Students Log Record Pro Bono Service Over Winter Break

February 5, 2007

A record number of Virginia law students opted to use their winter break to participate in pro bono internships across the country and abroad. In addition to donating their time and energy, students gained something in return — practical experience. The Pro Bono Project at the Law School helped place more than 70 students in internships in a range of offices that serve a variety of clients.

"We expect that the total number of hours volunteered will approach 1,500, which is particularly gratifying since the program is just in its third year," said Kimberly Emery, Assistant Dean for Pro Bono and Public Interest. "Students have been enthusiastic about using their vacation time to help those in need and we hope to continue our strong trend of growing participation."

Due to the volume of work experienced by offices seeking pro bono help, student volunteers are often treated as full-fledged members of the team. "I was given a lot of responsibility from the get-go, dealing with complex issues and [working] closely with brilliant litigators on some very decisive cases," said Leigh Nisonson '07.

Nisonson worked in the San Francisco city attorney's office with two deputy city attorneys on legal issues faced by the city's art museums and also on an upcoming case before the California Supreme Court in which the city is challenging the state's marriage laws, claiming they are discriminatory against same-sex couples. Her internship covered the gamut of legal issues faced by a metropolitan city, including contract law, intellectual property, labor and employment law, finance, land use, real estate, and insurance issues.

Ryan Quillian '09, got his feet wet in the emotionally charged child advocacy arena at the Children's Law Center in Washington, D.C. Quillian worked with staff attorneys on a case that involved getting benefits for a mentally challenged child and also in cases helping children considered wards of the state find permanent homes. Besides researching relevant statutes and writing reports to build stronger cases, Quillian was encouraged to attend hearings where the welfare of the child was the focus.

"The most important thing I learned was how big the problem is. I don't think I really appreciated beforehand the number of kids and the dire straits that they are in," Quillian said. "It made a big impression on me to be able to sit in on these hearings and actually see the kids." Quillian wants to continue to volunteer for the Children's Law Center in the future.

Gabriel Walters '09 was able to work from home on his internship with the ACLU National Prison Project, although he was willing to relocate anywhere. Walters, who would eventually like to be a staff attorney for the ACLU, got his foot in the door over winter break. He was assigned to work with a Washington, D.C.-based ACLU attorney on a case that involved mentally ill plaintiffs who were denied access to mental health treatment and medications while incarcerated in a Colorado county prison. Walters conducted legal research from Charlottesville that helped strengthen the ACLU's argument that the prison officials' deliberate indifference was cruel and unusual punishment.

"We in the legal profession have not only a professional responsibility but an obligation to ensure that the system works, and that means being constantly vigilant when these lapses in judgment occur and making sure that they are corrected."

David Madgett '09 said the cases he worked on for the Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) in Minneapolis could have absorbed state resources if pro bono lawyers didn't step in and help resolve them. VLN houses a full-time staff to coordinate pro bono projects for firm attorneys in the city. Madgett worked to resolve a variety of consumer finance disputes. The outcomes often set a precedent and improved the standard of living for citizens, he said.

"The biggest highlight for me was seeing that it is possible even for the busiest legal professionals to make pro bono a major part of their careers," Madgett said. "There is no convenient time for pro bono work. It's a matter of just deciding what you're going to do and acting. I believe you'll be pleasantly surprised with both the way it makes you feel and how important and valuable the skills — which you may think are trivial — are to other people."

One student explored a pro bono opportunity abroad. Katherine Monahan '07 ventured to Ethiopia to work on issues related to human rights and humanitarian law. According to Monahan, who reviewed hundreds of pages of legal documents in Addis Ababa, "the experience confirmed for me that those who hold U.S. law degrees are able to gain amazing access to leading practitioners and academics as well as cutting-edge legal and social work throughout the world — as long as you seek it out." Monahan could not discuss her work in detail due to client confidentiality.

The Pro Bono Project locates many opportunities for students through alumni working in public service. Other students have been placed with groups such as the Advancement Project, the Legal Aid Foundation of Chicago, the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland, the Legal Aid Society of NYC, and with public defenders, state and county attorneys, and legal aid offices throughout Virginia.

Students interested in volunteering over their spring break in March should contact Dean Emery.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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