Students Set Pro Bono Record Over Winter Break
By Ken Reitz
A record number of Virginia Law students took part in this year’s Winter Break Pro Bono Project, coordinated by the Law School’s Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center. The center found projects for 114 of the 135 students who applied, and the number of volunteered hours could top 3,000—nearly double last year’s total.
Kimberly Emery ’91, assistant dean for pro bono and public interest and founder of the program, credits its success to the efforts of a hard-working team that includes center office manager Andrew Broaddus, center director Yared Getachew ’98, and student volunteers, including third-years Amy Woolard and Renada Rutmanis, and second-year Alissa DePass.
“Pro bono projects give students the opportunity to serve their community and make themselves more competitive in the public-service job market,” explained Getachew, who also administers Public Works, a blog with comprehensive information on public service careers and pro bono opportunities. He added that Emery’s contacts with the legal aid community in Virginia and around the country, including a well-maintained network of alumni working in the public-service sector, have made it possible for the program to grow rapidly in the four years since it was established.
Law schools and firms benefit from the arrangement as well, Emery said. “Pro bono service is part of the new law school accreditation standards and more and more firms care about it because they want associates coming in who have experience doing pro bono work.”
This year the center placed 20 students in the Charlottesville area, but most students received assignments in or near their hometowns. The most popular assignments were with legal services and public defender’s offices. “We’ve had some go to the city attorney’s offices, and a few to federal government and public advocacy groups such as Children’s Rights,” Emery said.
Students typically volunteer 25 to 80 hours during their winter break on their assigned pro bono project. While that may seem a short amount of time, the students believe their efforts are well spent.
Second-year law student Paul Levin worked for Public Advocates, a public-issues oriented, impact-litigation firm in San Francisco. “I was only expecting to get a little exposure to an issue and a taste of impact litigation, but I ended up getting very involved in the project,” Levin said. He helped draft reports and conduct research in preparation for court filings. “It was great to get some first-hand experience after a whole semester in the classroom,” he added.
Also on the West Coast, first-year Lisa Leung worked at the Seattle field office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Leung called it “an amazing experience.”
“Starting from the first moment, I had non-stop legal work to do,” Leung said. “I got to see what it was like doing eight, sometimes more, straight hours of legal work and it solidified my belief that I can actually do this for a career.”
First-year Greg Hillson became interested in public service law after talking with a family friend who has been a life-long public servant at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Hillson worked in the Norfolk, Va., public defender’s office, where he assisted the supervising attorney with various research projects and memoranda. “There were several ongoing, pending cases she needed assistance with: felony murder cases, robbery, conspiracy—some pretty interesting, substantive cases.”
In southern Missouri, first-year Audrey Brown worked with Legal Services in her hometown of Rolla. Brown said she was able to learn plenty by observing in the courtroom and judges’ chambers, and by talking extensively with career attorneys in the office. “Through the experiences I had working on some cases, I was able to learn a bit about family law,” she said.
First-year Tamara Fishman worked for a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. “It was the first trial I had really seen up close and I saw how much of the process was done behind the scenes, not just in front of the jury,” she said.
The winter pro bono experience can change the direction of a student’s career. “Some of them see very powerful situations in the courtroom,” said Broaddus. “For example, they might help an attorney assist a client who’s getting their house back or getting child custody—things like that can be very significant.”
Brown agreed. “Before working at Legal Services … I was absolutely sure that I would pursue a career with a private firm. Now, I’m seriously considering a career in legal services.”
The experience altered Hillson’s career strategy as well. “I figure at the very least I can be active in pro bono and if I do choose to go to a private law firm, one of the major criteria will be how active its pro bono program is.”
That’s exactly Emery’s objective with the program. “We’re really trying to target the broader group of students who are going to be going into private practice,” Emery said. “They really need to understand about these types of clients who don’t have access to legal services. Many firms are starting to look for that in their recruiting and interviewing.”