Many people face unequal legal representation for reasons such as ethnicity, financial status or criminal background. Some law professionals focus on bringing justice to those who are at risk of facing unjust consequences. But that often doesn’t bring much financial success. For law students who want to serve the public interest, interning at nonprofit firms representing cases such as environmental law, criminal justice or worker's rights, for example, is integral to their careers but often is unpaid work.
Students need to balance student loans, bills and other costs of living. Taking these unpaid internships is not feasible for many students. This is why the Oregon Law Student Public Interest Fund was created: to provide students with financial stability while taking on these unpaid public interest positions.
“For a lot of law students, you’re on your fifth, sixth or seventh year of student loans and taking an unpaid internship isn’t possible,” said Casey Dreher, last year’s co-director of OLSPIF and a 2019 recipient of the stipend. “The stipend really helps with that.”
OLSPIF is a nonprofit, student-run organization that hosts an annual fundraising auction in February. The money received from the auction provides law students pursuing careers in public interest with $4,000 stipends.
Applicants find internships at organizations that emphasize serving people, communities and social issues. The applicants then pitch their idea to OLSPIF and, if accepted, are granted the stipend. The OLSPIF stipend allows recipients to put all of their efforts into their internship.
In past years, it’s been difficult to source funding for all applicants. This year, the OLSPIF auction raised a record-breaking sum of money and was able to fund each of the 15 students that applied.
The 2019 recipients worked in fields such as public defense and environmental law, serving underrepresented communities, as well as many other avenues of public interest.
“The work done through OLSPIF directly benefits students, but it also indirectly benefits the communities that they represent,” Dreher said.
Sarah Osborn, an OLSPIF recipient, interned at the Northwest Workers Justice Project as a law clerk. Northwest Workers Justice Project represents low-wage, immigrant and contingent workers who are faced with unjust labor practices.
“By receiving this scholarship, I was able to work with a dream organization,” Osborn said. “If I hadn't received funding, I may not have been able to work in a summer position that was related to my law school education.”
Other recipients, like Robert Mellinger, were able to be a part of high-profile cases. Mellinger assisted attorneys at Our Children's Trust, a nonprofit focused on environmental law. At Our Children’s Trust, Melligener worked on Juliana vs. U.S., brought against the U.S. government by 21 students for allowing and encouraging activities that emitted greenhouse gases.
“It’s almost impossible to work in nonprofit without a stipend,” Mellinger said. “[OLSPIF] made it possible for me to do public interest work in the first place.”
OLSPIF equips its recipients with a unique opportunity. The nonprofit sector of law allows students to have more hands-on experience with their practice. For students like Dreher, working a corporate position where an intern would be tied to a desk only sorting through paperwork was of concern. In Dreher’s experience, he was able to meet with clients, shadow lawyers and actually speak in court. The experience provides insight into which sector of public interest they may want to pursue.
“It helped me narrow my focus,” Dreher said. “Before this, I was looking at 10 different fields. I really believe OLSPIF changes lives. It changes career paths.”
Student members of OLSPIF are already planning next year’s auction. OLSPIF’s 2020 auction will be in the EMU Ballroom on Feb. 7. Donors, professors, participants and alumni are regular attendees, but OLSPIF student members encourage fellow university students to come to the auction and see what it’s about.
Editor's note: A name of a source has been corrected.