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Joe Surkiewicz: Helping law students in the public interest

Last summer, the Maryland Public Interest Law Project made 25 grants to University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law students, allowing them to spend their summers interning at places such as the Homeless Persons Representation Project, the Public Justice Center, the Maryland Disability Law Center, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and the ACLU of Maryland.

How many grants will the student-run organization make this summer?

That depends on how much they raise at MPILP’s annual auction on April 9.

“One hundred percent of the proceeds of the auction go to fund the summer grants program, which funds students doing unpaid public interest internships,” said Jo McLean, a third-year UM Law student and a co-president of MPILP. The Maryland Legal Services Corp. also provides funding.

“Without the grants, they may not be able to pursue an interest in this very important work,” McLean said. “In order to apply for the grant, they have to go out and do a set amount of community service work.”

In addition to helping programs that work in low-income and underserved communities, the grants ($4,000 for 10 weeks of full-time work) often establish contacts that can pay off after graduation.

Helping children

Take Mallory Finn, a 2014 UM Law grad who worked at MPILP throughout law school, including helping set up last year’s auction. After her second year, she received an MPILP grant to work at Project HEAL, a Baltimore medical-legal nonprofit at the Kennedy Krieger Institute that provides legal services to children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“I started volunteering at Project HEAL, then got a summer grant to work here,” Finn recalled. “Then I continued as a volunteer during my third year. The staff attorney had to leave. So after I graduated, I was offered my dream job.

“It’s the area I want to practice in, but I didn’t think it would happen,” she continued. “Public interest jobs are hard to get. So I was pleasantly surprised.”

Cody Mason, a third-year student, has received two summer grants. He also was the grants coordinator for MPILP for the last two summers (and will do it again this summer).

“For the students, it’s really important, because they can work in the public interest field and get paid,” said Mason, who interned at the public defender’s office. “It’s important if they’re planning a career in public interest. I couldn’t have done it without the grants.

“You can still live in the city, pay your rent and not have to take on more debt,” he added. “You get to have that experience over the summer, rather than follow the money.”

The organizations where the students work also benefit.

“They’re generally smaller nonprofits or public agencies,” Mason said. “There’s a lot of work, a lot of clients, a lot of opportunities to get involved. It helps the organizations to meet their goals and helps underserved communities. They don’t have enough funding and staff.”

UM Carey Law is also a winner.

“It’s a good way to spread our reputation — not only in Maryland, but across the country,” he noted. “A big part of UM Law is the clinical law program. Without the summer MPILP grants program, many students trained in our public interest clinical law program wouldn’t have the opportunity to pursue this path.”

The April 9 event, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Westminster Hall on the UM Law campus, will feature a large number of silent auction items, as well as a live auction.

Crabs to celebrities

“Auction items could be anything from gift cards to local businesses, paintings, sports memorabilia — one of which will be autographed — to more out-of-the-box items like a crabbing expedition for you and three friends, dinner with a local celebrity, dinner with professors, and other fun items,” said McLean, the MPILP co-president.

“There will also be a tour of Westminster Graveyard and Catacombs, where Edgar Allan Poe is buried,” she added. “The bigger things like the crabbing expedition will be in the live auction.”

While it’s always a well-attended event, this year the organizers promise to step it up a notch.

“We are trying to add more fun, so we are having a number of things going on other than just the auction items,” McLean said. “There will be food and an open bar, as well as a coffee tasting, some background lounge music, and much more.

“It will be an opportunity to network, see the good work the students are doing this year, bid on some amazing items, and have some fun,” she added.

General admission tickets are $40 ($15 for students and $30 for faculty). The event starts at 6 p.m.and tickets include an open bar and light hors d’oeuvres. To purchase tickets online, go to http://www.law.umaryland.edu/students/life/orgs/mpilp/auction.html.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.