When Kara Hafermalz’s dad, Tom, dropped her off for her first year at the University of Virginia School of Law, he hugged her before hopping back in the yellow moving truck. “You’re halfway there,” he said, grinning.

Raised in Dawsonville, Georgia, a town at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Hafermalz had long suspected her dreams lay far to the north. “As a little girl, I had always thought that living in New York City was ‘making it,’ and I just never let go of that notion,” Hafermalz said. “So I was always trying to get to New York City, and my dad helped me make it halfway there, geographically.”

This September, she’ll make it the rest of the way. After sitting for the New York bar exam, Hafermalz will work as a debt restructuring associate in the Manhattan office of Weil Gotshal, one of the largest law firms in the world. It’s an outcome that others saw for her — and supported — before she could see it for herself.

It was her gratitude for that generosity and support that led her to become one of the most active pro bono volunteers in the UVA Law community. For her 468 hours of volunteer legal work over her three years at UVA, Hafermalz received the school’s annual Pro Bono Award at graduation.

“I never really thought something like UVA was possible for me, but other people did, and so a lot of people poured into me throughout my life,” Hafermalz said. “I think that’s why when I came to law school, I wanted to do work that was not just theoretical — I wanted to do stuff that would make a difference for people as soon as I could.”

The Pro Bono Award recipient is selected in part for their hours of service, but also for the scope of their volunteer work and leadership in the Law School community. The award recognizes a graduating student who demonstrated an “extraordinary commitment” to service and helped deliver critical legal services to underserved communities.

In her first semester, Hafermalz conducted legal research for Gideon’s Promise, a public defender organization, and drafted memos for the Virginia Innocence Project Pro Bono Clinic. She spent her winter break volunteering for the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center. In her second semester, she helped draft a motion for compassionate release for a client of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and she interned for the organization over the following summer.

During her summer internship, she contributed to an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, drafted parts of other motions for compassionate release, wrote portions of reply briefs in response to government opposition and more.

Hafermalz continued volunteering for the compassionate release motions throughout her second and third years and added on legal research for death penalty appeals through the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center.

“I still somewhat keep in touch with some of the clients, even after they’ve been released,” Hafermalz said. “One woman called me because she couldn’t figure out how to work Zoom. I’m not very technologically adept, but we figured it out together.”

Although Hafermalz’s teachers, friends and family always pictured her going to law school, that chorus of voices very nearly turned her against the idea. As a psychology major during her freshman year at the University of Georgia, she and a friend walked past the law school on the Athens campus. Her friend pointed it out to her.

“’Look, that’s going to be you some day,’” Hafermalz recalled her friend saying. “I suddenly had this almost existential crisis, because I was like, ‘Wait, do I even really want to be a lawyer, or do people just tell me I should be a lawyer and therefore I think I want to be a lawyer?”

The next day, she tacked on biology as her second major. “I was like, ‘OK, what’s the opposite of being a lawyer so I can test this out? Oh — biology!’”

She spent the rest of her undergraduate career testing and genetically altering plants and studying gorillas at Zoo Atlanta. “I was like Jane Goodall — I mean, I had a tripod and a camera, and an iPad and the hat!”

“I committed to the bit,” she said of the experience. “I did all the things and I liked it — mostly. But I cannot spend my whole life in a lab or, worse, outside with the gorillas. It’s hot out there!”

Hafermalz knew her venture into biology had been “a bit” when, after college, she started working at a YMCA affiliate that’s now known as the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement. The organization exposed middle schoolers to the legislative process through, among other things, a field trip to the nation’s capital.

“That’s when I knew I had been acting; I mean, I was like ‘Yes, I’m a biology major and I’m now doing the thing with the gorillas,’” Hafermalz said. “But when we were in D.C., that felt right. It just felt like the place that I was supposed to be, and that this is going to be it.”

She started studying for the LSAT as soon as the trip was over.

Hafermalz said she feels good about her career decision and her pro bono record in law school. Although she’s joining a commercial law firm, her public service is just getting started. She joined Weil Gotshal, in part, because it has a pro bono practice group and an existing partnership with the Innocence Project, and the firm’s only explicit billable hours goal is that all lawyers must devote at least 50 hours to pro bono work.

She’s maintaining her focus on pro bono work not only because the experience was rewarding in law school, but also to pay forward the support and love she felt from the UVA community, particularly during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and as she suffered a string of personal setbacks and loss during law school.

“Looking back on it, I want to be that support for other people. I want to be in other people’s corners and I want to be one of the helpers because everyone else here is a helper,” she said. “That’s just something I really appreciated about UVA.”

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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