Boston University School of Law

Public Interest Project celebrates 25 years at BU Law

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Kaudwane natives suffering from HIV, war veterans coping with severe disabilities and homeowners facing foreclosures are just a few cases from a milieu of clients assisted by BU Law students in the past four years alone. A thriving climate for public interest work has influenced more and more BU Law students to spend their entire summers providing pro bono legal services to clients who are traditionally under-represented by the law.

Without funding from the law school, summers spent working in public interest would be financially impossible for many students. Since 1984, the law school’s Public Interest Project (PIP) has been dedicated to allocating PIP grants allowing BU Law students to pursue unpaid work in the public sector. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary at BU Law, PIP has grown into more than just a fundraising organization--it creates opportunities that bond students to underprivileged communities throughout the world.

Resources for students working with non-profit, public interest or government organizations are even more crucial during an uncertain economy. Now more than ever, legal services non-profits are facing shrinking budgets and discerning cuts in employment. PIP grant recipients are invaluable to these firms as their unpaid services can help ease the burden of such cuts.

BU Law alumna Anna Schleelein (‘08) is grateful for the number of PIP grant recipients able to join in her work at Boston’s Shelter Legal Services (SLS). Due to limited resources, SLS, which provides services to homeless or low-income women and veterans through on-site clinics throughout Boston, relies on law student volunteers to staff its clinics. “We currently have 17 BU Law students who are volunteering with our organization, which is more than any of the other Boston-area law schools. Without their assistance, we would not be able to serve nearly as many clients as we have this year,” says Schleelein.

In 2008, PIP provided grants to over 60 students, nearly one third of the law school’s 1L class. All students are eligible for a maximum of $4,000, or up to 40 hours per week for 10 weeks. During the summer months, recipients are responsible for reporting weekly work hours, with grants processed through Boston University’s payroll system, so that recipients are paid on a weekly basis.

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Andrew Novak ('09) in Botswana

Though sending a weekly timesheet to Boston from Africa was a bit of a hassle for Andrew Novak (‘09), he describes his public interest experience in Botswana as amazing. “I was working for a grassroots NGO, the Ditshwanelo Bostwana Centre for Human Rights in Garborone, where I spent most of my time working on indigenous rights issues and Zimbabwean refugee issues,” says Novak.

Affirming experiences are in no shortage among past PIP grant recipients. Margaret Barusch (‘09), who received PIP grants in both 2007 and 2008, says her grants provided a jump-start to her career. “When I entered law school, I knew I wanted to become a public defender,“ says Barusch. “At Committee for Public Council Services, I was able to spend time in court representing clients, visiting clients in local jails, researching criminal law issues and writing memos and motions. Because of my PIP grant, I was able to work with dozens of fascinating clients and at the same time get experience that will help me get my dream job as a public defender.”

The Public Interest Project is BU Law’s largest student-run organization. While many students only apply for grants for their 1L summers, prior grant recipients often stay involved with the organization’s board, helping to raise financial support for the next wave of 1Ls. Beginning almost immediately after the spring semester comes to a close, new board members begin work on the upcoming year’s fundraising initiatives. “I think the organization has a lot to offer; and I like the idea that each year, each new board helps PIP evolve a little more. We’re constantly growing with each new board’s unique background and creativity,” says Adrienne Bossi (‘10), a PIP student director.

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PIP Auction 2009

From book sales to finals week moustache contests, PIP students are constantly inventing new opportunities for fundraising. “We do the ‘Beantown Shootout’ basketball game against Boston College every fall. We've also made money from our spring and fall phone-a-thons and from hosting events like a private showing of the most recent James Bond movie at the Fenway cinema,” says Bossi.

The organization’s main source of income, however, is its annual Auction Gala, which draws generous donations from students, faculty, alumni and the Boston community for both its live and silent auctions. High-value items like Cape Cod getaways and signed movie scripts are up for bid. Faculty-themed donations like the Dean’s parking spot and dinners with professors are the most coveted among students, reflecting the law school’s tight sense of community and camaraderie. Hefty money donations from Goodwin Proctor, Lexis Nexis, Westlaw and Barbri and items selling for thousands of dollars help the event fund the majority of PIP grants each year.

Since 1984, PIP has come to signify more than a fundraising organization to BU Law students and alumni. For 25 years, the organization’s student efforts have led to priceless experiences for peers and their clients. “From a personal perspective, working with my clients was the best part of the summer,” says Barusch. "From a professional perspective, the opportunity to sit in on a variety of lawyers’ meetings with clients and witnesses was the best part: I may never again have that opportunity to witness different lawyers’ different styles when they meet behind closed doors.”

In the future, PIP directors hope the organization will take on more of an institutional memory. “We tried this year to be more of a social group than just a funding organization, and I hope that has taken root,” says Bossi.

Reported by Lauren Shiraka
Photo credit: Joel Travis Sage