Spring 2015

Exterior view of the Law School's inner courtyard

Students and Alumni Unite to Guarantee Summer Funding for All 1Ls

Program Will Be Most Inclusive of Any Top Law School

By Amy Spooner

Beginning in 2016, 1Ls can land a great summer internship with less worry about paying the bills. And in true Michigan Law fashion, it’s because the community is taking care of its own.

Gifts from the Himan Brown Charitable Trust and from Lisa and Chris Jeffries, ’74—with a startup gift from the Law School Student Senate (LSSS) and ongoing fundraising through Student Funded Fellowships (SFF)—will support 1Ls taking unpaid or low-paying summer internships in the public, nonprofit, and private sectors, making it the most inclusive program at any top law school. Michigan’s program will issue interest-free, forgivable loans administered by SFF, a Michigan Law student organization that since 1977 has provided some $2.5 million in summer funding support for 1Ls.

“Former and current students are helping current and future students,” says Dean Mark West. “That mutual support represents our Law School at its finest.” He notes the program’s inclusive nature also epitomizes Michigan Law. “Several peer schools offer 1L funding, with limited eligibility. One of the best things about Michigan Law is the divergent paths our students pursue, so it was important that we offer summer funding to everyone.”

Law-related 1L summer employment is essential for exploring possible careers and gaining experience needed to secure good jobs for the 2L summer and beyond. Most 1L jobs pay very little, and large firms rarely employ 1Ls; in addition, jobs with the most promise for the future often are in cities with high costs of living. Therefore, many students struggle to balance goals and current means.

As an unpaid intern in the L.A. County Public Defender’s Office, Brian Holbrook, ’13, lived the dilemma in 2011. He shared a studio apartment with two friends, scrimped for basic necessities, and returned to Michigan determined to find a better way. “I’d found my calling as a public defender,” says Holbrook, “but supporting myself was challenging. It highlighted the discrepancy between students’ need and the funding SFF could provide.”

Holbrook began drafting a proposal to increase funding with fellow SFF board member Adrian Ohmer, ’13, Adam Miller-Howard, ’13, and Daniella Schmidt, ’13, an Organization of Public Interest Students board member. “We didn’t want to complain without proposing a solution,” says Ohmer. “We were deeply motivated to right a longstanding wrong.”

Armed with data on comparable programs at peer schools, the students built a model based on forgivable loans, and sought ongoing input from students, faculty, and Law School administrators. While the reaction was favorable, the group was told that near-term funding was unlikely.

Enter Dean West, who heard Miller-Howard pitch the proposal as he was becoming dean in 2013. “I left the meeting hopeful that he would make it a priority as dean,” says Miller-Howard. And he did. “The plan and level of detail were brilliant,” says West. “It should come as no surprise that a group of Michigan Law students thought through everything.”

With student support a pillar of the Victors for Michigan fundraising campaign, West considered the right donors to share his excitement for the proposal. Meanwhile, the trustee of the Himan Brown Charitable Trust expressed a desire to help the Law School meet its $70 million student support campaign goal. The trustee and his son are both Michigan Law grads. West approached the charitable trust and Lisa and Chris Jeffries about expanding 1L summer funding, a proposal that aligned well with the Jeffrieses’ desire to make a substantial gift in support of students and the charitable trust’s desire to support causes that include education.

“Mark [West] was passionate about the program and convinced that it was critical,” says Chris Jeffries. “His enthusiasm and the plan’s close tie with my goals made it natural for me to get involved.” The Himan Brown Charitable Trust gift was similarly motivated, says the trustee. “When Dean West said students stop him in the halls to ask about progress on 1L summer funding, we knew we could make a real difference.”

Leaders of the LSSS and SFF also rallied around the idea. LSSS had accumulated a significant fund that it earmarked for a program to support all students; 1L summer funding proved a perfect choice. “The support from LSSS was crucial financially and also because it showed that the student body bought into the plan,” says West.

Under the new program, all 1Ls will be eligible for summer funding up to $4,000, beginning in the 2015-2016 academic year. The funding, disbursed as a loan, will be forgiven for any student whose earnings during both law school summers total less than $18,000. Students who earn $20,000 or more must fully repay the loan, while those earning $18,000-$20,000 will repay on a sliding scale. Student repayments ultimately will make the program self-sustaining.

Meanwhile, SFF fundraising efforts will continue providing a limited number of highly competitive public service grant awards annually. Continued support of SFF initiatives like the spring auction are vital to retaining adequate funding for the program, says SFF co-chair Kate Aufses, a 3L. At the same time, the group is elated to have additional resources available.

“Providing financial assistance to everyone who needs it has always been SFF’s dream, so we are thrilled,” Aufses says. “And maintaining the student-managed, student-funded aspects of SFF highlights the Michigan Law spirit of the new program. We are so grateful to everyone who made this possible.”