New Pro Bono Clinic to Focus on Civil Rights, Racial Justice

DuPont Funding Spurs Creation of Clinic; Legal Aid Justice Center Partnership Helps Make it a Reality
Seated: Andrew Ognibene '18, Michelle Chang ’19, Mika Bray '19, Katie Taylor '19, Woojae Kim '19 and Mario Salas ’14. Standing: Rachel Simon '17, Tex Pasley ’17, Angela Ciolfi ’03, Rachel McFarland, Elaine Poon and Amy Walters ’09.

UVA Law students who volunteered during winter break gather around a table at the Legal Aid Justice Center with staff also assigned to the caseload. Seated: Andrew Ognibene '18, Michelle Chang ’19, Mika Bray '19, Katie Taylor '19, Woojae Kim '19 and Mario Salas ’14. Standing: Rachel Simon '17, Tex Pasley ’17, Angela Ciolfi ’03, Rachel McFarland, Elaine Poon and Amy Walters ’09.

January 27, 2017

University of Virginia School of Law students will gain practical experience working on civil rights and racial justice cases through a new pro bono clinic set to launch this semester.

The Civil Rights Litigation Pro Bono Clinic, a partnership between the Law School and Charlottesville's Legal Aid Justice Center, received an $80,000 grant from the Jesse Ball duPont Fund. Students will work on civil rights cases involving topics found in many of today's headlines, such as policing and race, criminalization of poverty and mental health. The goal of the clinic is to bring cases that have potential to provide real and concrete relief to large groups of people who have been harmed by discrimination or deprivation of protected rights, organizers said.

"Securing funding like this makes it possible to provide a really rich and pedagogically challenging learning experience," said Kimberly Emery, assistant dean for pro bono and public interest at UVA Law. "The Jesse Ball duPont Fund has always been incredibly generous. Since 1996, the fund has supported the development of eight pro bono clinics. So they've just been an incredible partner — we're very lucky."

Some of the pro bono clinics supported by the fund have become clinics offered for academic credit, including the Child Advocacy Clinic, the Family Alternative Dispute Resolution Clinic and the Health Law Clinic.  

Students will be working directly with LAJC’s new Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program, which will be led by attorney Adeola Ogunkeyede, who joins the office in February following a post at Bronx Defenders.

Nine law students volunteered pro bono at LAJC over winter break, working on cases that the clinic is designed to handle in the future. (More on the Law School's 75-Hour Pro Bono Challenge)

First-year law student Michelle Chang said her work during the break helped solidify her passion for legal aid.

"This is what I want to do, and I'm actually researching on cases. I met a client. I'm really doing first-hand work,” Chang said. “This is why I came to law school. Right here, right now, I actually feel like I'm doing some good.”

The winter break group worked on four cases in active litigation and three others that are being investigated, said LAJC Litigation Director Angela Ciolfi '03, who will be co-directing the clinic with Ogunkeyede this spring.

"We hope the students will come away with a deeper understanding of the role of race and poverty in American life and the role of lawyers in challenging all the policies and systems that perpetuate poverty," Ciolfi said.

LAJC Clinic Coordinator Amy Walters ’09 worked with the volunteers during winter break and will also help supervise students who join the pro bono clinic.

“We’ve come to rely heavily on the students and their amazing work product, both throughout the semester with academic clinics, and then winter pro bono projects and summer projects to really help us serve more clients and do more extensive litigation and policy work that we couldn’t possibly do without their assistance,” Walters said. “Together we’re accomplishing much more than I ever expected to be able to do these past weeks."

"It's an important and unique opportunity for them, and we benefit so much," said Mario Salas '14, another LAJC attorney who supervises volunteers. "Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective to give us new ideas. In some ways it's a unique opportunity [for students] that I don't think is available in any other context at the law school."

Among the cases slated for the group to tackle this semester is one involving a 9-year-old child who was seeking mental health treatment and ended up being shackled by police.

"This case is one specific fact pattern, but if we're able to bring it successfully, then it has precedent for a variety of situations that would protect youth, and particularly youth with disabilities," Walters said.

Students can apply online via GoodWorks to join the Civil Rights Litigation Pro Bono Clinic through Feb. 3.

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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