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Miami Scholars Program Prepares Students to Enter Public Interest Sector

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Miami Scholars

Miami Scholars. (Photo: Miami Law) Full-Size Photo

The search for an affordable legal education is a major barrier to many students interested in pursuing a public interest career. While there may be a high desire to serve the community, the average law student's debt is enough to turn many away from a promising future in public service, which does not offer as high a salary as other legal careers.

"Given the average public sector salaries and the increasing cost of a legal education, I only considered law schools that offered substantial scholarships and strong public interest programming," 1L Miami Scholar Elsie Morales says.

For this reason and many more, the Miami Scholars Program adds an essential element to the strong culture of public service at the University of Miami School of Law. The goal of the program is to spawn public interest leaders through a partial tuition scholarship, mentorship, course advising, and career planning. Through the Miami Scholars Program, incoming students with an exceptional record of academic and public interest achievements are awarded this prestigious and significant scholarship of $75,000 over a three-year period.

Marni Lennon serves as the Assistant Dean for Public Interest and Pro Bono, and is the director of the HOPE Public Interest Resource Center. Many public-interest-oriented students cite Dean Lennon as a mentor and a guru when it comes to planning a public interest career.

"It is critically important that law schools support public interest work because service is at the cornerstone of lawyering," Dean Lennon says. "Legal education is a privilege – with that privilege comes a responsibility to give back to others and promote access to justice."

Members of the Miami Scholars program are automatically a part of the HOPE family, participating in an umbrella of on-campus events and organizations, such as the annual HOPE Auction and the Public Interest Leadership Board. Using this support system, they have the confidence and network to find their public interest dream job, instead of focusing on a job that simply pays the bills. They are also mentored by public interest lawyers, receive individualized curriculum and career planning advising and get support with securing a summer public interest internship.

"Last October, I participated in the University of Miami 's Legal Advocacy Alternative Break program at the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office, and the experience has led me to completely shift my career focus," Morales says. "I had never before considered a criminal law career, which just goes to show the importance of attending a law school that exposes students to these opportunities early on in law school. This summer, I'll be interning at the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office through the Center for Ethics and Public Service Public Interest Law Summer Fellowship Program, and hope to intern at the Federal Public Defender's Office at some point in the future."

All Miami Scholars receive a summer stipend to work at a public interest agency. Last summer, bilingual Miami Scholar Elizabeth Reiser-Murphy, 2L, used this stipend to work at the Impact Cases Center at the Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana in Medellin, Colombia. The Impact Cases Center aims to advance strategic litigation by identifying important human rights issues in the State of Antioquia.

"The Miami Scholars program has been incredibly influential in my academic journey," Reiser-Murphy says. "The scholarship helped law school become a reality for me."

3L Miami Scholar Betsy Havens used her stipend to work at Florida Legal Services during the summer after her first year. She will now be joining them after graduation as an employee through the Equal Justice Works Fellowship program.

"I want to help poor people gain access to health care through systemic advocacy and litigation," Havens says. "The Miami Scholars program has turned out to be instrumental to my law school experience. It provided me with endless networking opportunities, volunteer and public interest work opportunities, and, most importantly, some great friends. I am so grateful."