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Young lawyers fill volunteer gap

Marquette University Law School student Gabriel Houghton (left) confers with Dawn Caldart, executive director of the Milwaukee Justice Center, Sept. 8 at the Milwaukee County Courthouse. (Photos by Kevin Harnack)

At a time when some law firms are scaling back on pro bono work, Marquette University is helping to fill a gap in Milwaukee.

The Pro Bono Institute, which surveys major law firms throughout the country, reports the total pro bono time those firms donated fell in 2010 after record-breaking highs in 2008 and 2009. Quarles & Brady LLP, for instance, reported it provided 27,959 hours in 2009 compared to 25,139 in 2010.

But there’s a younger crowd making their time available in Milwaukee, said Dawn Caldart, executive director of the Milwaukee Justice Center. The increase in Marquette law students, both current and recently graduated, volunteering at the center has let the organization, which serves low-income litigants, keep its legal clinic open more often, she said.

“We’re starting to see more students that have volunteered in our programs that are volunteering now that they’re attorneys,” Caldart said. “So that sort of pro bono culture that Marquette is working on with their public service projects I’ve seen, that’s extremely effective.”

When students begin law school at Marquette, they’re invited to take a pledge committing to serve 50 hours of pro bono work before they graduate, said Angela Schultz, the university’s pro bono coordinator. In 2010, 76 of Marquette’s 237 law school graduates fulfilled that pledge, she said.

“Throughout their law school career, they’re continually offered all these different opportunities,” Schultz said. “Most students engage in some form of pro bono work during law school.”

Even Schultz’s title, she said, is an indication that Marquette is committed to instilling a culture of volunteerism in its law school. The position of pro bono coordinator was created three years ago, she said, as a way of guiding students through volunteer opportunities.

As students gain experience helping people who can’t afford legal services, Schultz said, volunteering becomes part of their lives once they graduate and begin working professionally.

“Marquette is a university where a lot of students stay local to practice,” Schultz said. “I think part of what happens is during their law school career, they’re really used to being engaged in this pro bono work, and they’re sitting next to local attorneys who are doing it during their workday.”

If lawyers don’t get used to volunteer work early on, said Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Rick Sankovitz, its less likely they will make time for it as their career becomes more demanding. Sankovitz is part of what he calls the “Pro Bono Road Show“ that gives presentations to Milwaukee firms on the personal and professional benefits of doing volunteer work.

Caldart (center) works with Alex Hanauer (left), an undergraduate at Marquette University, and Angela Schultz, pro bono coordinator for the university.

Caldart (center) works with Alex Hanauer (left), an undergraduate at Marquette University, and Angela Schultz, pro bono coordinator for the university.

“One of our strategies,” he said, “is to get lawyers when they’re relatively new to the practice and before they’ve filled up their plate with too many other things where pro bono gets squeezed.”

The desire among lawyers to serve in Milwaukee extends beyond firms, Caldart said, noting five area firms combine to offer about a dozen free legal clinics per month at the Milwaukee Justice Center.

Also, Quarles & Brady LLP and Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek SC have teamed up to offer a free guardianship clinic at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa.

“We have an expectation that all of our attorneys, not just associates, will fulfill their commitment to 50 pro bono hours per year,” said Ann Maher, a member of Whyte Hirschboeck’s board of directors. “Our lawyers take about 25 to 30 cases per year to get guardians appointed.”

Though some firms are cutting back, the spirit of pro bono work seems to be thriving at Marquette, Caldart said.

“I think Milwaukee in general has a strong history of volunteerism,” she said, “and I think lawyers in our community are no different.”

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