Many law students come to class their first day with a higher purpose in mind. Some want to save the whales, some want to save the world, some want to get a good job, provide for their families and defend the Constitution all at the same time. No matter what their initial plans and pro bono goals, the path inevitably diverges from one of strict and Spartan charitable intent toward one with more utilitarian bends: what good can I do while trying to get by myself? How can I help others while maintaining my own position or practice? This is the profile of a local attorney who has managed to walk that line with grace, and come out of an unusually long-lived pro bono commitment with more fans than any one attorney could need.
As a first-year law student at the University of Maryland School Of Law, Jennifer Schwartzott was in a spring semester Legal Theory in Practice (LTP) class with Professor Sherrilyn Ifill, getting class credit and fulfilling her Cardin Requirement. (The Cardin Requirement, named for U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, ensures that all law students at the University of Maryland School of Law provide legal services to those who cannot afford it as a prerequisite for graduation.) The case Ifill presented to the class involved St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harford County and Maryland Reclamation Associates, Inc. (MRA), who were involved in a tug of war over some land in the Gravel Hill Road area of Havre de Grace.
In 1989, MRA bought a piece of property in Harford County to use as a rubble and asbestos dumpsite. The residents in the area, including St. James AME, a venerated religious and historic institution, had come together to protest this use of the 55-acre plot off of Gravel Hill Road due to its proximity to residences, water supplies and the church. Ifill had taken up the cause of residents in this matter, and her students, including Ms. Schwartzott, were a key source of research in the case. At one point, the students even helped to defend residents against a lawsuit, filed by MRA against certain individual residents and the church, meant to discourage them from proceeding in their case to keep the area landfill-free.
For her three years as a law student, Schwartzott and her fellow students worked on the case with the guidance of professors. After graduation and admittance to the Bar, Schwartzott was offered a job by Miles & Stockbridge that, incidentally, would allow her to continue working with St. James AME and the residents of the Gravel Hill Road area…so she did. Once at Miles & Stockbridge, a firm which encourages, but does not require, pro bono work among its attorneys, Schwartzott became more active in the case, taking a leading role while Ifill continued to lend support and guidance.
Jennifer Schwartzott and the residents of Gravel Hill Road have met MRA in the Court of Appeals three times since she took the case with her to Miles & Stockbridge, with the most recent arguments having been held in June 2009. The Court of Appeals ruled on those arguments, and ultimately against the proposed rubble dumpsite, in March 2010. The ruling is considered a great victory for St. James AME and its neighbors. The case is a strong example of dedication on the part of a private practice attorney doing pro bono work.
Schwartzott has donated over 50 hours (on average) per year to the St. James AME case, with some years' donations exceeding 100 hours if there was significant activity in the appeals process. While this case seems to be winding up, Schwartzott does not plan on decreasing her pro bono hours donations. She has already been tapped to help a House of Ruth client with a Protective Order and plans on assisting with international child abduction matters and various family law pro bono opportunities. Schwartzott's work on the St. James AME case is a wonderful example of how a pro bono attorney can continue to help those in need while also continuing professional success.
Support pro bono work in your community. Add your resources to the fight. To learn more about pro bono opportunities and resources in your area, contact the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland at (410) 837-9379 or (800) 396-1274, or firstname.lastname@example.org; www.probonomd.org.
Andy Hagepanos is Project Assistant for the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.