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Law and Community Service: The Appalachian School of Law

by Lynda McDaniel

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Photo of Appalachian School of Law building

At first glance, the Appalachian School of Law (ASL) in Grundy, Virginia, appears no different from other law schools. Two stately brick buildings, former middle and elementary schools transformed by award-winning renovations, now house modern classrooms, trial and appellate courtrooms, and a 25,000-square-foot law library. The spacious lobbies and lounges—well appointed with upholstered furniture, polished wood, and brass lamps—speak quietly of success. And a professional, well-credentialed faculty of 12 brings experience and recognition to the school.

But this school is different. Its deep commitment to community service and leadership distinguishes it from almost all of the other 180 law schools in the country. ASL students are required to volunteer 25 hours each semester on community service projects, ranging from dispute resolution training to humane society management, in a four-county area. Only 11 other law schools have similar mandatory programs.

"We're based on the original idea of the attorney as counselor, someone people turn to for good advice, who give of themselves to their community," says Lucius Ellsworth, president of ASL. "We believe that a legal education, if properly shaped, can facilitate the preparation of people who, both through their values and then through their behavior, are interested in giving to the community. In addition to providing the foundation of knowledge and skills essential for taking the bar examination and beginning practice, the curriculum and co-curricular activities are designed to prepare students for leadership and service in the twenty-first century. Problem-solving skills, ethical behavior, and professional responsibilities extend beyond the practice of law to all aspects of the community."

Like many rural areas, this region has been underrepresented by legal counsel, leaving the community without guidance on such everyday matters as wills, divorces, and landlord-tenant issues. In addition, family responsibilities, financial constraints, and lengthy travel too often dimmed prospects for Central Appalachians who aspired to study law. That all began to change in August 1997, when ASL welcomed 71 students into its charter class. Three years later, 34 of those students graduated and returned to their communities.

ASL students come from 14 states, though the majority are from Virginia, West Virginia, or Kentucky; there is growing interest from North Carolina and Tennessee. The school's focus appealed to Julie Palas, age 46, who after graduation in May will settle in Charleston, West Virginia, where last summer she clerked for the state supreme court. She came, like many students, with a history of community service in nonprofit and grassroots organizations, and she now serves as the school's part-time community service coordinator.

"I run pretty thin, and balancing that act is a little hard sometimes, but it's so important to be passionate about other people and their plights and successes," she says. "Being an attorney will help me to continue doing that with more credibility."

A Commitment to Leadership

The ASL faculty migrated from across the country, drawn by ASL's commitment to leadership and community development. Ellsworth came from the University of Virginia's College at Wise; dean and associate professor Tony Sutin and his wife, visiting assistant professor Margaret Lawton, left behind distinguished careers in Washington, D.C.; and associate professor Dorie Shaw came from the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, New Hampshire. Associate professor Helen de Haven, director of ASL's community service program, smiles as she mentions she is the only Appalachian faculty member.

"I was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I came here because community service is an integral part of the program," she adds. "The community service program lets our students go out and work with the kinds of people they will be representing."

If the school's success rests, in part, on its community-service niche, the timing could not be better. According to the school's faculty, legal professionals across the country are currently reassessing their roles in the community.

"The profession knows there is a need to have lawyers give more back to their communities," Sutin says. "Lawyers often gripe they are too busy, but they can both do well and do good. From day one, our students see that participating in the community is as important as everything else they do here. Hopefully we'll graduate a type of lawyer who continues to feel—and share—that commitment."

ASL graduate David Bary last summer returned to the law firm Wolfe, Farmer, Williams, and Rutherford in Norton, where he had served several years as a paralegal. Attorney Joseph Wolfe had been the first to propose the idea of the law school back in 1993, and Bary, age 30, says he watched closely as plans turned to reality, and he joined the charter class. Now he's back with the firm, but this time as a lawyer.

"It's busy, but I learned at school that once you graduate, you cannot ostracize yourself from your community," he says. "You have to be a good attorney and a good citizen. My law school experience opened my eyes to that. We focused on so much more than just the legal education, and that was a great benefit." Bary does pro bono work through his firm and currently volunteers through the local United Way and his church.

Reaching Out to the Community

ASL's 23 community service projects fall into two broad categories. The first involves pure service through sharing a skill or passion. This ranges from participating in the Public School Chess Program (started by ASL students) and volunteering at the local Main Street Teen Center, to assisting neighboring Dickenson County's Wild Animals, Rivers, and Trees program. The second category taps into the students' emerging legal skills. While the school does not have a legal clinic, the students reach out through seminars on legal topics affecting the community.

"Each of the senior citizens agencies, for example, will bring their senior citizens here for an afternoon," adds associate professor Dorie Shaw. "Or our students will give a talk on advanced medical directives, living wills, or Medicare fraud. That's our legal pro bono program, something that is specific to their education here."

ASL has also conducted Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) training in local elementary and middle schools. This program has drawn national attention, particularly from former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who has publicly congratulated the school on this effort.

"Many of these kids did not deal well with their anger," de Haven explains. "Through the conflict resolution program, we work with them in order to give them better communication skills by the time they enter high school. And that has worked well. The principal at Vansant Elementary-Middle School reported that suspensions went down 50 percent the year we instituted the program."

School planners had hoped to attract a certain type of student, and if Buchanan County native Larry Scarberry is typical, they have succeeded. Known around campus as "Recycle Man," Scarberry, age 25, has spent months establishing a campus paper-recycling program. He is now working hard to keep the program going after he graduates in May.

"I'm training other students to be leaders, and that's giving me organizational skills," he says. "Hopefully, I can take that to my law practice and use these skills to organize projects there. That's my plan. I hope to settle in this county and give something back. I don't know exactly how yet, but that's in my long-term goals."

In addition to its impact through community service, the school has had a sizable economic impact on the region. With an enrollment in excess of 165 full-time students, monthly direct expenditures by students total $208,250 in housing, food, insurance, and transportation, or almost $2.1 million annually. That number is expected to rise considerably when the school achieves full enrollment (350 students) in the years ahead. In addition, 37 full-time employees currently earn an average annual salary of $43,034, and 10 part-time workers average $6.00 an hour. These numbers also are expected to rise—to more than 52 full-time and 18 part-time employees.

Funding for the school comes from grants, donations, tuition, and loans. The recently completed Investment in Tomorrow Campaign raised more than $8.5 million through individual donations as small as $5, and donations from corporations, foundations, and civic organizations as large as $1 million. The Appalachian Regional Commission provided economic development grants for start-up operating expenses.

The Appalachian School of Law is a small, friendly school. Students stop by to chat with the president as though he were a friend. And he is, as is the rest of the faculty. It's a close-knit community where each individual is nurtured.

And word is spreading. Dean Sutin reports that in his travels to law conferences and meetings, he is greeted by wider circles of recognition. "They say to me, 'Isn't that the school that emphasizes community service?' or 'Isn't that the school that has the ADR focus?'" he says. "I think people realize there's something new going on here. They tell me 'Gosh, we could never do that at our school. Too many people are just too ingrained in doing things the old way.' So we have an opportunity to break the mold in so many ways. It's exciting to share our vision."

Graduate Stephanie Pease, age 32, carried the school's mission back to Wise, Virginia, where she practices at the firm Sturgill and Kennedy. Attending law school wasn't easy—she is a single parent with a young son—but the school's proximity to home made her dream possible. And now, she says, the imprint of her ASL experience informs her life daily.

"The overall mission of the school opened my eyes to the fact that I could do something positive for the community," she explains. "I have developed a relationship with attorneys in two counties where we work with young people and help them look at the wrong they've done, where they're headed if they continue this behavior, what they can do to better themselves, and then try to [help] them do something positive for themselves. I also send letters to local high schools offering to speak on Career Day or at any other program. I believe that young people will see that if I can do it, they can, too. I try to be an example for them."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.