Pro Bono Pro Shares Stories of Volunteering, Advice to Students

Amy Fly

Amy Fly ’19 is a Robert F. Kennedy Fellow at the ACLU Capital Punishment Project in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Kimberly Reich

August 22, 2019

Amy Fly, a 2019 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, has gone above and beyond to help others: In May, she won the Law School’s Pro Bono Award for her graduating class, with 750 hours of service — 10 times the requirement.

As a DeWilde Fellow at UVA Law, she worked at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and has continued her pursuits after graduation as a Robert F. Kennedy Fellow at the ACLU Capital Punishment Project in Durham, North Carolina.

Fly shared with the Law School what drove her to pro bono work, what she’s learned outside the classroom and her advice for students pursuing public service.

Why were you so dedicated to pro bono work as a student?

The answer to this question evolved as I went through law school. My motivation for attending law school was to help those facing the death penalty. Prior to starting law school, I spent a year as an unpaid intern doing just that, which made the transition back into the classroom all the more difficult. I craved the feeling of fulfillment that came along with meeting clients and generating work product that had real and direct consequences on their cases. So, as a 1L, I used pro bono predominately as a way to keep me grounded and remind me why I came to law school in the first place. After 1L, I sought pro bono experiences to build practical legal skills, to create professional relationships with those in death penalty defense, and to learn what kind of office and work environment I wanted to plant my roots in postgraduation. During law school, I did pro bono work for five different capital defense offices on death penalty cases across 10 states. This diversity of experience helped me determine exactly where I wanted to work after graduation and helped me land that position.

What did you learn working at the Southern Center for Human Rights?

One of the most valuable lessons I learned while interning at the SCHR is that in criminal defense, even when everything seems to be in favor of your client — there are good facts, good law, and the presentation and delivery of your arguments could not have gone any better — your client can still lose. While I had seen this play out on other cases I had worked on before, my internship with SCHR was the first time I experienced such a loss on a case that I worked on independently, though supervised, from start to finish. At SCHR, I had the opportunity to argue before the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles for the release of a man who had spent 35 years in prison. He was a model inmate and the ideal candidate for parole — he entered prison with just a GED but went on to get his doctorate while behind bars; he did not have a disciplinary infraction in the more than three decades he has been in prison; he was allowed to leave the prison grounds on a regular basis to do unpaid manual labor in the community; he was chosen to be the chaplain’s assistant and was liked and respected by the prison staff; he had a job offer and housing plan already set up in the event he would be released; dozens of community members wrote letters supporting his release and offering their services to help him transition back into society; and several people even appeared at the hearing to show their support. And yet, after a five-minute oral argument for his release — all that is allowed in Alabama — the board rejected his request without explanation. This defeat hit me harder than any other case I had previously had because, having worked on the case from start to finish, I knew there was nothing that could have been done differently to produce a different outcome. So, for the first time, I truly felt the weight of the injustices in the criminal justice system and the hopelessness of fighting a client’s losing battle — the same feeling that leads to the burnout common among criminal defense lawyers. This experience and talking about it with my supervisor allowed me to grapple with the issue of maintaining a positive attitude and continuing to zealously fight for my clients in spite of working within a system that often ignores justice at my client’s expense, a lesson that cannot be learned in a classroom.

What’s been the most rewarding part of doing pro bono work?

The most rewarding part of pro bono has definitely been leaving a positive impact on people’s lives. That’s the reason I went into law in the first place. With pro bono, I didn’t have to wait three years to have real clients with real problems who need real solutions.

Tell us about what you’re doing now.

The ACLU takes cases across the country with the goal of systematically reforming the capital punishment process. Following my fellowship, I plan to return to Phillips Black, the nonprofit I externed with full time in the fall of my 3L year.

What advice do you have for students interested in pro bono?

First and foremost, take advantage of it! Pro bono experiences offer students so much more than what they can get in a classroom. Regardless of whether you are going into public interest work or a law firm, there is no better way to get real-world legal experience and develop the skills necessary for adequate representation. Specifically, for students going into public service, pro bono also allows you to build connections with potential future employers and discover what office or line of work you want to pursue postgraduation. So many public interest students come into law school not knowing exactly where they want to end up after graduation, and I genuinely believe that pro bono is the best way to figure that out. For students going to a law firm instead of pursuing public interest, pro bono is an excellent opportunity to get experience working on cases and legal issues you will not get the chance to be involved with after graduation. But perhaps most importantly, pro bono gives you the chance to leave a positive impact on someone else’s life.

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