Two initiatives match Allegheny County law students, needy

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Two new initiatives in Allegheny County are aimed at matching social service agencies that offer legal assistance with law students in need of on-the-job experience.

The Gismondi Fund was created to place six second-year students from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in law clerk positions at Neighborhood Legal Services Association. And the Allegheny County Bar Foundation's Lawyers Fund will for the first time finance 11 summer clerkships for Pitt and Duquesne law school students at local social service organizations.

Until recently, a summer job at a law firm was the first step for students trying to secure a permanent position. But around the time of the Great Recession, firms started scaling back their summer associate programs, said David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County Bar Association and Allegheny County Bar Foundation. "Hiring six, eight, 10 summer associates just wasn't economically viable anymore," he said.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, while law firms have kept the sizes of summer associate classes small, the percentage of summer associates who receive job offers increased slightly from 2012 to 2013. Ninety-two percent of students who worked as summer associates received job offers, demonstrating how important that experience is for job seekers.

"We have all these law students facing rough times ahead if they don't have basic skills and training," Mr. Blaner said. "We developed this program to give these students the on-the-job experience that will help them find opportunities once they graduate."

The Lawyers Fund, established in 1918 to help its members pay the $3.50 membership bar association dues, will provide 11 fellowships at $4,000 each for summer positions. Among the places that participants will be sent are the Allegheny County Public Defender's office, the Allegheny County District Attorney's office, the Women's Center & Shelter and the Education Law Center.

Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne law school, noted the fellowships aren't meant to just address a job shortage. "A lot of students come to law school with passion and desire to help the underprivileged," he said. "But so much funding has dried up for these social service agencies, it's been increasingly difficult for students to try this out and see if this is their calling."

An additional six fellowships for Pitt law students will be financed by the Gismondi Fund, which was set up by Downtown attorney John Gismondi. a Pitt law school graduate and past president of the ACBA, for positions at the Neighborhood Legal Services Association. That agency -- which serves Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties -- has seen its budget cut by more than 20 percent over the past three years. It closed its Butler office at the end of last year.

"They've been really strapped, and seen funding cut to the bone," Mr. Gismondi said. "They're on the front lines helping the neediest of needy people in the community, and they don't have money to hire lawyers."

He said his $225,000 donation is meant to not only help the association, but also to give students needed experience in a practice area that might not have occurred to them.

"It is a good training ground beyond basic lawyering, and some of the best legal people I know in Allegheny County started their careers there," he said.

William Carter, Pitt law school dean, said he hoped the new fellowships will inspire similar donations. "This struck me as emblematic of our bench and our bar, which is unusually committed to this region," he said. In addition to closing what he called an "acute justice gap" caused by underfunding of social legal services, "this helps us train the next generation of lawyers."

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly


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