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By John Masson
The White House's Champions of Change program recently honored Michigan Law grad Martha Bergmark and 15 other lawyers from around the country who help ensure that poor and marginalized people have access to justice.
The program and panel discussion—hosted by Attorney General Eric Holder and webcast live to hundreds of law students all over the country, including a roomful at Michigan Law—served to highlight the longstanding tradition of public service of Michigan Law grads.
Bergmark, a Mississippi native who graduated in 1973, said she went to law school in part because she thought her home state needed more skilled advocates. So once she graduated, she returned home and established a civil rights and poverty law practice, then founded Southeast Mississippi Legal Services. Later she went to Washington, where she served as executive vice president and president of the Legal Services Corporation, and as senior vice president for programs at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
"Public interest law was something I went to law school for," Bergmark said. "I had grown up in Mississippi with parents who had been active in the civil rights movement, so I knew I needed to go to a top-tier law school."
That's where Michigan came in. But as at almost all law schools at the time, Michigan's commitment to public service was more philosophical than practical—until the establishment of the school's first clinic, which Bergmark participated in. The clinic was so popular, she said, students had to be selected by lottery.
"Since then, Michigan has obviously come a very long way in terms of promoting and supporting public interest careers," she said.
And so it has. From the Dean's Office down, the Law School today encourages public service with, among other programs:
The Champions of Change event helped illustrate the possibilities for some Michigan Law students participating in one or more of those programs right now. And it also served to remind Bergmark of the progress that's been made since she started her work in Mississippi.
But the work needs to continue, she said, because there's still a lot to be done. That's why, in 2003, she helped found the Mississippi Center for Justice, which has grown into a 30-person office with a $3 million annual budget.
"This is my crowning chapter, to come back home to Mississippi and start the center in 2003. We've grown it from a gleam in the eye of the founding board members," Bergmark said. "It's very gratifying to take all those years of public service experience and connections and put all that experience to work in its creation."
In the last few years those experiences and connections have helped people who otherwise wouldn't have access to high-caliber legal talent protect themselves in the aftermath of devastating natural disasters and the calamitous BP oil spill—all while continuing to fight civil rights problems that still crop up in the region.
"We live in a different world in the South than the one I grew up in," Bergmark told the panel. But it's still a world of large needs and small resources, she added, and it's one where people "live with our Confederate heritage.... Mississippi is still at the bottom of every list, and we can trace that back to the Civil War."
Find out more about the Mississippi Center for Justice at www.mscenterforjustice.org/staff.php.
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