Our PILF Funding Policy Should Change

by ursavoice

Akhil Sheth
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law


    I want us to have a conversation about PILF/Meyerhoff funding. It’s my firm belief that 1Ls and 2Ls who serve as summer judicial externs should be eligible for PILF/Meyerhoff funding if they choose not to receive academic credit for their externship.

    We talk of being a law school devoted to public service. We routinely back that rhetoric up in the strongest way possible, by spending our limited dollars ensuring that our students and alumni can choose work to serve the public interest despite the financial burden imposed by law school.

     Government service is a part of that public interest. Insofar as PILF/Meyerhoff funding is concerned, we already recognize this, by funding students who work for the Department of Justice, state and federal prosecutors, state and federal public defenders, and other government agencies.

     The work of the judiciary is part of that government service, as we recognize every time a judge visits UCI Law to speak. Accordingly, it seems appropriate that our eligibility requirements would not discriminate against those working for the judiciary. But they do. PILF/Meyerhoff grants are available to those working for literally every other government institution; only those working for the courts are excluded. Why are positions within two branches of government eligible, but positions within the third branch ineligible?

    This isn’t just a theoretical argument: the actual work of judicial externs clearly fits within the PILF criteria. The prosecution of a section 1983 claim, the grant of an injunction, the halt of deportation proceedings—none of these, and many other things we classify as public interest, can happen without the courts working hard to get it right. The fact that judicial externs can’t talk about that work doesn’t change the truth that they are often in as much of a position to affect the public interest as any student at UCI Law.

     A disappointing but practical consequence of this policy is simple: poor students interested in serving the public interest cannot afford to work as summer judicial externs if they attend UCI Law. This is a real problem, because working as a judicial extern comes with benefits not available through other public interest jobs. You can’t find another job that will offer the same level of access to the inner workings of a dependency court, an immigration court, or a criminal court, such that you can experience the same sort of direct impact on the litigation outcomes of the underrepresented. And, some of these opportunities are only available during the summer.

     So, what gives? There are four reasons often cited for our current policy. First, ABA Standard 305 prohibits law schools from granting credit to a student for a field placement program if that student receives compensation. Second, many law schools traditionally have denied funding to students serving as judicial externs. Third, some judges may prohibit their externs from receiving summer grants. And fourth, the pressures on fundraising are high, and this policy alleviates some of that pressure by artificially decreasing the number of students eligible for funding.

     The first two reasons are easy to address. My proposal to allow funding for those serving as judicial externs complies with ABA Standard 305, as it requires students to choose between eligibility for funding and academic credit; no student could receive both. And tradition isn’t a good argument on its own, especially at UCI Law, an institution explicitly dedicated both to innovation and public service.

    The third reason might not even be real. I’ve looked, and have asked members of our administration to look, and I haven’t found a judge who has actually stated such an objection. No judge I know of asks externs whether they receive scholarship or grant money to help fund their summer work. I think this is a straw person. Even if it’s not, though, we can require externs who seek funding to acquire the explicit approval of the judicial officer they are serving with.

    The fourth reason—money—is what this is really about. I understand that there aren’t magical Donald Bren trees growing in the courtyard, that our dollars are already stretched too far, and that our Dean already spends far too much of his time fundraising for us. But you can’t discriminate against a group of students simply because they’re used to it and it’s the most convenient thing to do. Without a further principle to enunciate why judicial externs aren’t eligible, this argument is arbitrary—why not deny funding to some other group of students arbitrarily? Because judicial externs serve the public interest, they should not bear funding inadequacies alone.

    So, what’s the solution? For starters, let’s include the extra money we would need in our goal-setting for next year; we’re certainly not going to raise the money if we don’t. And, if we don’t raise enough, let’s adopt a fairer solution. For example, we could split the available pool of money equally among all those eligible. We could line draw on a case-by-case basis, paying special attention to the application essay and financial hardship statement. We could change our current policy of allowing students two summers of PILF funding to limit students to up to one. Any of these solutions, or others we can come up with together, is fairer than our current policy. The status quo simply doesn’t comply with our mission.