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Alternative Breaks Foster Friendship, Pro Bono Spirit Among MLaw Students

By Jenny Whalen
March 8, 2013

When Michigan Law 2L Kelly O'Donnell set off for Belize this spring, she wasn't in pursuit of the sort of color one might associate with a Caribbean destination.

A veteran of the student group Legal Alternative Winter Breaks, or LAW Breaks, O'Donnell is part of a rapidly expanding service-learning program designed to immerse law students in environments where issues of legal and social justice translate into actual cases rather than theoretical classroom discussions.

"I signed up for the trip for location and opportunity," said O’Donnell, who previously traveled with LAW Breaks to Arizona. "I will likely never again get the chance to observe Belize's parliament from the inside. Human rights are an international issue, and there isn't a single area of the law that this sort of governmental experience wouldn't touch at least in some respect."

What started as a 1L's desire to connect with fellow students and explore immigration law first-hand is now an established program that offers alternative break trips to study human rights in Belize, criminal justice in New Orleans, tribal law in New Mexico, poverty law in Detroit, and immigration law in Arizona.

"I came to law school to study immigration issues and I really wanted to go (to Arizona) to see the work being done and meet the people involved," said 3L Alisa Whitfield, who cofounded LAW Breaks with 3L Anna Hill three years ago.

Recruiting a dozen fellow law students, the pair organized a one-week spring break trip to work with nonprofit organization No More Deaths in Tucson.

"The trip was a huge success," remembers participant and past president Gabe Newland, 3L. "We spent several days with No More Deaths...observed 'Streamline' deportation proceedings, and interviewed the federal magistrate overseeing those proceedings. We also met with U.S. Border Patrol, informally and formally."

The informal meeting came when Border Patrol helicopters circled the group's desert camp and stopped them for a citizenship check.

Experiences like this combined with visits to local culture points and the often 24-hour drive required to reach program destinations have served to form lasting friendships among many trip participants. "For me it was definitely, hands-down the best week of my first year of law school," Whitfield said. "It's a great way to connect and bond around a common interest and it's a great introduction to an issue."

While some participants have a vested interest in a particular issue from the start, others sign on for the camaraderie and return with a new passion for advocacy work and contacts that often lead to summer internships and jobs upon graduation.

LAW Breaks fundraising chair Katherine Meister, 2L, found inspiration for her current work with Detroit community organizations from her trip to New Orleans last year.

"The experience in NOLA prompted me to explore ways to become more involved in the community that surrounds Ann Arbor," Meister said. "A clinic is a semester-long experience with a classroom component and hands-on element, but this is a chance to go far outside the Michigan Law community and find what it means to meet the struggling needs of a community.

"I think fostering the pro bono spirit while in law school is a really important thing to do."

For more information on this year's trips, in which approximately 40 law students took part, visit the LAW Breaks website.

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