University Law School alum and public interest lawyer Steve Tobocman is a testimony to the school”s dedication to public interest law. The Law School recently received the annual 2001 Judy M. Weightman Memorial Award from the American Bar Association in recognition of having one of the best public service programs in the nation.
Tobocman said the University Law School played an instrumental role in helping him pursue public interest law.
“There is a significant amount of unmet legal needs for low income and poor,” he said. “Those folks don”t have access to our legal system because they can”t afford to have attorneys.”
For example, Tobocman said, there are roughly 40,000 people every year who go through the Landlord Tenant Court in Detroit. But today”s legal system can support only a few thousand.
“So there are literally tens of thousands who don”t receive the adequate legal assistance. Everyday in my office, we are not able to meet all the need because we don”t have enough attorneys,” said Tobocman, who serves as the director of the Community Legal Resources, which is part of the Michigan Legal Services, an independent, nonprofit agency that offers legal assistance to low-income and disadvantaged populations in the Detroit area.
“It”s so easy to get a job at a top firm that pays an incredible amount of money,” because non-profit legal service positions usually have a starting salary of around $28,000, not enough to pay off school debts, Tobocman said. Many law school graduates can face up to $80,000 of debt upon graduation.
To assist law students in the predicament of having to choose between their passion for public interest law and the need to pay off the debts, the Law School offers the Debt Management/Loan Forgiveness Program. The program assists law graduates with loan repayment so they may accept lower paying jobs without feeling overwhelmed by their debt.
“There is a tremendous need for lawyers to enter public service, particularly at the time like this after the terrorist attack. Cities need lawyers to help reconstruct and rebuild the city and we need lawyers to defend immigrants who may be unfairly charged with terrorist crimes,” said Prof. Robert Precht, the head of the University Law School”s Office of Public Service.
Through its numerous clinical programs, the Office of Public Interest allows students to work closely with community economics issues, child advocacy and impact litigation. Students also have the opportunity to work abroard in South Africa or Cambodia or in government agencies across the country.
“Extensive clinical programs where students are trained by faculty to practice in public interest law, pro-bono programs where students can contribute to non-profit organizations in Ann Arbor and Detroit and the very active career advising programs that help them get jobs in public interest sector” are the essential elements that make the University of Michigan”s Law School one of the best in the nation, Precht said.
“I am very proud and I am most happy for our students whose dedication to public service inspires me,” he said.