Service a Labor of Love for Pro Bono Winner

Miranda Russell ’20 Shares Most Impactful Experiences, Advice for Law Students
Miranda Russell

“Even after UVA Law became my home, pro bono work continued to remind me that my legal education can be put to practical use to serve others,” said Miranda Russell. Photo by Julia Davis

June 5, 2020

Miranda Russell, a 2020 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, is this year’s recipient of the school’s Pro Bono Award, tallying 328.75 hours of service over the past three years.

The Pro Bono Award recognizes the graduate who best demonstrates an “extraordinary commitment to pro bono service.”

While at UVA Law, the Marietta, Georgia, native was director of the Public Interest Law Association’s Alternative Spring Break program and co-director of the Migrant Farmworker Project along with Gia Nyhuis ’21. As ASB director and under the guidance of Law School officials, Russell managed evolving plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Russell talked to UVA Law about what she learned from pro bono work, her most rewarding experience and her advice for law school students.

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

Pro bono work has often been my strongest connection to life outside of the law school bubble. I have been passionate about farmworker justice since college, and I chose to come to UVA Law partially because of the Migrant Farmworker Project. During my first semester of 1L, there were days where I felt overwhelmed or like I didn’t belong, but at least I felt like “me” — and I remembered what really mattered — when I went on outreach to farmworker camps once a week with MFP. Even after UVA Law became my home, pro bono work continued to remind me that my legal education can be put to practical use to serve others. Pro bono work has been the through line between the person I was when I decided to go to law school and the person who has come out on the other side.

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

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, I was involved with our service breaks program, and our motto — borrowed from Stephen Colbert, if I remember correctly — was “service is love made visible.” I’m sorry that’s cheesy, but it’s true. Service is so rewarding to me because it’s a relationship built on love and grounded in mutual respect. While I have tried to give back in a meaningful way to the amazing public interest organizations I have worked for, I could never adequately return everything the attorneys, classmates and clients I have worked with have given me. Attorneys have demonstrated how to be a stronger writer and a more effective advocate. Law school classmates have challenged me to be more intentional and to think critically. Clients have taught me to listen first, speak second and to be willing to admit mistakes and ask for help. I am grateful to everyone who has made love visible to me by showing me how I can be better, and I hope I made love visible in return. It can be easy to divorce law from the idea of it being a labor of love, but pro bono work reminds me what it means emotionally to represent another human being’s interests.

I was also inspired by my classmates. My Legal Writing Fellow, Amy Fly ’19, actually won the Pro Bono Award last year, and she is a huge role model to me to use the privilege of our profession for good. My favorite law school experience was serving as a Legal Writing Fellow myself under Professor [Ruth] Buck. I was particularly fortunate to be assigned to Section F and have the opportunity to work with such kind, thoughtful peers and my co-fellow David Goldman ’19.

Tell us more about a particular project that you learned a lot from.

I have worked on a couple different projects where I helped prepare petitions for ex parte protective orders for domestic violence and stalking survivors. From a legal perspective, it was so interesting to learn how the law in Georgia was different from the law in New York, and how even in the same state, the process could look different depending on the court. It was also extremely personally rewarding. With other volunteer projects, both before and during law school, I have had to tell someone no, we can’t help you because you don’t meet certain criteria for our grant funding, or yes, we can help you, but it is going to take years before we even get a shot at justice. In my experience, however, access to protective orders has not been limited based solely on a client’s identity, and a client can get a piece of paper that very same day they ask for help that tells an abuser — often someone they love or have loved — to stop hurting them. Obviously this is only a small piece of the puzzle, but, wow, are all those cold calls and exams worth it when you can say to someone going through one of the worst experiences of their life, “If you want, an attorney can do something for you today.”

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

Don’t hesitate to volunteer in different areas of law. I have done projects related to immigration, employment, housing, family and criminal law, and my anticipated future practice area is not related to any of them. It is so cool to see how varied and broad our profession actually is, and the diversity of perspectives and experiences attorneys have to offer. Also, make friends with the people you volunteer with and get your friends to volunteer with you. Everyone can do pro bono!

What’s next for you?

I accepted an offer to join the firm where I was a 2L summer associate.

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