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Tulane’s pro bono legacy transcends boundaries

April 24, 2015

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Some of the Tulane students honored for pro bono leadership surround Assistant Dean Julie Jackson (middle, with glasses), who oversees public interest programs, at an April 8 luncheon celebrating their work.

Tulane Law School, which launched a national trend when it became the first law school to require pro bono service, continues to set the standard for giving back through its students and alumni.

The impact of Tulane’s enduring dedication to pro bono work extends from coast to coast and around the world: from New Orleans public school classrooms to rural areas of Panama, from The Hague in the Netherlands to the Rwanda Supreme Court, from the Independent Police Monitor’s Office to the Holocaust Art Restoration Project in New York.

In 2014-15 alone, Tulane Law students donated more than 24,000 hours of work to a dizzying range of projects. As part of that, 120 students provided 60 or more hours during the school year, double the 30 hours required to graduate.

And the commitment to service nurtured at Tulane persists well after law school days. For instance, Tony Stiegler (L ’86), a partner in the San Diego office of Cooley, recently accepted an ABA award named for civil rights icon Judge John Minor Wisdom (L ’29) recognizing the firm’s extensive pro bono efforts, which included 37,000 donated hours in 2014.

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At the ABA Litigation Section’s April conference in New Orleans, Tony Stiegler (L ’86), an intellectual property litigator and partner in the San Diego office of Cooley, accepts a John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award honoring his firm’s pro bono work. Stiegler co-chaired Cooley’s pro bono committee nationwide for seven years; Erich Veitenheimer (left) is a current co-chair.

Stiegler graduated before Tulane became the first U.S. law school to make pro bono a required part of the curriculum, but he said professors including George Strickler and Catherine Hancock planted the seed with their own volunteer legal work.

Stiegler, who handles litigation and intellectual property cases, particularly involving complex technology, co-chaired Cooley’s nationwide pro bono committee for seven years and earlier this year helped the ACLU settle a major class action involving the way immigration centers handle Mexican nationals entering the U.S.

“I absolutely attribute some of what I’ve done to the law school and the professors I studied with here,” he said during a trip to New Orleans for the John Minor Wisdom & Diversity Leadership Awards Luncheon during the ABA Litigation Section’s annual conference.  

New Orleans and Tulane foster a sense of community, he said, and “part of that sense of community is giving back to those less fortunate and who can’t help themselves.” Lawyers are “privileged to live great lives,” he said. “It’s incumbent to give back when we can.”

Current students, members of the Classes of 2015, 2016 and 2017, collectively have performed more than 37,000 hours of pro bono work, accordingly to Eileen Ryan, coordinator of the public interest programs. This year’s graduating class accounts for 22,160 of that total, and 65 percent of the class exceeded the 30-hour minimum.

The faculty recently approved increasing the community service requirement to 50 hours. But the majority of students already exceed that, even doing volunteer legal work they don’t seek credit for. And some compile upwards of 600 hours across three years. For example, Margaret Manns (L ’15) volunteered 667 hours, working in New Orleans courts and district attorneys’ offices in Houston, Texas, and Columbus, Georgia, and assisting local artists with services they couldn’t otherwise afford.

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Dual-degree candidate Shana Wamuhu (JD/MS ’17) (right) was among students who met with Thai officials, including Attorney General Trakul Winitnaiyapak (LLM ’75) (far left) during a February visit to Tulane. During the summer, Wamuhu will do pro bono work in the Thai AG’s office, focusing on human trafficking issues.

Shana Wamuhu, a dual-degree student in her second year of law classes, has some of the farthest-flung summer placements: the Rwanda Supreme Court in 2014 and the Thailand Attorney General’s Office this year.

Wamuhu, who was born in Kenya and moved to Texas when she was 12, is pursuing a JD and a master’s degree through the law school’s Payson Center for International Development. She said Payson Center Executive Director Colin Crawford helped her land the position in Rwanda, where she worked on a team translating court judgments from the local language into English and French, making sure cultural nuances were accounted for. In Thailand, she’ll be working on human trafficking issues. The position came about after she chatted with delegation members accompanying AG Trakul Winitnaiyapak (LLM ’75) when he visited Tulane in February.

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Anjana Turner (L ’17) takes a turn summarizing her pro bono work during a luncheon recognizing students who have devoted well beyond the required hours.

Missy Bücher (L ’15) also has done pro bono overseas, working during the spring of her 2L year with prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on the war crimes case against former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladić. This spring, she’s handling legal research and writing at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.

Providing volunteer services “is necessary even if somebody doesn’t want to do public interest” as a career, she said. “As a lawyer, you have a responsibility. So many people need access to legal help.”

Tulane is so synonymous with pro bono that the law school’s leadership was incorporated into a question/answer on the game show Jeopardy! in 2014.

Christopher James (L ’15), whose main pro bono work was advocating on behalf of New Orleans students, said he plans to head for New York after graduation but wanted to give back to the community as much as possible while at Tulane. Through the advocacy group Stand Up For Each Other, he represented students facing suspension or expulsion from New Orleans schools at disciplinary hearings to help get them back on track with their education.

“Few issues in the city right now are more important or impactful than the school-to-prison pipeline and how it affects the community,” James said. 

“What I’ve gained from this work is firsthand knowledge of school-to-prison-pipeline issues, experience as an advocate, respect in the community and a sense of satisfaction that I’ve made a difference for dozens of students and families over the past three years.”

 
   


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