Yes, its 50 hours. And you may ask, where do I come up with the time or the sheer number of hours per week? All LL.M. students need more hours in the day or more days per week. This can be wishful thinking. We are all bound by different time-commitments, exam pressures, interview programs and other extra-curriculars. With an already overflowing plate, volunteering to do pro bono work on a weekend or even a Friday afternoon can be very demanding. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Depending on how you “navigate” the requirement, it can end up actually being an enriching and rewarding experience.
To begin with, figure out your class schedule. Once you are out of the add-drop period, and have decided the number of courses you will take, figure out a few slots during the week where you can actually do pro bono work. Depending on what kind of volunteering you choose, they may have certain requirements as to when you can and should come in. So match those with your class schedule and propose a few times to your pro-bono coordinator or organization. Most firms are very grateful for your assistance and will gladly be flexible with your timings. If however, you are helping with something like client intake, then this may depend on when the clients are scheduled to come into their office. So then you may have to rush back to your class mid-way or risk skipping either the class for that week or the pro-bono opportunity. It’s your call subject to your professor’s attendance requirements as well as how comfortable you feel in missing a day of your lectures. For a class thats held weekly, this can be a bad idea. For a class that’s held twice or thrice a week, you can explore the opportunity cost of a lecture missed. Just make sure you aren’t on call the day you have gone missing.
For me, I was volunterering for the Bankruptcy Project at the NYC Department of Legal Services. For this, I had to travel up to Columbia on my own cost to sit through a somewhat boring training session. It was mundane but it helped. Not too mention it was long but since I had that Friday afternoon off, it wasn’t too bad. 4 hours on a sunny NYC afternoon with the beauty of the Columbia campus (gasp, I’m praising enemy camp) can only be so rewarding (sarcasm alert). After that, one Tuesday morning, on a day free of classes, I volunteered for a client intake. This was a very humbling experience for me. Humbling because I realized how much some people are in need of legal services. Of what the words of a lawyer could mean in giving them some peace of mind. Still remember that one client offering me some medicine for my nasal congestion and another client telling me how because he had spoken to a lawyer he could go home confidently today. As someone who had never worked with actual clients in the capacity of a lawyer, this was really cool and gut-wrenching. How much responsibility we have!
It didn’t stop there. My next pro-bono opportunity was with the HIV housing society. Again, I took a Friday afternoon out and traveled to the Bronx to help out with client intake. This time I buddied up with a wonderful 2L who explained the process to me as we took the train from the West Village up to the Bronx. As soon as we got there, a plethora of clients were awaiting our arrival. If meeting people who were bankrupt and needed legal help was humbling enough, sitting across from somebody who has HIV and facing housing discrimination really makes you feel grateful for your life and its comforts. Just that morning, I was complaining about something trivial, and juxtaposing that with what those potential clients were going through, just made me feel small. I wanted to give the people sitting across from me a hug, but I had to look down at the stautory provisions to provide advice. Good thing I want to do corporate law, I thought. At least I will be able to handle the non-emotional side of it. This was just too much. With a heavy heart, we filled out their information into the organization’s forms. However, on the way back, I began to get the feeling that these 2-3 hour exercises were going to get very demanding on my schedule. I needed an alternative.
Lucky for me, just a few weeks later, NYU Law was offering some Spring Break pro bono projects. These would be intense, 40-50 hours over the Break covering a diverse range of topics. One was in global health law, and one was in international law. International Law!! My old love, I thought. I was tempted to apply. The information session had some nachos and some cozy sofas for us to relax as we heard the organization’s representatives speak about the opportunities. I went ahead and signed up for them and looked forward to hearing about the decision, as to whether I could get in. To my surprise, I did. Which meant that now plans to go to Miami Beach and give the MPRE had to be delayed. I would give the MPRE now in August, as my days off in the Spring Break would be dedicated to completing the pro bono requirement.
This knocking off the requirement during a week made sense. Doing these 2-3 hour stints over weeks would require a lot of travel and coordination. I was happy to go for this option. Which is why I say that depending on how you navigate the pro bono requirement, it can be rewarding and not end up clogging your schedule. The week spent in mid-March was rewarding to say the least. We worked on some cutting-edge issues in international law, that were helpful in building a report to be used at the UN. I was working with a very diverse group of students with each of us coming from a different part of the world. It was tough coming to a conference room everyday with adverse weather conditions but we all managed to do it through each others support. On the day we couldn’t come, we actually held a group Skype session to ensure everyone was on top of their assigned work. Who would have thought that a pro bono opportunity would actually teach me something about group dynamics and working with people from different cultures? I found everyone to be respectful, and even if they wanted to point to something with a different interpretation, they did it in style. What was even more amazing was that NYU Law actually allowed us to present out work in a group setting and so we got to “show-off” what we did. A good project, with good people and a great supervisor, and most importantly, the 50 hours.
So you see, look for such an opportunity at your law school and try to knock out the pro-bono requirement in one shot. Even if you cannot find one for entire 50 hours, maybe look for two such opportunities that allow you to get the maximum number of hours for your efforts. A group project could help you fine-tune your art of working with people. It helps you get your name out there and see the impact the law can have on people’s lives. And the joy of adding something tangible to your CV will add value to your future interviews about what you did during your LL.M. program. So, the pro-bono requirement isn’t so bad after all. It’s good for your resume and for your soul.