Seq: 1
“Perhaps the greatest challenge facing today’s judicial system is to
provide access to meaningful legal services for all our citizens. The
problem is especially acute for persons of low or modest means. In
these times of dwindling resources, we must be ever vigilant to assure
that ‘equal justice under the law’ is a reality rather than merely a
—Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell
Rhode Island Supreme Court
“In 2009, a total of 209 people passed the bar in Rhode Island. But
the State is expected to have about 102 legal job openings each year
from 2010 to 2015, leaving a surplus of 107 lawyers [annually].”
—Ted Nesi, WPRI.com, summarizing
findings from EMSI’s “New Lawyers
Glutting the Market” report.
If the legal profession in Rhode Island shares uniformly in the
nation’s current paradoxical crisis of too many unemployed law graduates amidst glaring scarcity of accessible legal services for low and
moderate income people, it is nonetheless unique in at least several
respects. The smallest state in the Union was, for most of its history,
also one of the very few not to have a law school within its geographic
boundaries. Since its founding in 1993, Roger Williams University
(RWU) School of Law has remained the sole such institution in
Rhode Island. With a total population of roughly 1 million, and an
array of pre-existing regional law schools that historically generated
* Robert McCreanor is the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice.
He thanks Bud DeLuca, Miriam Weizenbaum, Michael Yelnosky, Keally Cieslik, Eliza
Vorenberg, Laurie Barron, Suzanne Harrington-Steppen, and Rita Nerney for their assistance in the formulation of this article. He also notes that the substance of this article
largely represents the tremendous generosity of time and resources devoted by these and
other members of the Rhode Island legal and social justice community to make the Center
for Justice a reality.
Seq: 2
Rhode Island’s practicing legal community,1 the State may not be
lacking proportionately in this regard.
However, other distinguishing statistical factors certainly mark
the Ocean State’s legal landscape. Rhode Island ranks high on the list
of practicing attorneys per capita,2 a condition which could be of
greater significance given the State’s diminutive size and corresponding concentration of attorneys. Despite this relative abundance
of practitioners, comparatively few lawyers engage in full-time public
interest work. For decades, only one major non-profit legal services
provider has existed in Rhode Island. As a Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funded entity, Rhode Island Legal Services, Inc. (RILS)
has a storied and respected tradition of serving the legal needs of the
State’s poor and vulnerable.3 Operating within the Reagan-era restrictions imposed on LSC organizations and given its limited capacity,
RILS remains a vital, and most often the only, resource for the subsection of Rhode Islanders who are eligible for its legal services. Notwithstanding past attempts to construct and maintain alternative
sources of legal aid,4 the significant number of low and moderate
income residents who are not served by RILS simply goes without
legal representation in most instances. Consequently, Rhode Island
lacks the extensively developed network of professional non-profit
public interest practitioners that exists in neighboring states.5
The singular nature of Rhode Island’s legal services terrain is of
particular significance in the context of the State’s economic condi1 In discussing the establishment of the first Annual Review of Rhode Island Law by
Boston-based Suffolk University Law Review in 1973, it is noted that “a significant portion
of the law school student body came from Rhode Island. . .” available at http://suffolklawre
view.org/about/history/ (last visited 10/25/15).
2 https://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/original-research-updated/lawyersper-capita-by-state/ (last visited 10/25/15).
3 See RHODE ISLAND LEGAL SERVICES, available at http://www.rils.org/ (last visited
12/12/15). Rhode Island Legal Services offers legal representation to low-income clients
“for the purpose of improving their economic condition and overall wellbeing by
protecting and enforcing legal rights.” Id.
4 See Press Release: Statement by Geoffrey A. Schoos, Esq., President and Founder
Rhode Island Center for Law and Public Policy, Inc., RHODE ISLAND CENTER FOR LAW
AND PUBLIC POLICY, available at http://www.riclapp.org (last visited 12/12/15). The Rhode
Island Center for Law and Public Policy suspended operations as of December 23, 2014
due to lack of funding, but the organization hopes the closing will only be temporary. The
Legal Aid Society of Rhode Island merged with RILS in 1994 (see http://www.lsc.gov/sites/
5 See Legal Aid/Pro Bono State Links, NATIONAL CENTER FOR STATE COURTS,
available at http://www.ncsc.org/Topics/Legal-Services/Legal-Aid-Pro-Bono/State-Links
.aspx (last visited 10/25/15). There are a number of legal aid organizations in both
Connecticut and Massachusetts, while there is only one listed resource for Rhode Island.
See id.
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[Vol. 1:274
tion. Rhode Island is the poorest state in New England.6 For most of
the past decade, it has maintained one of the nation’s highest rates of
unemployment.7 As the State’s demography is re-shaped by immigration, a proven source of commercial dynamism and growth, it also
struggles to meet the basic needs of many newcomers. Latino and
Asian-American poverty rates top thirty percent and, overall, more
than twenty percent of children in the State live below the poverty
line.8 In short, many Rhode Islanders are economically vulnerable and
conclusive research has established that lack of access to legal services
is both a causal and exacerbating factor of this condition.9
The Rhode Island legal community has not failed to make efforts
toward fulfillment of its professional responsibility to provide services
for the poor. On the contrary, the State’s private bar is marked by a
clearly charitable character as demonstrated by various pro bono and
volunteer lawyering programs.10 What remains unaddressed by these
laudable efforts, however, is the day-to-day presence of attorneys specializing in “poverty law” to advocate both on a case-by-case basis for
needy individuals in the myriad relevant venues, including landlordtenant court, public utilities division, labor standards enforcement
tribunals, etc., and in a system-wide manner to level the playing
field.11 The bottom line equation: a State with serious economic hardships and severely limited legal services for the poor but, in line with
6 RI now has Highest Poverty Rate in New England, RI FUTURE, Sept. 23, 2014,
available at http://www.rifuture.org/ri-now-has-highest-poverty-rate-in-new-england.html.
See also Percent of People Below Poverty Level in the Past 12 Months, AMERICAN
FACTFINDER, available at http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/
7 See R.I. Unemployment Rate Remains Fourth Worse in the Country, THE
PROVIDENCE JOURNAL, Jan. 28, 2015, available at http://www.providencejournal.com/
article/20150128/News/301289940; see also State Unemployment Rates, National
Conference of State Legislatures, available at http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-andemployment/2012-state-unemployment-rates.aspx (last visited 10/25/15).
8 See Children in Poverty, RHODE ISLAND KIDS COUNT FACTBOOK, 2014, available at
http://www.rikidscount.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Ind12.pdf; http://talkpoverty.org/
state-year-report/rhode-island-2014-report; see also http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/
9 Alan W. Houseman and Elisa Minoff. The Anti Poverty Effects of Civil Legal Aid, at
http://legalaidresearch.org/pub/4188/anti-poverty-effects-civil-legal-aid/ (last visited 10/25/
10 See Pro Bono Volunteer Law Program, HELP RI LAW, available at http://www.helpri
law.org/node/80/pro-bono-volunteer-law-program (last visited 12/12/15).
11 See Supporting Justice III: A Report on the Pro Bono Work of America’s Lawyers,
available at http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/probono_public_
service/ls_pb_Supporting_Justice_III_final.authcheckdam.pdf at 29. (“Attorneys
overwhelmingly mentioned time constraints as the top factor that most discouraged them
from providing more pro bono service in 2011, especially among corporate attorneys.”)
Seq: 4
the national trend, a burgeoning corps of underemployed or unemployed newly admitted attorneys.
Formulating a Response
This picture was clear in the minds of local attorneys Amato
“Bud” DeLuca and Miriam Weizenbaum when they first contemplated doing something to further promote a culture of public interest
law practice in Rhode Island. After more than twenty years of representing plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases along with substantial
pro bono work, including litigating various cases under the auspices of
the ACLU of Rhode Island, fighting for the educational rights of students, and other progressive causes, Bud and Miriam were looking to
“give back” in a deeper and more sustained way that would go beyond
conventional volunteer lawyering.12 Importantly, they were willing
and able to contribute financially as well as through the leveraging of
their professional reputations and networks to make this effort
The incubation of this general idea to be part of an access to justice initiative took initial shape through a deliberate and wide ranging
survey of public interest lawyering endeavors throughout the country.
Staffed by a Brown University graduate with deep connections in the
grass roots community-based organizing and advocacy world of
greater Providence and housed within their law firm office, Bud and
Miriam’s “concept” moved toward “project” and, in that process,
some principles were established regarding the nature and structure
of any prospective entity. First, in order to be successful within the
Rhode Island legal landscape as described above, the State’s prolific
private bar would necessarily have to be engaged and supportive. For
resource development considerations and given the ambitious but sensible goal of enhancing the professional public interest culture, there
must be some mechanism for attorneys in private practice to participate. Second, there would need to be a permanent staffing presence
to build expertise in areas of legal practice heretofore undeveloped
within the State and maintain a routine presence in certain venues. To
identify and address systemic rights violations, it would not suffice to
exclusively train private practitioners. Finally, recent law graduates
and newly admitted attorneys must be a centerpiece of the organization, both a means of providing legal services to those in need and
themselves an object of the programming. Ultimately, the approach
to addressing the justice gap would focus on growing a generation of
lawyers oriented toward public interest practice.
http://www.delucaandweizenbaum.com (last visited 12/12/15).
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[Vol. 1:274
In a coincidence of tremendous fortuity for Rhode Island, this
unconventional genesis of a professional public interest organization
inside the private bar occurred simultaneously with RWU School of
Law’s exploration of post graduate training programs. Within the law
school’s leadership circles, and amongst clinical faculty and those
involved with the law school’s other innovative experiential education
programs, interest in incubators and residencies was gaining. The
school’s “scoping” of these rapidly emerging entities was driven in
part by the seemingly universal need of legal education institutions to
go further in preparing students for the new and daunting job market.
But it also aligned with RWU School of Law’s intentional efforts to
both promote experiential education and cultivate a public interest
identity. Centered around the Feinstein Center for Pro Bono and
Experiential Education, RWU School of Law had already constructed
a robust and widely recognized array of related programs including
guaranteed clinical instruction (either in-house or in an externship setting) for all students, an experiential learning requirement that mandates at least 50 hours of pro bono service, alternative Spring Breaks,
practice based skills classes, and, perhaps its most distinctive feature, a
Pro Bono Collaborative (PBC).13
Founded in 1996, the PBC was conceived by the law school as an
effort to leverage the untapped resources of the private bar and law
students to increase the provision of legal assistance to low-income
Rhode Island communities through pro bono service. It connects private law firms, attorneys and RWU law students to community organizations that need pro bono legal services for their organization and/or
their clients. The PBC’s pro bono service model is unique in that it
involves a three-way partnership— law firm/attorney, law school and
community organization—to identify unmet legal needs and create
pro bono projects that address those needs. Several national surveys
of pro bono programs have cited RWU School of Law’s PBC as an
innovative and replicable model that increases access to justice for
underserved communities.14 Moreover, the PBC approach had
http://law.rwu.edu/feinsteincenter (last visited 10/25/15).
In May 2013, Stanford Law Professor Deborah L. Rhode described the Pro Bono
Collaborative as a model that “could be widely replicated” in her article Access to Justice:
An Agenda for Legal Education and Research. In October 2012, THE Legal Services
Corporation Report of the Pro Bono Task Force described the Pro Bono Collaborative as
“one great example of how much can be accomplished through collaboration.” Also in
October 2012 the National Center for Access to Justice featured the Pro Bono
Collaborative in its report Model Projects & Structures To Strengthen Law Student Pro
Bono To Increase Access To Justice describing “law student pro bono models that do a
good job of increasing access to justice by responding to the legal needs of vulnerable
people in underserved communities.”
Seq: 6
proven well suited to the Rhode Island legal landscape because it
encourages broad and sustained engagement with the sizeable community of private practitioners and is in line with the local bar’s tradition of volunteerism.
Hence, RWU School of Law was by no means in search of a cornerstone for building experiential education or public interest programming. Rather, interest was more precisely focused on “picking
up” where the PBC and other projects “left off”, namely after graduation. Incubators and residencies, in their various iterations, suggested
the possibility of a continuing engagement with law graduates that
could expand practical skills training, bridge the oft encountered gap
between completion of a Juris Doctor and employment, and expand
capacity of the bar to serve unmet legal needs. Acknowledging that
pro bono is most accurately understood as “an adjunct to, not a
replacement for legal aid”15 and perceiving the clear need for a more
developed network of professional public interest practitioners within
the State, RWU School of Law contemplated how a post-graduate
training program could accomplish these particular objectives.
The virtues of a small State include fewer degrees of separation.
So, the encounter between RWU School of Law’s incubator/residency
exploration and the emerging “justice center” project of two private
practitioners was perhaps inevitable. In any case, it was soon
apparent to both parties that a “joining of forces” could substantially
benefit everyone’s interests by pooling resources, leveraging the institutional identity of the sole law school within the State, and anchoring
the initiative within an independent organization governed by representatives of the private bar, the law school and other community
stakeholders. Consequently, a task force of sorts undertook more
than a year of research including solicitation of input from the judiciary, community based organizations, law students, private practitioners, RILS attorneys, and others. The resulting product was an
organizational model that incorporates aspects of the incubator and
residency concepts but also draws on post graduate fellowships and
traditional non-profit legal services structures.
The Rhode Island Center for Justice Model
In simplest terms, the Rhode Island Center for Justice (Center for
Justice) is a multi-issue non-profit public interest law center. As a
501(c)(3) organization, it is governed by a board of directors, managed by an executive director and staffed by attorneys and non-attorneys who carry out programming, including free legal services, to
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[Vol. 1:274
promote access to justice for low and moderate income individuals,
families and communities in Rhode Island.
Distinct from traditional legal aid models, the Center for Justice
conducts legal service provision exclusively in partnership with community-based organizations. Individuals seeking legal assistance generally cannot access the Center for Justice’s legal resources directly
through “walk-in hours” or by calling the Center for Justice’s offices
to schedule an appointment. Rather, the Center for Justice’s partner
organizations, initially including an immigrant workers’ center, a
Providence-based social service provider, and a community organizing
group focused on utility shut off issues, facilitate identification of prospective clients and engage with the Center for Justice to operate grass
roots legal clinics, workshops and other forms of legal assistance. This
structure is intended both to leverage the Center for Justice’s limited
staffing resources to achieve a greater impact and to support base
building efforts by local groups working to advance social justice
through leadership development and advocacy.16
The Center for Justice is officially defined as an independent
organization created in cooperation with RWU School of Law.
Beyond the above described formation process, RWU School of Law’s
involvement in the Center consists of several profound commitments
including physically housing the Center for Justice without charge in
its downtown Providence facility. Additionally, the initial primary
legal staffing mechanism of the Center for Justice is a post-graduate
fellowship program exclusively open to RWU School of Law graduates. Four full-time staff attorney positions are filled through a competitive application process by which RWU School of Law alumni
from the previous five graduating classes are selected to work at the
Center for Justice for a two year period.
As the cornerstone of the Center for Justice’s legal staffing plan,
the fellowship program should notably enrich the experiential education curriculum of RWU School of Law. It expands the continuum of
experiential learning opportunities at RWU beyond clinical coursework, practice based skills training and pro bono projects undertaken during three years of law school. For a small but carefully
selected number of RWU graduates and recent alumni, the post-graduate fellowship will provide intensive training and supervision by professional public interest attorneys while working at the Center for
Justice. The concept of staff attorney positions, limited in duration to
one or two years, with a heavy emphasis on skills training and profes16 See Scott L. Cummings & Ingrid V. Eagly, A Critical Reflection on Law and
Organizing, 48 UCLA L. REV. 443 (2001).
Seq: 8
sional development is now familiar to many within the legal profession. In 1998, the Yale Law and Policy Review noted that “[t]here has
been a remarkable flowering of post-law school fellowships over the
past ten years.”17 Fifteen years later, such fully or partially funded
post-graduate opportunities have multiplied as the traditional, prestigious law firm sponsored fellowships, Skadden and Equal Justice
Works, have expanded and new programs, often sponsored directly by
law schools, have emerged.18
The common features of these various fellowships include a commitment to innovation, critical examination of traditional approaches
to poverty lawyering, deliberate development of fellowship “projects”
through assessment of community needs and the proposed fellow’s
substantive interest and skills, and prioritization of appropriate supervision and training opportunities.19 Altogether, the fellowship model
seems ideally designed for the public interest oriented law graduate or
recently admitted attorney who has plumbed the depths of experiential learning during three years of law school, integrated these various
hands on experiences into their doctrinal education, formed opinions
and practical understandings of how lawyering can best contribute to
social justice work and is thus prepared to “experiment” within the
laboratory of a legal services office. Such an opportunity is, of course,
similar in nature to the experiential education afforded to law students who, for example, may undertake clinical work with a student
practice order, but distinct insofar as the fellowship involves a
programmatic development component. In essence, the studentlawyer becomes a lawyer-student whose scope of reflection now
includes the many facets of building a non-profit legal services
The Center for Justice will also strengthen pre-graduation experiential education at RWU School of Law through increased opportunities for internships, externships, alternative spring break placements,
and other forms of public interest involvement. While such unpaid
forms of practical training are often in abundant supply for law students in many venues, the significance of this new local source of
placements is considerable given the comparative dearth of professional non-profit public interest law practices in Rhode Island. By
encouraging RWU law students to engage with the Center for Justice
17 Louise G. Trubek. Poverty Lawyering in a New Millenium,17 YALE L. & POL’Y REV.
461, 465 (1998).
18 See https://www.psjd.org/Postgraduate_Fellowships.
19 See http://www.skaddenfellowships.org/about-foundation (last visited 10/25/15); see
also http://www.equaljusticeworks.org/post-grad/equal-justice-works-fellowships (last
visited 10/25/15).
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[Vol. 1:274
on multiple short-term projects, most likely under the auspices of the
PBC, the school can broaden the range of experiential opportunities
and also fortify its well-established public interest culture. Moreover,
the exceptional success of the PBC also creates a natural space for
full-time, non-profit legal practice. Because pro bono lawyering is
best when complimented by professional public interest resources (i.e.
the knowledge and input of specialized poverty lawyers), the Center
for Justice’s model reflects a logical expansion of RWU School of
Law’s public interest and experiential learning program and a complement to its highly effective PBC.
When considering this model in relation to the most recent trends
in post-graduate, law school based training programs, the question
arises: how does the Center for Justice compare to incubators or residencies in which law graduates are supported in the development of
“low bono” law practices? Rather than funding a necessarily limited
number of full-time staff attorney positions through the always
daunting and uncertain work of non-profit fundraising and grants
development, why not allow a greater number of new attorneys to
establish revenue-generating firms within an incubator? With proper
parameters and guidance, it has been shown, such models can also
address access to justice gaps by proliferating community-based lawyers who are trained in areas of critical legal need and committed to
the provision of affordable legal services.20
This article does not dispute the logic or success of the traditional
incubator model. Rather, we share the Rhode Island Center for Justice model in the belief that certain benefits inure from it which are of
particular value in the environment within which it was created. First,
the establishment of a permanent, full-time non-profit legal services
organization promises to generate a more consistent presence of professional public interest lawyers within the courtrooms and other
venues where poor people most often appear unrepresented. While
private for-profit attorneys, charging on a sliding scale or “low bono”
basis, may certainly provide representation to low and moderate
income clients, it is inescapable that some categories of cases, such as
certain non-payment eviction proceedings and appeals of public benefits denial, simply cannot be handled on a fee for service model. Thus,
the Center for Justice functions to both train new lawyers in these
specialized areas of poverty law and contribute toward culture
changes in administrative and judicial tribunals where its staff attor20 See http://www.abajournal.com/legalrebels/article/2013_legal_rebel_profile_fred_
rooney; see also http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Portals/0/documents/accessJustice/2014%20Incu
Seq: 10
neys are positioned to monitor and advocate on a case-by-case and
system-wide level.
Second, the staff attorney-fellowship approach to post-graduate
training may allow for more intentional and strategic exposure of new
attorneys to pre-selected program areas. Whereas a lawyer learning
to run a solo practice or small firm must select cases, at least in part,
based upon the potential for fee generation, non-profit staff attorneys
may be assigned to program areas for the purpose of skills training
without regard to pecuniary considerations. Within a typical 24
month fellowship, for example, it is possible to design multiple “rotations” by which the new attorney is deliberately immersed in certain
areas of practice, handling several cases of a similar nature, for
periods of time sufficient to acquire the substantive knowledge and
confidence necessary for competent representation. This type of
structured experience may also be desirable for new attorneys who
wish to develop a more well-rounded background and resume suitable
for other public interest legal work including government lawyering.
Third, it is possible that a non-profit public interest legal practice
can contribute in a unique and valuable way to a law school’s overall
public interest identity and culture. Again, by endeavoring to provide
legal services in areas heretofore unaddressed by the State’s limited
number of non-profit legal practitioners, the Center for Justice brings
new topics of discussion, calls for action and, hopefully, new solutions
to the ongoing struggle for social justice within this community. In this
vein, it is worth considering the value of “law and organizing” as a
mode of experiential learning that can be made available to students
through the Center for Justice’s particular model of non-profit legal
practice. This modality of public interest legal practice, which necessarily involves significant unpaid work in support of grass roots community based organizations, is perhaps more feasible in the non-profit
legal services context that in a different setting aimed toward incubation of viable for-profit law offices.
It is too early to evaluate the merits of the Center for Justice’s
model. Having officially opened in January 2015, the Center for Justice has not yet been tested and the perceived benefits of its design are
yet to be realized. Among the potential directions of growth for the
organization is the development of a residency or incubator program
as has been accomplished by more than a dozen law schools
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[Vol. 1:274
throughout the country.21 Such an addition to and/or evolution of the
Center for Justice model could be warranted by considerations of sustainability as well as an increased understanding of the particular
unmet needs among low and moderate income communities of Rhode
Island. Nonetheless, the shared experiences of local practitioners and
other service providers which informed the development of the
Center for Justice suggest that the establishment of a professional
non-profit legal services program, free from LSC imposed restrictions,
may be a necessary precursor to successful cultivation of “low bono”
law offices among recent graduates. For the same reasons that pro
bono work is most effective when layered on top of professional nonprofit legal programs staffed by attorneys specialized in the relevant
areas of practice, an incubator would be best served by a center of
poverty law practice where full-time attorneys could both maintain a
permanent presence in the necessary legal venues and help to identify
the appropriate areas of focus and referrals for community-based low
bono services. To attempt “low bono” law firm incubation in the
absence of any pre-existing legal services programming would certainly risk a failure to identify the depths of unmet legal need amidst
the exigencies of for-profit legal practice. Thus, in the particular context of Rhode Island, the Center for Justice model reflects a response
to current unmet legal needs as well as a foundational undertaking for
the future creation of other innovative programs.
The above described formation process does point to some essentials for turning a post-graduate training program idea into reality.
Identification and engagement of stakeholders was critical to the
Center for Justice’s incubation. In particular, the involvement of the
private bar, principally a plaintiff’s side firm interested in the promotion of public interest lawyering, was instrumental in securing support
and galvanizing the legal community around an access to justice initiative. This suggests that law schools and other institutions seeking to
develop similar programs would benefit from a wider perspective of
potential partners beyond traditional sources of support for civil legal
aid. Recognizing that the private bar and the law school shared an
interest in this effort allowed for the pooling of resources and leveraging of networks to create sufficient wherewithal for the successful
culmination of what, if left within the silo of one institution, may have
never moved past the conceptual stage.
Altogether, the “coming together” of the individuals and entities
involved in the Center for Justice depended on an understanding of
21 See http://www.americanbar.org/groups/delivery_legal_services/initiatives_awards/
program_main.html (last visited 12/12/15).
Seq: 12
and responsiveness to the particular nature of the Rhode Island legal
community and the State as a whole. While the resulting design may
not be equally sensible in other contexts, the process of its formulation suggests worthwhile considerations for those seeking to address
access to justice gaps and the post-graduate legal practice condition in
various settings. As the number of such experiential legal education
programs continues to grow, we may expect and welcome a diverse
flowering of forms and models suited to local environments.