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Joe Surkiewicz: Law schools bid for your attention — and your dollars

When guilt trips and plucking heartstrings fail to persuade private lawyers to take a pro bono case, volunteer their expertise to a nonprofit or write a check, then it’s time to roll out the heavy artillery.

Go shopping. Or, to be more precise, bidding. And do it at a place where the purchases are tax-deductible, the proceeds help the poor, and the education of law students gets enhanced.

Here’s how it’s done: In March, both Maryland law schools are holding public interest law auctions, offering a wide array of products and services — including vacation beach houses, art work and books, tickets to sporting events and round-trip airfare.

The money raised will fund summer grants for law students interning at nonprofits around Maryland and beyond. The auctions make up a significant part of the money raised for the grants (other major sources include the respective law schools and the Maryland Legal Services Corp.).

In helping cash-strapped law students who can’t work for free, the $4,000 grants also help nonprofits fulfill their missions of helping the poor and disadvantaged. And they provide invaluable experiences for future lawyers.

“It solidified my passion to help other people,” said Antonia Cuffee, a third-year student at the University of Maryland School of Law, about her experience working at the Baltimore Department of Social Services. “A lot of places can’t pay students for the summer. It was a great opportunity to help people in Baltimore.”

Emily Jaskot, a third-year student at UM Law, is one of the co-presidents of the Maryland Public Interest Law Project, which holds its auction March 3. MPILP distributed 29 grants last year.

“I applied for a grant two years ago and didn’t get it,” Jaskot recalled. “That’s what got me interested in MPILP. We really want to fund every student who applies for a grant. Each grant represents 400 hours of legal help to a public interest organization. It makes a huge impact.”

This year, the goal is to raise enough money to fund 50 summer grants.

“MPILP is special, not only because it gives lawyer-to-be a chance to hone their skills doing public service work, but also because it is the only 501(c)(3) corporation based at the law school,” noted James A. Getz, a third-year student in charge of raising large gifts for the auction.

“As such, it is a unique vehicle that enables students to participate on a nonprofit organization’s board and interact with the larger community outside of the school — both lawyers and non-lawyers alike,” Getz added.

Melissa Kujda, also a third-year student, worked at the Maryland public defender office after her first year and at the federal public defender office last summer. Her goal is to work as a public defender after graduation.

“Both offices fully embraced us and allowed us to do legal research [and] interview clients, and allowed us time in court,” Kujda said. “It was very fulfilling and practical. These realistic experiences are essential to a legal education — and I owe it to MPILP.”

Uptown, the University of Baltimore Students for Public Interest Law will hold its 17th annual auction March 11. Last year, UBSPI handed out 11 summer grants. The goal is to double it.

“This year, we are stepping up fundraising efforts and reaching out to local firms and businesses for sponsorships,” said UBSPI president Cassie Seward. “More than 200 people attended last year’s auction. All the donations go right to grants.”

Seward, a second-year student, said her experience last summer at the Homeless Persons Representation Project was invaluable in shaping her plans for a law career in public interest.

“I did public housing and public benefits law full time,” she recalled. “It was surprising to see the number of people who need legal assistance due to government denials of benefits. It was satisfying to see some successes and the effect of, say, an extra $60 a month.”

But it was also frustrating to see vulnerable people get lost in the bureaucratic process, she said: “It made me realize how important government policies are and why they need to be changed.”

Interest in helping the community is on the upswing at UB Law.

“Students are showing more interest and more involvement in helping out,” Seward noted. “Dozens volunteer monthly to work on expungement cases for HPRP. UBSPI works to help make connections with nonprofits throughout the year — not just to volunteer their legal skills, but to connect students to the community.”

UM Law’s auction is March 3, at the law school (500 W. Baltimore St.). The silent auction starts at 6 p.m., followed by a live auction. Professor Michael Millemann and his wife, Sally, will be honored at 5 p.m. for their consistent contributions to public interest legal work. Tickets are $40 ($15 for students), and include light dinner fare, hors d’oeuvres, drinks and a bidder number. For information, go to www.law.umaryland.edu/auction.

UBSPI’s auction (silent and live) is March 11, from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. at UB’s Thumel Business Center (11 W. Mt. Royal Ave.). Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door ($20 in advance and $25 at the door for students) and include hors d’oeuvres and a beer and wine bar. For information and to register, go to law.ubalt.edu/ubspi.

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is jsurkiewicz@mdlab.org.