Student Group Spotlight: Putting a SPIN on CLS – A Q&A with Paul Chander

As you may have heard, a group of students at CLS started a new student group called SPIN.
One of its founders, Paul Chander (a PILF honoree and Morningside Muckraker Columnist),
has come forth to answer some questions you may have about this exciting new venture!

SPIN LOGO - FINAL

Q: What is SPIN?

Paul Chander: The Student Public Interest Network (SPIN) is a new student group that hopes to do two things. First, SPIN hopes to act as a support system, a social community, and a student/alumni network for all public interest law students across all issues. Second, SPIN hopes to provide an institutional platform for students to advocate for public interest law throughout CLS and the broader legal community.

Q: Where did this idea come from?

PC: As a 1L, I sensed how my career interests were not the norm, whether it was my LPW Instructor saying, “when you are all associates…”, or when virtually all of my classmates were going to firm receptions in the spring, or when OCS repeatedly asked me over the summer if I was really, really sure I didn’t want to do EIP.

When serving as co-chair of Student Senate’s SJI Focus Group, I realized not only were there a lot more public interest students out there, but they were having very similar experiences. The most common issue that public interest students raised in the 2013 quality of life survey was the perceived “corporate culture” of CLS. Public interest students explained that this culture marginalized them from the rest of their peers, divided them into discrete groups based only on either issue or affinity, and ultimately dissuaded them from engaging with CLS, or, even worse, no longer pursuing their original dreams of public interest law.

I’ve discussed with administrators, professors, and students how to rectify this problem, and everyone has said that the two places to start are by building community and advancing common goals. Professor Sturm’s Lawyering for Change course also inspired me to apply the theories of change that she teaches to our very own community here at CLS. Through her class I met several other students who were interested in the project, including Kirby Tyrrell, Rachel Shapiro, and Eleni Kyriakides, and together we decided to create SPIN.

Q: What role will SPIN fill at CLS?

PC: Public interest students, as a community, face distinct difficulties that other students do not. These challenges include finding mentors for professional development, navigating the murky job process, and finding a supportive network of students with similar experiences.

Currently, however, there are no venues—either through existing student groups or within the administration—that provide a forum for public interest law students across all issue areas. Issue-based student groups, including Rightslink, CJAN, SIRR, and CRLS, primarily hold discussions and do substantive work related to one specific legal issue. SJI primarily provides professional counseling. And PILF, the Public Interest Law Foundation, is a non-profit corporation that raises money to fund public interest work. PILF serves a vital role—I myself will continue to rely on its funding in order to intern at a non-profit this summer. But since PILF almost exclusively focuses on raising money, it doesn’t seem to fulfill the community-building and professional development role that many public interest students seek. SPIN hopes to fill this gap by bringing together all of these groups to collaborate on shared public interest issues and build a public interest community.

Q: How will SPIN build a community?

PC: One of the biggest obstacles public interest students face in connecting to a community is that they just don’t know each other. SPIN hopes to change this with an array of social events that will bring public interest students together. For example, SPIN is working with others to put on a “Disorientation” event for 1Ls, which will provide them with a different perspective on the law school experience. SPIN also hopes to hold a retreat at the beginning of the year so that students contemplating public interest can bond with each other and know who to reach out to for support throughout their time here. In addition, SPIN plans to organize groups of CLS students who wish to attend the various annual public interest law conferences happening across the country. Lastly, SPIN plans to hold general body meetings and local social events at least once a month for all public interest law students.

Aside from primarily social events, SPIN hopes to build a community through about professional growth. These include the public interest peer and alumni mentoring program, lunchtime talks with public interest lawyers about their professional work and personal lives, and talking to prospective public interest-oriented students during the admissions process.

Q: How will SPIN advocate for public interest law?

PC: SPIN plans to advocate for the public interest community by providing a forum for all student groups with a commitment to public interest law to share, coordinate, and voice their concerns. To that end, SPIN plans to not only have its own administrative board to manage its internal affairs, but to also coordinate a larger network of “SPIN representatives” from every interested student group. Since SPIN truly wants students to set the agenda, the issues that the network will take on are not pre-determined, but they might include strengthening ties to public interest alumni and faculty, advocating for greater coordination between OCI and SJI, and uniting for a CLS-wide month-long focus on one particular social justice issue.

This model is not unprecedented. Student Services already provides a forum for all of the leaders of the affinity groups to meet once a month and discuss common issues with each other and the Dean of Students, Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin. Doing so enables Dean MGK to advocate to administrators not only on behalf of one group, but on behalf of the entire coalition of identity groups. Most student groups already have a board member dedicated to community service or pro bono work; those students would be natural candidates for SPIN representatives. Having all student groups unite around common issues amplifies each voice, as opposed to each group advocating individually. This is the central organizing idea of SPIN, as embodied in our hub-and-spokes logo that not only orients all public interest groups toward CLS, but also connects them to each other.

Q: Can people who plan to work at a firm join SPIN?

PC: Absolutely! SPIN defines “public interest law” broadly, including an interest in working in a non-profit, the government, an international organization, or a for-profit institution that substantially does public interest work, at any point in your career. We’re aware that some public interest employers, including the federal government and impact litigation organizations, actually require lawyers to gain some experience at a law firm before they’ll be hired.

Moreover, many students, not just public interest ones, complain about having to “choose a side”—you’re either OCS or SJI.  However, in reality, lawyers often move between the public and private sector and work together to advance social justice. Furthermore, it will take collaboration between all lawyers—public and private—to improve the CLS community and fundamentally change the larger legal community’s commitment to public interest law as a whole.

Q: How can students become involved?

PC: Students can become a general SPIN member and receive email updates by filling out this Google form and joining our Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/CLSSPIN/. Students can also serve as mentors in the public interest peer-mentoring program by filling out the info sheet that SJI will be sending out. Students can also reach out directly to me, Kirby Tyrrell, or any of the other SPIN board members. We welcome any ideas and involvement to help SPIN get off to a strong start this fall. 

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