Before starting at Michigan, I always considered philanthropy a direct act. Growing up, my family worked with organizations like Meals on Wheels, where we interacted directly with patrons, delivering lunches and dinners to their homes. When I arrived at law school, there was a multitude of opportunities to use legal training to assist underserved communities. But without previous experience in areas of advocacy impact litigation, or public interest, I felt overwhelmed by the opportunities and unsure with which group my contribution could have the most meaningful impact.

Before law school, I had spent time interning in event planning and investment management, enjoyed working in groups and had acquired a questionably large mental database of pop culture factoids. I was uncertain that this eclectic skill set could be used to meaningfully improve any person’s status with a legal issue. Soon, however, I learned about a group that held some promise: Student Funded Fellowships.

Michigan Law’s Student Funded Fellowships is a student-operated organization driven to provide grants to first-year law students — 1Ls — with internships in the public interest. The SFF board uses many different avenues to meet this goal. Each spring, SFF hosts two events at the law school: the Auction, hosting more than 500 current law students, admitted students, faculty and staff and the Knowledge Bowl, a battle of wits in which law students, faculty and staff square off in a trivia contest (thank you, countless hours spent reading Vulture, Gawker and Perez Hilton!). SFF also partners with other MLaw student groups like the Michigan Law Culinary Club and Headnotes a capella group to raise funds. Finally, the board works with businesses, alumni, faculty and students for monetary and item contributions to reach the annual goal of providing meaningful funds to as many students as possible.

From Midtown Manhattan to rural Appalachia, from London to Phnom Penh, SFF Fellows span the country and the globe and use the law to serve the public interest and underserved communities. For example, past grantees have worked in Michigan Law’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic, serving as the primary attorneys for children, parents and the Department of Human Services in the court system. Other grantees work for organizations like the New York Legal Assistance Group, which provides direct representation, consultation, financial counseling and community education to low-income New Yorkers.

For SFF fellows, the grant money allows them to pursue positions or work in new cities that would otherwise be outside their budget. For the organizations employing SFF grantees, they receive bright and enthusiastic interns that help their organizations fulfill their missions. In turn, these organizations are able to provide their underserved clients greater breadth and depth of legal services.

Soon after joining SFF, I met Michael Schmale, another 1L. We were assigned as co-chairs to lead the student fundraising campaign in one of the first SFF meetings. From Southern California, a Yale alum and fluent in Chinese, I was worried that to him and others I would seem green and over my head by comparison in executing all of SFF’s objectives. It turns out Michael and I work great as a team: after student fundraising our 1L year, we were co-chairs of the Auction 2L year, and in our final year, we have been co-chairs of the entire SFF board. Like me, Michael did not have a public interest background and joined SFF in hopes to leverage his skills to make an impact on underserved legal communities.

What is philanthropy? For SFF supporters and board members, philanthropy takes many different forms. When Michael and I joined the board our first year of law school, we hoped our small efforts could help our classmates finance their summer jobs. Working with SFF, we have learned these efforts can provide much more. Our work is indirect. While SFF Fellows are our classmates, we cannot watch them excel in their summer positions or meet the clients whose lives they have changed. Assisting our peers’ internship goals set off new professional interests and aspirations. SFF Fellows’ efforts in turn set off a network of beneficiaries, from organizations and their staff attorneys better able to leverage their resources, to underserved communities receiving greater access to representation and advocacy.

Anne Shaugnessy and Michael Schmale are Law students.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.