The Law School and Hunton & Williams LLP have established a pro bono partnership that provides free legal services to low-income Charlottesville and surrounding county residents. Volunteer lawyers and Law School students have started working together to represent clients with asylum, domestic violence, and family law problems.
"Inspired by a partnership between a major Boston law firm and the Harvard Law School, we have teamed with Hunton & Williams so that our students will be able to partner with their attorneys on a pro bono basis for the representation of low-income persons," said Dean John Jeffries 73. "We welcome this opportunity for our students to engage in important public service under the guidance of lawyers from a firm so highly respected as Hunton & Williams."
Through a pilot program started last September, four Hunton & Williams lawyers and eight Law School students began handling cases for immigrant clients seeking asylum in the United States. The success of that program persuaded the Law School and the firm to expand their partnership this fall by adding the representation of family law clients who face problems involving child custody, support, divorce, and other cases arising out of abusive relationships. Since then, another six to eight volunteer lawyers have joined the team and the number of student volunteers has increased to 22.
Third-year law student Thomas Goodman worked on the pilot program as part of the asylum team last year, and found the experience so rewarding he signed up for the project again this year.
"To me, it has been the ideal pro bono project because it has allowed me to put the legal rules and theories I have learned in the classroom to practical use in my areas of interest, while learning from seasoned attorneys in the field and helping members of the community that oftentimes fly under the radar," said Goodman, who worked on asylum cases involving an elderly woman from Kosovo and a man from Cameroon. This year the team has a client from the Congo. "Before working on the project, I had no idea that someone from a small community in Kosovo could have ended up in Charlottesville. Breaking out from the Law School bubble to help these people has really enriched my Law School experience.
"One of the most rewarding aspects of the program is the knowledge that my work serves as more than just a nominal contribution to the asylum cases: it can directly affect whether a family stays together, whether an individual has to give up an established life that he or she has developed here, or whether an individual must be forcibly returned to a place he or she no longer considers home," Goodman added.
Working with the attorneys from Hunton & Williams has been an invaluable experience for Goodman. "Their willingness to dedicate their time and resources to the cause has allowed me to see another side of practicing law in a large firm," he said. "They have served as mentors and they have learned a great deal about asylum law, along with and from the student volunteers in the program."
In addition to the free services of volunteer lawyers from its Richmond office, Hunton & Williams is leasing temporary office space at the Legal Aid Justice Center, as well as employing a full-time lawyer experienced in family law litigation matters to develop the practice and manage the new office. The Law School's Assistant Dean for Pro Bono and Public Interest, Kimberly Emery '91, is devoting a substantial portion of her time to the project. Emery represents clients, coordinates student volunteers and training, and helps supervise the caseload.
"It is the perfect partnership," said Emery. "It allows students to see first-hand how busy, big-firm lawyers can and do make time for pro bono. We are so grateful to Hunton & Williams and their attorneys for being willing to partner with the Law School and to provide the critical piece of attorney supervision needed to facilitate a match between eager student volunteers and low-income clients with critical legal needs."
The partnership is garnering positive student feedback. "Not only is this project enabling us to interact with attorneys and gain real-life experience in the practice of law, but we are starting to realize the potential effect we can have on individual's lives," said Danielle M. Sloane, a third-year working on family law projects. "The attorneys we are working with are excited to be working with us. Given that they live at least an hour away and are working full time—this is quite a commitment for them. We, the students, and I would imagine the community, are extremely appreciative that so many are willing to make such a commitment and teach us so much during the process. When we do have a case, the attorneys I am working with have made it very clear that they are more than willing to let me gain the experience while they take on a supervisory role."
For information on the program, contact Kimberly Emery at email@example.com.
• Reported by Denise Forster and Michael Marshall