For the Public Good: Law Students Complete Nearly 16,000 Hours of Pro Bono in 2015-16

Graduating law students Angela Porter and Megan Lisa Watkins volunteered pro bono hours this academic year with the Federal Public Defender’s Office. Porter will work for Bronx Defenders after graduation and Watkins will work for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond.

May 12, 2016

University of Virginia School of Law students volunteered 15,985 hours in pro bono legal work during the 2015-16 academic year, setting records for participation by first-year and third-year students. Student volunteers not only build experience by helping actual clients in need, but they start down the path of giving back after law school.

"Pro bono projects are a win-win-win," said graduating law student Angela Porter, who worked at the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Western District of Virginia during the school year. "The projects are an opportunity to assist real clients in meaningful ways, develop a practical skill set and build professional relationships that continue beyond law school. I can't imagine my education without this work."

This year, 309 students participated in the Pro Bono Program, with more first-year students receiving a certificate for performing at least 25 hours of service than ever before, and with more third-year students meeting or exceeding the 75-Hour Pro Bono Challenge (the suggested amount of hours students volunteer during law school) than ever before.

In the graduating class, 114 students (more than a third) completed a combined 16,641 hours of pro bono during their time at UVA Law.

Even four LL.M. students — often practicing attorneys from foreign nations who come to UVA Law for a year to learn about the U.S. legal system — completed the challenge.

To encourage pro bono service, which is not required for students to graduate, the Law School formed the Pro Bono Program in 1999 and challenged students to volunteer at least 25 hours annually. The American Bar Association stresses pro bono in its model rule that says lawyers should aspire to volunteer at least 50 pro bono hours of legal service per year. In New York, logging 50 cumulative hours is a prerequisite before lawyers can receive their license to practice.

"The challenge was based on one hour of volunteering per academic week, which was seen when we first started the program as a very manageable goal," said Kimberly Emery, assistant dean for pro bono and public interest. "When you go out into the professional world and are practicing law, this has to fit in somewhere. We're trying to get students to think, 'One hour a week? Who can't do this?'"

Through pro bono work — not to be confused with general public service — students can gain skills with client interviewing, legislative drafting, legal research and writing, case investigation, legal and policy advocacy, and community legal education. In order to log hours for the challenge, the work must be law-related; supervised by a licensed attorney or faculty member on behalf of a nonprofit organization, government agency or a private law firm providing pro bono legal services; uncompensated (financially or by academic credit); and completed while the student is enrolled at the Law School.

Porter said her experience at the defender's office provided deep insight into legal advocacy.

"Interning with the office gave me my first experience working on complex criminal cases," she said. "The work has been challenging and helped me grow as a legal thinker and writer."

For under-represented people and causes, pro bono services may also level the playing field in an otherwise cost-prohibitive system.

"Pro bono work can often be the only way that certain issues get addressed without a specific expenditure of money from legislatures or private organizations, such is the case with mental health reform," said Joe Betteley '18, who has been assisting mental health experts on a legal reform project in association with the Virginia General Assembly.

While students are welcome to identify pro bono work on their own, the Law School also coordinates opportunities for students. The school has a long-term partnership with the law firm Hunton & Williams, headquartered in Richmond, which runs a Charlottesville office specifically for pro bono clients. UVA Law also has a strategic partnership with the Legal Aid Justice Center and other groups that provide law students with in-house projects that serve low-income clients. Student organizations such as Street Law, which teaches high school students about legal concepts, including their rights, and the Innocence Project Pro Bono Clinic, also run ongoing efforts. In addition, students can research and apply for ad hoc projects through the Law School's GoodWorks website.

Alexandra Brisky Cunningham, the partner in charge of pro bono at Hunton & Williams, said law students this year have helped immigrant children navigate the legal system to renew their statuses under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy, assisted families with landlord-tenant issues and other housing law problems, and represented victims of domestic violence in protective order and child custody cases.

Cunningham said the routine of giving back without expecting anything in return makes UVA-trained lawyers better poised for future leadership.

"UVA Law instills and nurtures a pro bono and public service ethic in its students that carries forward through the duration of their legal careers," Cunningham said. "Under Dean Emery’s inspirational leadership, law students are provided with amazing opportunities to give back to the community, while developing and honing their legal skills. With its Pro Bono Program, UVA Law is growing the law firm pro bono leaders and public service attorneys of tomorrow." 

Porter, who will be a Kennedy Fellow with the Bronx Defenders after graduation, said her pro bono participation "reinforced" her goal of working in public service, and specifically as a public defender. In addition to her work at the Federal Public Defender’s Office, she volunteered pro bono hours with the Incarcerated Persons Project at Legal Aid during her first year of law school, at a public defender's office during her second year, and with the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center during her third year.

After graduation, Porter and fellow 2016 graduate Matt Carroll will work with the Bronx Defenders to set up an office on the "holistic defender model" in Tulsa, then return to work in the Bronx.

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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