Susan Doherty-Funke, who works with troubled teens in Merchantville, calls the pro bono program at Rutgers-Camden Law School "one of those little treasures nobody talks about."
"Our kids have authority issues," said Doherty-Funke, community outreach coordinator for Camden County Family Support, which serves 13- to 21-year-olds with mental-health issues. The law students "get down on the floor so everyone's equal."
Rutgers volunteers teach young people how to converse with police. They talk about search-and-seizure and consumer, tenant and job rights as part of the school's traveling Street Law program.
"Our kids see someone willing to make time for them. They're not used to that," Doherty-Funke said. "They're always asking, 'When are they coming back?' "
Street Law is one of a dozen free legal services Rutgers has developed under assistant dean Eve Biskind Klothen. This month, the Association of American Law Schools awarded Klothen the 2009 Father Robert Drinan Award for outstanding contributions to pro bono and public service.
Throughout her career, Klothen "has always been guided by the dual goals of inculcating the pro bono ethic into the next generation of lawyers and serving more low-income clients in South Jersey and Philadelphia," the association proclaimed.
Drinan, a Jesuit priest and law school dean who was elected a U.S. representative from Massachusetts, was a human-rights activist who served on the boards of the International League for Human Rights and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Pro bono work "is both good and the right thing to do," said Klothen, 58, of Swarthmore. Students hone their research, writing, negotiation and interviewing skills; work in teams; and network with law professionals, she said.
"They will walk out of here better lawyers for it," she said.
In his second year in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, Jonathan Stein of Medford will train fellow students how to help low-income Camden residents fill out tax forms.
"You realize how quickly you can make a difference in someone's life," Stein, 24, said. "You get to tell someone, 'You don't have to worry this month because you're getting $4,000 back.' It kind of makes your semester."
Though Rutgers-Camden doesn't require pro bono work, as law schools such as the University of Pennsylvania do, more than two-thirds of its 750 students participate. It's a credit to the program, pro bono coordinator Pamela Mertsock-Wolfe said.
Volunteers are involved in death-penalty appeals, bankruptcy, immigration, domestic violence, financial literacy, disability benefits, mediation, legal research and voters' rights.
"While this may be a line on their resume, they're doing this to help their clients," Mertsock-Wolfe said. "The pressure they're under to get good grades and find jobs would preclude them from doing this volunteer work unless they were committed."
Students learn the human stories behind cases, which don't always come out in the classroom, said Rutgers professor Jill Friedman, who runs the Street Law program.
"The most compelling impact is on the student who works at the homeless shelter or the detention center," she said. "It's tragic to see these kids in custody."
Working with law-firm mentors, they learn that "regardless of the practice setting, one can give one's time. . . . They see the example of what true professionalism really is," law school dean Rayman Solomon said.
Klothen credited Solomon and her colleagues with the program's success, but Mertsock-Wolfe thinks otherwise. "We work as a team," she said, "but Eve is at the center of it. She has had an incredible career in equal justice."
Like many students in the 1970s, Klothen was determined to use her law degree, from Vanderbilt University, for social change. Her first job was with Georgia legal services.
She came to Philadelphia, by way of Ohio and Washington, after marrying Kenneth Klothen, now a deputy secretary in Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development.
She was founding director of the nationally recognized Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program, which aids low-income clients facing civil legal problems that threaten their shelter, employment, financial stability, education or health.
After taking a leave to raise her children, Becky and Erich, Klothen joined the Rutgers-Camden faculty in 2002 to run the pro bono program. It has more than tripled in size, and Klothen isn't finished. She's particularly eager to establish a program to help prisoners reentering society.
"So many people sit back and say that other people are going to do it," Doherty-Funke said. If it wasn't for Klothen, "our kids wouldn't have these opportunities."