In an effort to help community groups and lawyers across the State of Michigan navigate the legal work spillover associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of student leaders from the University of Law School of Law Michigan formed the Michigan Law COVID Corps, a voluntary organization service with more than 240 volunteers and student lawyers.
The organization does not offer legal advice or representation. Rather, volunteers provide assistance in the form of legal or policy research, data collection or legal analysis. COVID Corps has worked with various organizations, including the Michigan Workers’ Rights Clinic and Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, who requested their help through their online form.
Law student Maiya Moncino founded the group in March. Moncino said she believes there is a need for students to step up and help lawyers fight the shockwaves of the pandemic during this unprecedented time.
“It’s important for us to be invested in the community that gives us legal education,” Moncino said.
The COVID Corps is organized into four working groups: Decarceration, Workers’ Rights and Support for Small Businesses, Voting Rights and Housing Rights. While the COVID Corps is focused on these issues, they aren’t just limited to them.
Law student Sian Last is a participant in the COVID Corps and has worked on two projects since joining the group. Lately, he drafted a petition to release an incarcerated person from prison who had previously been granted parole but was being held due to new COVID-19 procedures, and he compiled research on the release of immigrant detainees.
“The really powerful thing about being a lawyer and being a law student is the ability to help people improve their situation, especially in a time when things are as difficult as they are,” Last said. “It seemed like there was nothing better to do with my time than trying to help people in any way possible to navigate these systems.”
Law students Chris Chorzepa and Stephan Llerena are two of the six leaders of the Working Group on Workers’ Rights and Support for Small Businesses.
More 1 million Michigan residents filed for unemployment, leaving the Michigan Workers’ Rights Clinic overwhelmed with people needing help claiming unemployment insurance benefits. Llerena said that because law school allows first-year students to participate in the Workers’ Rights Clinic, volunteers are equipped to support lawyers with their research and admissions appeals.
Chorzepa was inspired to form the Small Business Task Force after researching back-up options to keep his own family’s small business afloat. He knew the U.S. Small Business Administration was offering loans to help small businesses survive during the pandemic, so he learned how to apply to receive the loan.
“I thought if I could do it for my parents, I definitely could do it for Michigan small businesses,” Chorzepa said.
Kerry Martin, a recent law school graduate who has been working at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center since January, has delegated two projects to the volunteers. Martin said that with the help of volunteers, MIRC is able to tackle additional research projects that the center may not have been able to carry out due to the high influx of job.
“This volunteer corps comes at such an important time because so many legal service organizations are working at full speed to respond to the crisis,” said Martin. “Already our creative muscles are at the limit because there are so many ways this crisis is exacerbating the underlying issues and also the procedural hurdles for our clients to get some form, relief or justice.”
According to Llerena, the Michigan Law COVID Corps continues to grow and wants to help other law students create similar programs across the country.
Martin emphasized how important volunteer work is in maximizing help to the Michigan community.
“These issues create opportunities for young law students and legal volunteers to respond in very creative ways,” said Martin. “I am really impressed with the work that the Volunteer Corps is doing and I hope they can continue to send volunteers to us so that we do not let important issues slip through the cracks during this time of crisis.”
Journalist for the daily Callie Teitelbaum can be reached at [email protected]