Svoboda Legal Scholars Program gives students up-close look at field of law

Sumner Pitt '19 stands in front of the University of Iowa College of Law.
Sumner Pitt ’19 stands in front of the University of Iowa College of Law, where he’s gaining valuable hands-on experience this summer as a participant in St. Olaf’s Svoboda Legal Scholars Program.

This summer, St. Olaf College student Sumner Pitt ’19 is getting an up-close look at what a career in immigration law entails.

Working at the University of Iowa College of Law Legal Clinic, he’s assisting clients, submitting information requests to local and federal agencies, and attending court as part of the defense team.

“It’s meaningful to me being part of a defense team representing undocumented people in an area of law that’s recently been receiving overdue national attention. I had been in a courtroom before this program, but the experience was more enriching and consequential seeing our client defended by law students and a professor on the defense team,” says Pitt, a sociology/anthropology major at St. Olaf. “I am strongly considering law school now that I have an idea of what clinical legal practice and the law school experience could be like.”

Pitt’s experience is part of St. Olaf’s Svoboda Legal Scholars Summer Program. The program — one of only two like it in the nation — offers St. Olaf students a unique opportunity to spend six to eight weeks doing meaningful legal work alongside faculty, students, and alumni at the law clinics of Mitchell Hamline School of Law, the University of Minnesota, the University of Iowa, and the University of St. Thomas.

“There are no training wheels in this program, and I believe that’s what makes it special,” says Piper Center for Vocation and Career Associate Director Roberto Zayas. “St. Olaf students are expected to do high-quality legal research and writing. Plus they participate in trials, depositions, and other legal procedures — this is as good as it gets when it comes to vocational exploration. Needless to say, all legal scholars have immensely benefited from this program, even those who have chosen not to go to law school.”

“St. Olaf students are expected to do high-quality legal research and writing. Plus they participate in trials, depositions, and other legal procedures — this is as good as it gets when it comes to vocational exploration.” — Roberto Zayas

The program is possible because of the support of St. Olaf alumnus Paul Svoboda ’81, a Chicago-based partner at Sidley Austin LLP. Building on his endowed fund through St. Olaf’s For the Hill and Beyond comprehensive campaign, his support now helps seven students participate in the program each year.

“St. Olaf gave me a great education in pre-law, and I wanted to help current Oles who were thinking about law school,” Svoboda says. “As a law student you often clerk for a firm during your summer or work for a government agency, and those eight to ten weeks are so valuable — giving you hands-on experience, learning how lawyers work, interacting with clients, and getting a feel for what the practice is like. This program allows students to do this even earlier.”

Paul Svoboda stands in Buntrock Commons with seven past participants of the Svoboda Legal Scholars Summer Program.
Paul Svoboda ’81 (center) at a gathering this spring with past participants of St. Olaf’s Svoboda Legal Scholars Summer Program: (back row, from left) Alexander Screaton ’19, Wael Awada ’19, Julia Valero ’18, Sydney Spreck ’18, (front row, from left) Yishu Dai ’18, Elise Steichen ’18, and Samuel Rahn ’18. Svoboda’s generous support for the program helps seven students participate each year.

Caroline Bressman ’15 participated in the program as a St. Olaf student, and she recently graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School. She will be joining Nichols Kaster, PLLP, a plaintiffs’ employment law firm, as an associate attorney in its Wage and Hour Litigation Group.

“Not only did the experience affirm my own desire to pursue a legal education, but adding the program to my resume was a signal to law school admissions departments that I was seriously pursuing a career in the law. I believe that my experience with the program made me a strong contender in law school applications,” says Bressman.

Nathan Webster ’17 also participated in the Svoboda Legal Scholars Program, and now works at The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit that implements international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. He strongly recommends that Oles consider the program, especially if they’re thinking about a career in law.

“There are precious few compensated undergraduate legal opportunities, particularly in the refugee and immigrant field,” he says. “This program is a unique opportunity that isn’t available to many undergraduate students.”