to wear at graduation for volunteering 75 hours or more of their time; their law school transcripts will also carry a formal notation of "Public Service Distinction." In addition, 65 continuing students who volunteered 25 hours or more this academic year received congratulatory letters from the Dean.
Professor Julia Vázquez, supervising attorney for the Immigration Law Clinic, honored the six students selected to receive Public Interest Service Awards this year in recognition of their significant dedication to public interest law activities while at Southwestern. Samantha Forbes, Amy Huberman, Thien-Thu Pham, Vanessa Sanchez and Zepur Simonian received the 2013 Public Interest Service Awards (Sanchez's award was noted "with distinction"). Stefan Ali was recognized for his extraordinary commitment with the George and Katrina Woolverton Public Service Award. Professor Vázquez (pictured above with Ali) remarked that he went so far as to recruit faculty, as she herself received calls from him to assist with projects.
After praising the students, Judge Friedman began his remarks by noting that it was exactly 50 years and one month since the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark case that guarantees the right to effective assistance of counsel for those unable to afford it. "There is a huge gap in the availability of legal assistance in so many areas of law," he stated. "And these organizations don't just need staff attorneys. They rely on volunteer attorneys as well." He observed that "Southwestern is in 'Public Interest Central' in Los Angeles," with many of the leading public interest legal organizations within walking distance of the campus. "I hope the proximity that exists is something you hold onto - come back here - they need you," he said.
He also shared that these students had discovered the secret: the work they do as volunteers in public service will put them ahead in the job market at graduation. "You actually get into the courtroom," Judge Friedman said. "You get experience, gain confidence and see how it really works." He referred to many problems that people face, problems that don't just fit into the "cubby holes of the law," and shared that the best lawyers understand that law is just a piece of the bigger picture. "It is how you interact with and help your clients in more ways than just standing by their side and advocating for them in court."
Finally, he commended those at the luncheon for choosing to volunteer in the midst of the current economy and recognized that "this is just the beginning. Carry on the tradition of pro bono work. In addition to doing well, the importance of doing good is everlasting."
Professor Laura Cohen, who Judge Friedman acknowledged as the best role model these students could have, since she herself has dedicated her entire legal career to helping others, spearheads the Public Service Program at Southwestern. She commended the law students for eagerly volunteering for the vast array of opportunities whenever she put out the call and thanked them for their service.
After applauding the students for continuing to uphold the law school's proud tradition of public service, Dean Parrish closed the program by commenting that Southwestern in fact does have a unique and special connection, stating that the law school is "ahead of the curve in what we care about deeply, and that's the local Los Angeles community."