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MiUI General Manager Steve Gray meets with Michigan Law students Gordon Kangas, David Hamstra, and Karima Tawfik.

MiUI Partnership Offers MLaw Students Practical Experience from Year One

By Jenny Whalen
Nov. 4, 2013

The Michigan Court Rule that prohibits first-year law students from providing direct legal representation is, for many Michigan Law 1Ls, frustrating at best. But over the past three years, a partnership with the Michigan Unemployment Insurance (MiUI) Project has worked to fill this void and provide an experience that goes beyond the contents of a resume.

A nonprofit law firm based in Ann Arbor, MiUI trains volunteer 1L, 2L, and 3L law students to provide free unemployment insurance advice and advocacy for Michigan workers, including representation at administrative hearings, and in written and oral arguments before the Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission, the Circuit Court, and the Michigan Court of Appeals.

"Because you don't have to be a licensed attorney to represent someone in an administrative hearing, the student practice rule doesn't apply," said Steve Gray, general manager and supervising attorney at MiUI. "Law students can make a real difference. Having an advocate at the hearing makes a difference."

Launched in the midst of the U.S. financial crisis, where rising unemployment numbers contrasted with shrinking avenues for worker representation, MiUI found its first partner in the Michigan Immigration and Labor Law Association at Michigan Law in 2010.

"Michigan Law students have been incredible partners," Gray said. "They are enthusiastic, diligent, reliable, and incredibly bright. To have 50 students a semester that are volunteering says a lot about the quality of people you get at Michigan."

Annie McGinnis, who began working with MiUI during the fall semester of her 1L year and is now a 3L student supervisor, noted how the experience has proven valuable in both her personal and professional life.

"It really is an amazing program that does a lot of good while teaching you the skills you need to be a lawyer," said McGinnis, who will join the New York firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP following her December graduation. "You learn how to write a real brief, conduct direct and cross questioning, appear before a judge, and be responsive to a client. This isn't some corporation you're representing. It's someone's life you're in charge of."

While supervising attorneys do attend the administrative hearings, law students are expected to be the primary representatives, Gray said.

"Students get to redirect, cross examine, and offer a short closing statement in what is usually an adversarial environment because employers are allowed to appear and contest eligibility in these cases," he said. "It gives students a really good feel for the adversarial process when there is something that really matters on the line."

It is this practical experience in which prospective employers have always shown a keen interest, McGinnis said.

"In every interview for my 1L and 2L summer jobs, employers wanted to know about my experience with MiUI," she added. "It differentiates you from everybody else."

For Brent Eliason, who interned with MiUI during his 1L summer and remains a 3L student supervisor, the project has served as a professional advantage and personal inspiration.

"Steve (Gray) is great to work with and it's obvious every day that he cares about what he's doing," Eliason said. "He wanted to help people in Michigan and he created this program that does just that. Whatever I end up doing, I hope I can be half as passionate as him."

Gray was honored with the Outstanding Supervisor Award at Michigan Law's pro bono and public service banquet in 2012. Additional recognition followed this year when MiUI was named the Law School's Outstanding Pro Bono Project for 2013.

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