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Assisting Rural Communities

Spring break trip shows law students importance of addressing rural law issues

Students, professor and alumni in Garden City during spring break

From The Lawyer - Summer 2018

Most college students dream of traveling somewhere warm for spring break, but this March, four Washburn School of Law students headed to Garden City, Kansas – and they weren’t going on vacation. Instead, they traveled to this vibrant, multi-cultural community in southwest Kansas to participate in a service-learning trip through a Washburn Law Clinic project.

“We described this as an alternative spring break,” said Michelle Ewert, Washburn Law Clinic associate professor, who headed up the program. “There are simply not enough lawyers in many rural communities, and that includes both lawyers who charge for their services and pro-bono attorneys,” Ewert said. “Getting more lawyers into communities is definitely something that many rural areas want.”

Ewert said the program was designed to address three primary issues: providing legal services to low-income individuals in rural areas, attracting rural high school students to law careers, and introducing Washburn law students to practice opportunities in rural communities. These goals are in line with the Law Clinic’s mission of representing people who otherwise could not afford an attorney, something Ewert has focused on throughout her career.

“I’m a legal aid lawyer by background, and part of my time was spent in rural California,” Ewert said. “I’ve seen firsthand the challenges that arise in communities where there are not sufficient legal services to meet people’s needs or where people have to travel a long distance to obtain services.”

To fulfill the first objective of addressing unmet needs, students from the Washburn Law Clinic gave “know your rights” presentations at the high school that touched on the basics of employment, landlord-tenant, and consumer law.

“This will help the high school students transition to adulthood,” Ewert said. “As these young people get their first jobs, take out their first credit cards, and sign their first leases, they’ll have a better sense of what their rights and responsibilities are.”

In addition to providing legal information about their rights and obligations, the program also targeted Garden City High School students by encouraging them to consider careers in the law. A representative from the Law School’s admissions department talked to the students about the path from high school to law school and resources available to help them prepare for a career in the law. This is part of Washburn’s participation in a national program to help young people from diverse backgrounds pursue legal careers.

Finally, to fulfill the project’s third objective of increasing law student exposure to rural practice, the Washburn Law students participated in a series of networking events with local attorneys, government and non-profit leaders, and young professionals. This gave the law students a better sense of their peer group in a smaller town, as well as introducing them to the benefits and challenges of rural practice. Ewert hopes this experience in Garden City will help Washburn law students think more broadly about the range of opportunities available to them after graduation and encourage some to consider practicing in rural communities.

“In rural areas, you often have a very small, tight-knit legal community, which can really encourage and support lawyers as they begin their careers,” Ewert said. “There are usually opportunities for leadership that you might not have in a larger community – especially at the early stages of your career, which is very exciting. The strong community ties within rural communities can be an added bonus.”

Funded by a generous grant from Cynthia Heath, BA ’71, an honorary lifetime member of the Washburn University School of Law Alumni Association, and with additional support by community partners, this year’s program covered costs for four students to travel to Garden City, but Ewert said there could be room for expansion and replication in other communities going forward.

“In addition to being able to practice law in a controlled environment, Washburn’s Law Clinic also introduced me to the idea a lawyer should be engaged with his/her community,” Ben Donovan, ’18, said. “The trip to Garden City reinforced that idea by allowing me to talk with practitioners and members of the non-profit and government sector. Wherever I end up practicing law, I want to be a valuable asset to my community.”

Ewert hopes the program excites students about their future careers and shows them how they could give something back to their own communities.

“So much of law school focuses on what happens between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. in practice – training to do the work to serve clients,” she said. “I also want students to start thinking about what they do from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. – in their evenings and on the weekends in their communities, whether it’s serving on the PTA or a nonprofit board, running for local office, or taking leadership roles on their homeowners’ association. There are so many ways the skills students learn in law school can be used to help their communities, and I hope this gives them the chance to start thinking about what that might look like either in a rural community or other setting.”

The Washburn Law Clinic students heard this message and embraced it.

“Going out to Garden City for spring break was a great experience,” said Timothy Carney, ’18. “It allowed me and my classmates the opportunity to do outreach to high school students, meet with community leaders, network, and see some of the inner workings of a city on the rise. It certainly helped open my eyes in seeing that, through active involvement and dedication, lawyers can be forces for positive change within their communities.”

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