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04 - Managing & Supervising Volunteers

Best Practices in Pro Bono:
Managing and Supervising Volunteers

The Best Practices in Pro Bono Guides were created to provide a model for pro bono programs and increase consistency in pro bono work across organizations. The guides present concise practical information on implementing and maintaining pro bono projects. The content in this section was gathered by Teresa Schmiedeler, Director of Public Interest, University of Maryland Carey School of Law, and Jennifer Tschirch, Assistant Director of Pro Bono Programs, Georgetown Law.

How can I help optimize law student supervision?

Law schools employ a range of approaches to pro bono program structure: some develop primarily in- house opportunities whereas others utilize external placements ; some recognize work done while academic credit is earned while others do not . Regardless of the model employed, at the heart of a well -administered pro bono program is effective supervision. It not only ensures that appropriate services are rendered but also enhances the students’ experience and hopefully as a result engenders more pro bono engagement. Th is guide provides you with some resources to assist in supervising law students volunteering with legal service s providers, whether in-house at law school clinics or with external placements.

What are the key elements of effective volunteer supervision?

A number of recurring themes emerge when talking with those who regularly supervise law students. Several are highlighted below and elaborated upon in the Resources section of this guide.

Set clear expectations

  • The Center for Applied Legal Studies at Georgetown Law sets out the obligations of the student and the supervisor to establish a mutual understanding as to what aspect of the work the parties will be primarily responsible for. In a shorter term pro bono project, this can be similarly achieved through a pre-project email from the supervisor, as well as on-site orientation.
  • When working with external placements, be certain there is a dedicated supervisor with a commitment to student oversight. In cases where volunteer attorneys are providing supervision, it is very helpful to have a strong relationship How can I help optimize law student supervision with the volunteer coordinator at the organization running the project, in case any troubleshooting is needed.
  • For the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), there are a few key elements that have made the volunteer experience for their program and for the law students successful: holding a weekly check -in with the students (even if brief); setting clear expectations up front and making sure to address potential issues (i.e. unauthorized practice of law and client confidentiality) with clear guidelines; explaining to the student how their task fits into larger work and letting them see the finished product when possible; and giving the student the opportunity to work on a variety of projects and providing them timely and concrete feedback.
  • Muneer Ahmad, Clinical Professor of Law and Deputy Dean for Experiential Education at Y ale Law School, recommends that supervisors conduct individual student check -ins at the start, middle, and end of the semester/project. These provide the opportunity for one- on- one feedback and tailoring o f the students’ educational experience in the clinic/on the project. Professor Muneer also suggests that supervisors require students to provide an agenda 24 hours in advance, and to bear responsibility for conducting the supervision meeting. This requires students to prepare in advance and to prioritize the items on which they most seek supervisor engagement. While this isn’t feasible in the case of a one- day pro bono project, the same concept of getting off to a strong start with volunteers and checking back in applies. Open communication is critical.
  • Establish policies with respect to communication, conduct , expectations, supervision and timeliness. Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) has created an Intern Essentials handbook that details when students should arrive, what they can expect upon arrival, what supervisor meetings will look like, and how to properly wrap up one’s work. It is included in the Resources section below. Law school pro bono coordinators can include similar logistical information regarding short -term projects that will ensure students make the most of the time allotted and foster – rather than erode – your law school’s reputation with that provider.

Make no assumptions

  • While students will during their law school tenure receive training on client confidentiality, unauthorized practice, and other ethical issues, it is important for the project supervisor to provide an overview at the outset for those who either haven’t yet had that classroom training or don’t fully grasp their application in a real -world setting. The University of Wisconsin Law School created an online professionalism and ethics course , and the Training Volunteers Best Practices Guide in this series offers additional helpful guidance.
  • By the same token, students may be unfamiliar with the dynamics facing the client population to be served. Providing a baseline of information that highlights the particular obstacles your community’s low -income population faces to accessing services – transportation time and costs, housing affordability, language barriers, employer inflexibility – can be very enlightening. That is also true of the legal research landscape. In her article about how to get a better return on investment from law student volunteers, Heather Hodges references a manual that her organization developed to quickly orient students to the relevant rules and regulations governing the work they’ll be doing.
  • On projects/clinics where students work in teams, Professor Muneer recommends a discuss ion about team norms. In order to promote equity among students, in terms of both work opportunities and work obligations, encourage students to be explicit in talking with one another about their norms of collaboration, including expectations with regard to gender and race. Also see the Cultural Competency Best Practices Guide in this series.


Category: Pro Bono

Tags: Pro Bono