Toll Center leads law students to pro bono work

In the six years she’s worked at Penn Law School, Emily Sutcliffe had never seen a response quite like what she witnessed on Monday, Jan. 30, the first weekday after the executive order on immigration.

Sutcliffe, the associate director of Penn Law’s Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC), the hub of public service at the school, joined with other leaders to craft an emergency response to the order. But they didn’t stop there: They also brainstormed about a sustained way to address immigration-related issues that had suddenly been thrust to the forefront.

Within the week, Sutcliffe says Penn Law’s communications and IT departments joined the TPIC to create a Call to Action portal on their website, complete with resources for the public, tales from alumni currently working in public service fields, and a place where people in the Penn community of any political stripe may post links to activism. In addition, the site has information for students interested in pro bono projects with a global focus, as well as the other TPIC practice areas—animal and environmental, criminal justice, education, civil and political rights, and economic justice. This was able to get off the ground so quickly, Sutcliffe says, because of support from Penn Law Dean Theodore Ruger, as well as the existing infrastructure of student support and public interest programs.

“[Service is] built into the very ethos of what Penn Law is,” says Sutcliffe, who also works as the director of student public service initiatives. “In my time here, I haven’t seen this type of initiative and quick mobilized response before.”

For law students currently engaged in pro bono projects through the TPIC, the recent news has strengthened their commitment to public service work.

“This is a very difficult time to predict what’s going to happen next,” says Emma Morgenstern, a first-year law student and Toll Public Interest Scholar who is volunteering with the International Refugee Assistance Project and International Human Rights Advocates (IHRA), among others. “I was really impressed to see the reaction [at Penn Law] and have so many people talking about these issues.”

Morgenstern is taking a constitutional law course this semester, which she says has enriched some of the research she’s done for IHRA.

“It can be frustrating to be so busy when there’s so much going on and not feel like I have time to dedicate,” she says. “It’s also one step at a time. I still have a lot to learn.”

These pro bono projects, in fact, provide a significant professional learning experience for students. The leaders of one group, the Penn Law Immigrant Rights Project (PLIRP), say they’ve received an influx of interest from students willing to volunteer.

Co-leaders Andrea Jung, Tu Le, and Kimberly Panian, all second-year law students, focus PLIRP efforts on two specific areas: research on U.S. immigration policies under the guidance of the firm Reed Smith, and direct services to clients through clinics and “know your rights” sessions.

“We’re working with local leaders who are out there every day trying to build this trust,” says Le of the client work. “Our clinics have been a lot less attended because I think people are just really afraid right now.”

Issues related to immigration are near and dear to the hearts of PLIRP leadership—Panian comes from a Hispanic immigrant household, and both Le and Jung moved to the U.S. when they were 8 and 15, respectively. Jung says the recent news about immigration has underscored the important role that lawyers can play—and how law students can use their free time to impact peoples’ lives.Panian adds that the response from the Penn Law community has been encouraging.

“The amount of support and the ability to help out and try to make an impact on the community has been very empowering,” she says.

Sutcliffe hopes the TPIC will continue to harness the enthusiasm of students, as well as staff, faculty, and alumni around pro bono work. In addition, TPIC and Penn Law’s Transnational Legal Clinic, directed by Professor Sarah Paoletti, will host immigration and referral clinics, with support from International Scholar and Student Services. Upcoming clinics will be held on Friday, March 24, and Saturday, April 8.

“We’re thinking this would help to answer the ‘What can I do?’ and then, for the public, hopefully guide them for how they can get help,” Sutcliffe says.

Penn Law Toll