It was an experiment: Assemble a team of first-year law students and deploy them to New York City’s One-Stop Career Centers, where every day New York State Department of Labor staff serves long lines of the city’s unemployed.
For the program’s director, this was a new twist on a long-standing project. Over the past decade, Harold Oaklander, an alumnus of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), has sent some fifty Cornell students on four-week winter internships to assist the departments of labor in their home states. Not long after he and Roger Gerby of the New York State Department of Labor established the Department of Labor/Alliance for the Prevention of Unemployment (DOL/APU) program, about twenty percent of applicants were coming from the Law School.
As the 2012 internship season approached, recruitment from the ILR faced some difficulty, but, says Oaklander, “interest among the legal community in the legal problems of workers forced out of homes and/or jobs was peaking.” Working with the Law School’s Karen Comstock, Assistant Dean of Public Service, and Angela Cornell, Director of the Labor Law Clinic, Oaklander reconfigured the program as a nine-week summer internship exclusively for Law School students. The National Employment Law Project also started providing staff for after-hours discussion sessions with the interns.
One member of the inaugural team was Maxine Adams ’14, who spent a part of her internship working with the Industrial Appeals Board, helping to organize and summarize older cases, and also had the chance to attend unemployment insurance eligibility hearings before the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. It was her time working at a One-Stop Career Center, however, that left the deepest impression. “I think that the most important aspect of my internship was the ability to work one-on-one with individuals currently getting benefits from the Unemployment Insurance system,” she says. “There were people from very different walks of life that all needed some type of assistance.”
Michaela Dudley ’14 interned at a One-Stop in Harlem, where she too had an eye-opening experience assisting people filing for unemployment insurance and seeking jobs. “Working in Harlem was a truly unique experience,” she says. “It has inspired me to pay more attention to the unemployment problem in my legal career.”
That’s just the sort of response the program’s organizers hoped to illicit. "College courses addressing the unemployment issue are just not found in the U.S.” says Oaklander. The DOL/APU program stands out as an opportunity for students to learn about and address these issues. The experience also fulfills new pro bono requirements by the state of New York for anyone taking the bar exam.
“This program gives students the opportunity to provide meaningful, substantial help to people dealing with unemployment and also to learn about systemic issues involved in unemployment," says Comstock, who is now overseeing the integration of the DOL/APU internships into the Law School’s Public Interest Fellowship program. "Working in environments like this, seeing the day to day struggles of chronically unemployed people, can be a life-changing experience for students, and it can inform what they want to devote their legal skills to.”
“Our internship program has brought Cornell's brightest students, our future leaders in business, government, and academia, whether practicing law or management, face-to-face with the unemployed, and with the understaffed government bureaucracy mandated to assist with reemployment,” Oaklander adds. “Law students, informed and motivated by their internships, are uniquely placed to take a leading role upon graduation in the battle against unemployment.”