Study Poverty at W&L Law

The Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability at the Washington and Lee University School of Law

The Shepherd Program on Poverty and Human Capability is a university-wide program in which law students are active participants. Some law students become involved with the Shepherd Program because they are interested in pursuing public interest or poverty law careers.  Others are interested in learning more about problems of poverty and the law's effects on the lives of the poor in preparation for serving as business and community leaders.  All law students with an interest in poverty issues are encouraged to join SPLO - Shepherd Poverty Law Organization.  SPLO serves as an umbrella organization to provide information and guidance to students interested in poverty and law and to represent their interests to the law school and the University.

The Shepherd Program at the law school consists of curricular and co-curricular components.  The law school offers classes, seminars, clinics and practicums of particular interest to Shepherd students. It also actively encourages the work of student organizations interested in poverty law issues. To help students launching public interest careers, the law school provides both a loan repayment plan and a number of different services through the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development.

Courses and Seminars

The Poverty Seminar is offered jointly to undergraduate and law students.  It is a limited enrollment research seminar.  It is an interdisciplinary study of the causes, effects and remedies for poverty.  It is recommended for all law students interested in the Shepherd Program and should normally be taken in the second year.

The course in Bankruptcy looks at one common remedy for people falling into poverty.  It covers both the technical requirements for liquidation or reorganization and the policy considerations underlying the law's treatment of consumer debtors.

The course in Non-Profit Organizations deals with establishment and legal regulation of charitable institutions, including advocacy organizations.  

Two seminars touch on the effects of poverty on children.  The Child Abuse and Neglect Seminar is offered jointly to undergraduate and law students.  It is a study of the legal system's treatment of child abuse and neglect, with an emphasis on the child protection system.  The Children, Culture and Violence Seminar looks at children as victims, perpetrators and consumers of violence. 

The course in Health Care Organization and Finance covers the problems of access to health care and control of health care costs.  It examines several important federal programs which help provide access to health care for the poor, including Medicaid and Medicare.

Two courses deal with the particular legal problems encountered by disadvantaged groups in our society.  One is the course in Federal Indian Law.  The other is the seminar on Contemporary Issues in Immigration Law and Policy. 

Clinics and Practicums

During their third year, Washington and Lee law students are required to take a course load consisting primarily of clinics, externships and practicums.  A number of these offerings give students a chance to further investigate poverty law issues or to work with poor clients.

The Poverty Law and Litigation Practicum is centrally concerned with the legal problems of the poor and should be considered by every Shepherd law student.  It focuses on litigation.  The Law, Politics and Public Policy Practicum is not focused solely on poverty but it does offer the opportunity to see how legislative change on behalf of the poor, among others, is achieved.  Together, the two practicums offer students a good overview of the tools for using law to alleviate poverty.

Washington and Lee offers an array of live client clinics, most of which involve direct representation of poor clients.  The Community Legal Practice Center represents low income Rockbridge County residents in a wide array of civil matters.  Some matters are resolved through litigation, some through negotiation and counseling.  The Criminal Justice Clinic represents poor clients facing criminal charges in state trial-level courts.  Three clinics deal with federal law issues relating to poverty.  The Black Lung Clinic represents coal miners or their survivors in federal administrative and court proceedings seeking to recover benefits.  TheTax Clinic represents low-income taxpayers in resolving post-filing controversies with the Internal Revenue Service.  It also engages in policy advocacy.  The Citizenship and Immigration Program provides direct representation of immigrants who cannot afford private representation, with particular emphasis on vulnerable populations, such as unaccompanied minors, refugees and victims of domestic violence. 

The third year program also provides the opportunity to work on poverty law issues through externships.  For example, students have externed with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and the Legal Aid Justice Center, as well with area legal aid and public defender offices.  Similarly, students can fulfill their third year service requirement through projects targeted at the disadvantaged, such as work in our local domestic violence shelter or advocacy for abused and neglected children through Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).

Student Activities and Organizations

In addition to SPLO, the organization for students interested in the Shepherd Program, there are a number of activities and organizations that touch on poverty law issues.  The Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice frequently publishes articles and student notes on poverty-related issues.  It also sponsors a symposium each year.  Some of those symposia have been concerned with issues of class and poverty.

The Tax Society/VITA program helps administer the volunteer student group that assists low income taxpayers in the preparation of their income tax returns.

The Public Interest Law Students Association works to increase students' access to public interest employment opportunities.  Its mission includes fundraising for summer stipends for public interest work.

The National Lawyers Guild serves as a network and support organization for those interested in serving the public after graduation. 

Law students may also become involved in community-based research projects that meet the needs of local agencies and citizens.  For example, law students participate in a campus-wide student organization, Community Financial Freedom, to assist with financial education, borrowing and savings for low-income residents of Rockbridge County.

Summer Internships and Career Opportunities

Students dedicated to public service often spend their summers providing direct legal services to indigent clients through legal, public defenders and public interest advocacy organizations throughout the country and abroad.   For example, students have interned at the House of Ruth Domestic Violence Legal Clinic, the Georgia Justice Project, the African and Mid-East Refugee Assistance program in Cairo, and a host of others.  Every year, several internships are funded by W&L through the Shepherd Alliance. These internships feature conferences with law and undergraduate students from other schools in the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.   The law school's Transnational Law Institute supports some of the international internships.  In addition, W&L uses its federal work study funds, which can fund community service projects targeted to low-income community residents,  to support several of these internships.  The law school's Office of Career Planning also has some grant money to support summer internships and it assists students in seeking support from outside funders and from University sources. 

The Office of Career Strategy also assists students seeking permanent employment.  It arranges for students to attend the Equal Justice Works Conference and Job Fair, a major source of poverty law jobs, to interview with employers and network with public interest students across the country.  It also helps  students attending the National Law Students Workers Rights Conference in Maryland, which provides networking opportunities for students interested in representing American workers.  The Office provides assistance to students applying for a range of post-graduate public interest fellowships relating to poverty and public interest law.  Among other services, the Office has available funds to reimburse students for reasonable travel expenses to public interest interviews.  Students should work with Career Planning staff and with faculty to coordinate courses, internships and other co-curricular opportunities so that their credentials will prepare them for the jobs and career paths that they seek. 

W&L's Shepherd Loan Repayment Assistance Program is designed to provide financial assistance to graduates working in the public interest at salaries below what their counterparts in the private sector are earning. It provides help for alumni hoping to practice poverty law. 

Speakers and Symposia

The law school and the Shepherd Program sponsor speakers addressing topics important to poverty and the law.  One example is the Washington and Lee Law Review's sponsorship of a symposium on regulation in the fringe economy to address payday lending and other credit structures for low-income citizens.  Another recent example is  Maryland law professor David Super's lecture entitled The Future of Poverty in America:  Recession, Health Care Reform and Climate Change."  Student groups, including SPLO, have an active role to play in bringing poverty-related speakers and programs to campus.