Natalia Heguaburo ’23 Sees Lawyering as Tool for Equity

Student’s Interest in Advocacy Concerns Grows With Pro Bono Work, Judicial Internship
Natalia Heguaburo

“Volunteering for the Virginia Innocence Project has proved to be the most impactful experience that I have had in law school,” second-year law student Natalia Heguaburo said. Photo by Julia Davis

November 19, 2021

Natalia Heguaburo, a second-year University of Virginia School of Law student, knew she wanted to be an advocate for minority rights, but wasn’t sure if law school was the right path — until she watched a UVA Law professor practice his Supreme Court oral argument.

Heguaburo is a Boca Raton, Florida, native who earned her bachelor’s degree in American studies from UVA.

At UVA Law, Heguaburo is vice president of tournaments with the Law School Mock Trial Team, vice president of the Latin American Law Organization, an editorial board member with the Virginia Law Review and a participant in the Virginia Innocence Project Pro Bono Clinic.

In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Heguaburo discussed her Hispanic history project at UVA and how her interest in the law has grown with the Virginia Innocence Project.

Tell us something about your life before law school.

During my time as an undergraduate at UVA, I often enjoyed combing through archives at UVA’s Special Collections Library. I was fascinated by the countless documents, dating since before the University’s founding, that the library housed. However, I quickly recognized that that University archives continuously excluded the presence of Hispanic and Latinx students. I set out to correct the University’s official history by injecting the presence, hardships and successes of Hispanic and Latinx students into the University’s narrative — a demanding task given the meager records and lack of publicly available information. I successfully garnered funding from multiple University affiliates and weaved together articles, oral recollections and letters to provide a more detailed understanding of Hispanic and Latinx contributions to the University.

My work culminated with an exhibition and website titled “Latinx History at UVA,” where visitors can still explore the rich history and value of the Hispanic and Latinx community at UVA. Through my project, I created a 60-page proposal advocating for a reparative archive that reforms the current method of recollecting and publicizing the histories of minority students at the University.

My archival work has not only fueled my desire to disprove the notion that my achievements are unremarkable, but it has also reinforced my commitment to succeed in law school and as a lawyer advocating for the rights of minoritized people.

Why law school?

After undergrad, I worked as the pre-law fellow at the Office of the Virginia Solicitor General. At the time, I was not fully convinced that law school was for me. I thought that my goal of advocating for minority rights would be achieved more successfully through working in politics. Simply put, I was unsure whether law school was the best way to make change. After just two months working for the Office of the Solicitor General, I realized that I was clearly mistaken.

One of my tasks as the pre-law fellow was to help moot attorneys for their oral arguments at the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Supreme Court of Virginia and the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2019, while then-Solicitor General Toby Heytens [a 2000 UVA Law graduate and UVA Law faculty member] prepared to argue a case in front of SCOTUS, I sat in a crowded conference room, surrounded by incredibly accomplished lawyers. I watched then-Solicitor General Heytens answer every question thrown at him intelligently and confidently. But because I had not yet gone to law school, many of the questions and words being thrown around simply did not make sense. It was in that moment that I decided I wanted to go to law school. It was clear to me that the law could be an avenue to advocate for reform and shield against unjust laws. As I worked on cases involving Second Amendment rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue, my desire to practice law was consistently reaffirmed. And now as a 2L, I am continuously amazed at the profound impact that is achieved through the law — an impact that I hope to contribute to as a lawyer.                  

Describe your most interesting law school experience.

Volunteering for the Virginia Innocence Project has proved to be the most impactful experience that I have had in law school. My desire to volunteer stemmed from an experience at a detention facility during the summer of 2018. During my internship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Virginia, I was given the “opportunity” to tour Alexandria’s medium-detention facility for an afternoon. As soon as I entered, I felt sick to my stomach. The abhorrent conditions within the prison gave me goosebumps, and as security guards explained their — what appeared to me draconian —  practices, I could not help but notice the disproportionate representation of minorities within the facility. In that moment, I knew I wanted to assist in reforming what I viewed as severe systemic inequity.

The Virginia Innocence Project has given me the ability to do just that. With exams, journals and cases consuming most of a law student’s time, it is easy for me to forget why I chose law school in the first place: to be a voice for the voiceless. The Innocence Project has offered me that reminder I needed, and it has reaffirmed my commitment to meaningfully impact the lives of individuals. The Innocence Project has showed me the benefit of actively working to reform the criminal justice system and has provided me with an ability to contribute, even if only a little, in ensuring that a more equitable community exists.

Tell us about your judicial internship.

This summer, I interned with U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Lehrburger for the Southern District of New York. When applying for a summer internship, I knew I wanted a position that would both allow me to understand the inner workings of the court and allow me to partake in substantive work. My internship with Judge Lehrburger checked both of those boxes. I was able to sit in on arraignments, listen to settlement conferences and watch as skilled attorneys argued important cases at the federal level. At the same time, I conducted research and drafted a report and recommendations for Judge Lehrburger on various matters ranging from a Social Security disability appeal to a Section 1983 excessive force claim. This involved combing through case records, researching case law and employing all the knowledge I gained during Legal Research and Writing to ultimately present a thorough and well-written opinion to Judge Lehrburger.

Ultimately, my internship with Judge Lehrburger has not only contributed to my continued desire to ensure that the law is applied justly and impartially, but it also has given me a deeper understanding of how to support individuals — oftentimes distrustful or unacquainted with the judicial system — who find themselves involved in legal challenges.

What’s next for you?

I hope to work on matters relating to major crimes at the federal level. I find this area of law endlessly attractive, particularly because of its intersection with other legal issues of interest, such as immigration and racial equity. While I am unsure where exactly I will be or what I will be doing in the years to come, I hope to continue to fuel my desire to advocate for others.

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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