While college students across the country may have been traveling for fun during their spring breaks this year, 53 students at the University of Virginia School of Law donated their legal skills as part of the 15th annual Alternative Spring Break.
Participation in the student-run break program has more than tripled since it began in 2009, when 17 students participated, and students this spring collectively volunteered 2,120 hours on pro bono projects across the country and online.
The student-led Public Interest Law Association, which each year organizes the Alternative Spring Break, matched volunteers with 22 organizations, including Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in New Orleans; Catholic Charities in Charlottesville; Advocates for the West in Boise, Idaho; the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and Just Neighbors in the Washington, D.C., area, among others.
The spring break’s programming director, Elizabeth Putfark ’24, recruited some organizations through UVA Law’s alumni connections. She said she was excited to add three more environmental nonprofits — her area of interest — to the list of participating organizations.
She’s hoping next year’s spring break will continue to expand into other spheres of public interest work.
“I think most of us come to law school with goals of doing something positive in the world with our degrees, even if that gets harder to remember under the crush of exams, applications and reading assignments,” Putfark said. “I hope this year’s ASB students got a chance to reconnect with the aspirations that brought them here, while also building skills and professional connections.”
Cam Moody ’25 interned in Portland, Maine, for the Conservation Law Foundation, researching the practices for mining lithium, the element that powers most electric car batteries. Under the supervision of CLF Maine Director Sean Mahoney ’92, Moody gained experience in interpreting statutes, citing sources and applying scientific articles to legal questions.
“I think the PILA team did an incredible job matching me with an organization in both my area of interest and the place I wanted to go,” said Moody, who wanted to visit Maine to see her grandmother. She praised having a hands-on experience that gave her “a reminder of why I’m going to law school.”
Max Martinez ’25 interned at the Federal Public Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama in Montgomery. He said his most meaningful experience was accompanying an attorney to see a recently indicted detainee.
“We had to break the bad news that a life sentence was not outside the realm of possibility for the nonviolent drug crimes charged against him,” Martinez recalled. “He was young and fearful, and this was truly an eye-opening experience for me.”
Many of the public defenders he worked with opposed high sentences for nonviolent crimes, because many of the defendants involved in such activity are mentally ill or come from an unfortunate background, Martinez said.
PILA’s mission is to promote and support public interest law among UVA students. In addition to coordinating the spring break activities, PILA, in partnership with the Law School’s Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, provides supplemental stipends to students who work in public service summer internships, through the PILA+ program.
“My hope for all of this year’s ASB participants is that they not only further developed their practical legal skills but, more importantly, found purpose in helping the various clients, organizations and communities they served,” said ASB Finance Director Zach Griffith ’24. “I hope that purpose and passion for service follow them through the remainder of their time at UVA and into their legal careers.”
UVA Law’s Pro Bono Program challenges students to volunteer at least 75 pro bono hours during law school. In 2021-22, 388 students logged 16,340 hours.
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.