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UM program puts grads to work for legal aid programs

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UM program puts grads to work for legal aid programs

Fellowship helps new lawyers gain experience while searching for that first job

Associate Editor

Despite her best efforts, Berbeth Foster ended her tenure at the University of Miami School of Law with only a diploma — no job offer — in hand. It wasn’t the start of the law career she had hoped for.

“Very few people enter law school thinking they are going to have a problem finding a job after graduation,” said Foster. “I felt frustrated.”

Foster isn’t alone. The nation’s graduates face a bleak reality on graduation day: a stumbling economy with few jobs, even for the most talented students. Jobs that are available go to those with more experience, something Foster didn’t have.

“I was not only competing with my graduating class, but with seasoned attorneys who had been previously laid off from their jobs,” said Foster. “I just felt as though there were so many better qualified persons … fighting for the same few jobs.”

Without any viable options on the horizon, Foster sought help from the University of Miami, where she received her law degree in the spring of 2009. A newly launched fellowship program sponsored by the university gave Foster the break she had been waiting for.

The six-month long program partners the university with two prominent legal services organizations in the community: Legal Services of Greater Miami and Legal Aid Service of Broward County. The university provided funding for eight fellowship positions awarded to recent graduates of the law school; in turn, those graduates help alleviate the influx of foreclosure cases burdening legal services agencies in this part of the state. Foster became one of two fellows assigned to Legal Aid Service.

“This was the perfect opportunity to gain some experience in the real estate field while providing a much-needed service to my community,” said Foster.

Foster and other program fellows do everything a first-year associate would do. They draft and file motions and pleadings; they perform client intakes. Sometimes they are even able to write a letter to opposing counsel on behalf of a client.

“Having passed the bar, they can do everything that a lawyer can do, and they can do it under the supervision of capable lawyers in our program,” said Anthony Carriuolo, executive director for Legal Aid Service of Broward. “They’re learning, and they’re performing, and they’re going to make themselves more marketable for when they leave us.”

The part-time work — at least three days a week — allows the young attorneys to continue their job search while they acquire the experience they need to secure a full-time position in the legal world. That experience opens their eyes to an area of law often ignored by recent graduates.

“It’s given me a much greater appreciation and respect for the work that public interest attorneys do,” said Foster. “I see how much impact my legal degree can have on the average citizen’s life.”

And the fellows are making an impact.

“Now we can provide more services to more clients,” said Legal Aid attorney Jennifer Harley, who supervises the two fellows at Legal Service of Broward County. “I myself can take in more files because I have their assistance.

“Sometimes when you do programs like this, they’re just not effective. This is effective.”

Those are the words Patricia White, dean of UM’s School of Law, has waited to hear. Because the fellowships are entirely university-funded, a lot is riding on their success.

“The program’s future, in some sense, depends on grant funding,” said White. “We just thought that the work was so important. But whether or not it’s something we can continue to finance is something I don’t know the answer to.”

Development of the foreclosure defense fellowship began with UM Professor Michael Froomkin who, along with Assistant Dean for Law Development Georgina Angones, Dean of Career Development Marcelyn Cox, and others, designed the program to be a collaborative effort with legal services agencies.

“We sent them talented and committed young attorneys,” said White, “and I know those attorneys are delighted to have the opportunity to give back to their community.”

With only a few more weeks remaining until the initial program comes to a close, Foster believes the fellowship has done its job.

“A program like this provides. . . real- world legal experience. It is more than theory or analysis,” said Foster.

Harley, Foster’s boss, agrees.

“The [job] market’s not great,” admitted Harley. “But this way they get valuable experience and can help in the foreclosure crisis.”

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