If you think lawyers are out there only to play the capitalist game, come meet Susan Feathers (C/G’83). Better yet, take a look at the Public Service Department she oversees at the Law School, which places about 600 students a year in law-related volunteer programs.
A national figure in the law-school public-interest community, Feathers wants to make pro bono work an essential part of legal education. The Law School currently requires that all students perform 70 hours of pro bono work as a condition of graduation. Feathers’ efforts, along with those of Associate Director Pam Wolfe, have mobilized initiatives like the Street Law Project, a program whereby students teach a law-related curriculum to public school students in the city, and the Guild Food Stamp Clinic, a project that provides legal assistance to nearly 500 indigent clients in food stamp cases.
As Feathers tells the Current, the amount of time and energy students invest in giving back has made them a model for other law schools.
Q.What do you do at the Law School?
A. I direct the public service department at the Law School. It’s actually the first law school in the country to have a mandatory pro bono component. That started in 1989. Two years ago we were the first law school to receive the American Bar Association Pro Bono Publico Award. ...
When I came here there was a strong sense that we wanted to do something that would get national visibility for the program. So at the time the program was founded, it was seen as this experiment in legal education and it wasn’t really clear whether or not it was going to take. But what was an experiment in 1989 is now de rigueur in 2002. ...
Now it’s at the point where we have agencies contacting us and literally soliciting our students over other students. …Historically, the core of the program is frontline legal services so we have about at this point, I guess, somewhere between seven and 12 student projects that represent clients in frontline legal service delivery. ...Collectively, those students are representing as many as 1,200 clients a year, so it’s more than any nonprofit in Philadelphia.
Q. How did you get into this field?
A. Partly because I’m more of an organizer, a pragmatist to heart. I really like students. I like to be around students. I like to work with the community. I’m sort of a community-based lawyer, but I like academics so I like to be around academics but the pressures of publications and my own inclinations sort of lead me to want to be at a well-resourced school, like a Yale or Penn, but working closely with students where that was rewarded.
Q. Do you think this program helps to dispel the negative stereotype surrounding lawyers?
A. It’s hugely important. Frankly, pro bono has the capacity to redeem the public image of this profession. I think it’s absolutely at the core, essence, of what it means to be a lawyer. Ideally if we did our job effectively, we’d put ourselves out of business. I’ve always said, there shouldn’t have to be mandatory pro bono. Everyone says, How do you feel about it philosophically? I’m against it.
But how do I feel about it pragmatically? I think we have to have it. …And the thing that is so interesting about it—it doesn’t cost a lot. It’s not about money; it’s about philosophical buy-in. It is about the Law School on a fundamental level believing that mandatory pro bono is an essential part of the curriculum. …This is one of the only law schools that got it and we got it right.
Q .I hear you’re interested in yoga.
A. That started when I was in law school. I was studying with this modern jazz blues gospel, essentially like a modern dance troupe. The women started to teach me yoga and then in 1986-87, I started to study Sivananda. About five years ago I did my teacher’s training certification in California.
Q. This is all before the yoga fad?
A. Yeah, this was long before the fad. This was post-’60s but before the fad. So ’80s I was doing yoga. Initially I was more interested in the physical positions, but then also became increasingly interested in the meditative, philosophical aspects. I was raised a Christian and I certainly still consider myself a religious person, but spirituality for me is more about a way of life.
I published a book, I guess it was about two years [ago]. It’s by a Canadian publisher. It’s “Yoga in an Adirondack Chair.” It sold a lot of books in Toronto, believe it not. It’s devoted to my dad because my dad is from the Adirondacks and his father, my grandfather, was born on an Indian reservation. My dad, when I was a teenager, took us up through all the Adirondacks.
It may sound like it’s a big stretch to go from Adirondacks to yoga but to me it’s all the same thing. It’s a spiritual quest in nature. One is more an external journey; the other is more of an internal journey. But there was that same sort of longing, yearning for some kind of union. …I have a sort of social worker streak, and my ideal ultimately would be to integrate those two aspects of my life more explicitly—the spiritual path and the social justice path.
Originally published on October 3, 2002