Since the spring of 2010, many Memphis Law students have used their spring breaks to help local citizens in need of quality legal services in our Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program. For many years, it was the only student-led alternative spring break in the country to recruit nationally.
Over the years, this program has drawn law students from across the country from law schools of all shapes and sizes, to work alongside Memphis Law students, as well as attorneys and organization throughout Memphis. Traditionally, ASB participants have gone out into the community to assist with matters such as powers of attorney, health care surrogacies, wills, pro se divorce, legislative drafting, and immigration, amongst many other areas of focus, in order to help as many individuals in need as possible. With themes ranging from civil rights, juvenile justice, education, community building, and mental health interventions in the justice system, ASB has managed to constantly evolve and innovate, while also educating participating law students in unique ways. Past ASBs have even seen innovative concepts brought into reality, such as the “Street Court” track where students partnered with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office to expunge outstanding court fees for homeless individuals.
But with all things during the pandemic, ASB was faced with new challenges this year. There would be no visiting law students from across the country traveling to Memphis for a week of providing free legal services. Gone too would be the participation in large community events where those in need could come to receive services from across the community spectrum, including legal services staffed by our ASB participants. No in-person keynote speakers or group projects or visits to law offices to consult with volunteer attorney supervisors. No visits to the National Civil Rights Museum or Central BBQ to show out-of-town law students some of the great things about Memphis. And no in-person court visits for any of the legal work being completed by ASB participants.
But although this year’s event was different in form, it was the same in function. Helping those in need of legal services find and receive them.
With this year’s program being virtual, it was important to find unique ways to carry out ASBs mission successfully. To do so, ASB and the law school partnered with six local non-profit organizations with specific specializations and missions. These partner organizations included:
- Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. (NPI)
- Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS)
- Legal Aid of Arkansas
- Welcome South
- Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS)
This year’s program involved 65 Memphis Law students working with those non-profits to handle 9 different tracks addressing issues such as expungement, eviction/housing issues, immigration matters, LGBTQ rights, divorce, unemployment, wills & estates, driver’s license restoration, DACA issues, and much more. Attorneys from more than a dozen organizations, law firms, city/county legal divisions, and some of our own law professors all worked alongside these students as supervisors and trainers throughout the break.
One partner organization, Welcome South, even used this partnership to launch their innovative new online platform and database where they will facilitate cross-network referrals from social services agencies in the South to their legal programs, to pro bono counsel and other legal programs across the country. Our students were the first to use this new platform to refer immigration clients in need of legal help to agencies and attorneys in a way that makes it much easier on the client and helps solve the logistical nightmare created by distance and service gaps that these individuals face. With this new platform and technology, the case travels with the client during their unpredictable movements among remote detention facilities and increases the efficiency of all the organizations to serve the clients.
“I find it to be really rewarding to know that my work will hopefully help to change someone's life and potentially impact their future in a positive way,” said Welcome South track participant and Memphis Law 2L Emma Poindexter. “I've really enjoyed the hands-on experience that we have gotten to have in helping these clients.”
As always, the tangible help given to these clients, in virtual settings or not, is among the most rewarding aspects for the students. Each track saw its own numerous success stories and clients served, with several tracks laying the foundation for future work and projects above and beyond the scope of the ASB service days.
“The experience was amazing,” said Expungement track leader Heather Bornstein. “The expungement track that I worked with had amazing track leaders and student volunteers. Some of the clients we served had over 100 convictions and no one, not even me, thought we would finish. But with passion and perseverance, we did.”
That expungement track went on to help eight individuals completely expunge their records, as well begin the process to secure/restore their voting rights and reinstate their driver’s licenses.
“Most of these people have turned their lives around and are taking the first step towards a new beginning: seeking help,” Bornstein said.
Past ASBs have always featured a specific writing track, often scholarly related, but this year’s writing elements had a distinctly more noticeable community impact.
The OUTMemphis track was focused on students researching and creating a “Know Your Rights” pamphlet to help in-need persons served by the organization, which would include information on how to navigate relevant legal issues such as traffic stop/police interaction guidance and tenants housing rights with their landlords. This track also put together content to substantially bolster the information on their website, which will provide additional information and resources for how to navigate the legal system in Memphis and Shelby County for OUTMemphis constituents.
“Working with Cole, Melba, Ian, Allen, Laurie, and Eric as part of the UoM Law School’s Alternative Spring Break was amazing and incredible,” said Kendra Black, Metamorphosis Project Case Manager for OUTMemphis. “The whole team came together to rapidly produce a concise, easily understandable pamphlet regarding traffic stops that will be a huge help to the participants of the Metamorphosis Project, as well as to the LGBTQ+ community of the Mid-South. I am eagerly looking forward to working with this team again flesh out the online content that will provide even more education and support to our community!”
One of the biggest benefits to the entire ASB experience, whether virtual or not, is the hands-on practical experience students get.
Working alongside one of our longtime legal community partners in Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS) on four separate tracks (elder law, expungement/rights restoration, family law, and unemployment) this year’s ASB participants were able to see first-hand all of the work that organizations like MALS perform on a daily basis and learn from some of the wisest industry veterans.
“MALS was able to provide the much-needed real life application of my Family Law course this semester,” said Memphis Law student Trevor Auerbach. “Over two days, the program opened my eyes to the vast differences of learning in the classroom and actually practicing.”
MALS certainly provided these students with the opportunity to gain expertise in a number of areas, with ASB participants assisting MALS clients with a number of divorce proceedings and unemployment claims, as well as rights restoration for several individuals and providing assistance with the preparation of wills and other advanced directives for clients.
The mission of MALS and that of ASB dovetail nicely, a message that MALS CEO and General Counsel Cindy Ettingoff echoed.
“Engaging law students in pro bono legal service is something that is not only an opportunity for students to have a hands-on, client interactive learning experience. It also provides a valuable service to those most in need in our community.”
“ASB offers students an opportunity to do the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way.”