What I Learned From Pro Bono
What I Learned From Pro Bono
Students and alumni discuss their experiences volunteering to help others.
Stephanie Boutsicaris '17
"Through the Pro Bono Program, I've been able to volunteer and gain valuable experience at several public defender offices. Over my winter breaks in law school, I was able to interview potential witnesses for a death penalty case with the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center and assist with a felony robbery case with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia while it went to trial. During the school year, I worked with the No Exceptions Prison Collective to research issues and problems with the parole system in Tennessee. These experiences helped remind me why I came to law school in the first place and allowed me to stay connected to the real people and real issues that I want to work with as a public defender."
Jessica Douglas '17
"One of the first programs I sought to join as a 1L at the University of Virginia was the Pro Bono Program. Since a young age, volunteerism has always been a part of my life, and being in a new city, I wanted to give back to the community and put my lawyering skills to use as soon as possible. UVA's Pro Bono Program sets itself apart by the sheer amount of unique opportunities they provide for students to give back. As a first-year student, I joined Street Law, a global, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that develops classroom and community programs that educate young people about law and government. Even though I wasn't able to commit a lot of hours to this program, I was able to facilitate a one-day criminal mock trial in an 11th grade classroom at a local high school. We worked with the students on identifying their case theory and themes, writing their opening and closing statements, choosing their witness list and developing the questions they wanted to ask during trial.
"I have also had the opportunity to complete pro bono projects abroad. During my 1L winter break, I traveled with the Black Law Student Association to Kampala, Uganda, where we worked with lawyers who were apart of the International Law Institute's African Center for Legal Excellence. While in Kampala, we conducted research related to the ACLE's focus on developing a legal infrastructure in Africa. Our work was integrated into the many continuing education courses that ACLE provides for lawyers and judges across the continent.
"During my 2L winter break, I traveled with BLSA again to Johannesburg, South Africa, to work with lawyers at the Legal Resource Center. LRC is a human rights law clinic committed to using law as an instrument of justice for the vulnerable and marginalized, including poor, homeless and landless people. While in Johannesburg, we conducted legal research for LRC's current cases. We were also able to assist LRC lawyers and other community service providers who traveled to a township where many of the residents had been recently evicted; the goal was to determine details of the evictions, what documentation they had, and what would be needed to regain access to their housing and title to their land and houses. All of these pro bono opportunities have allowed me to further develop my client interviewing/counseling, legal research and writing, community legal education, and written and oral communication skills. Being able to use a unique skill set to provide a lasting impact is both a deeply humbling and intellectually challenging experience. These opportunities are also what motivated me to spend a portion of my summer at the Children's Law Center in Washington, D.C., where I spent the majority of my time helping third-parties who are seeking adoption, guardianship or custody of children in the district's abuse and neglect system."
Nate Freeman '17
"For years I have been interested in getting involved with legal issues related to religious expression. I never would have guessed that within a couple months of beginning law school I would have the opportunity to do legal research for a church in a highly publicized Supreme Court case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert. The Good News Community Church was facing speech restrictions in Gilbert, Arizona, which happens to be the town where I was raised. Working under the supervision of an attorney at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit organization, I was able to explore fascinating constitutional issues in a way that cannot be fully realized in the classroom.
"Thanks to the Pro Bono Program and the Alliance Defending Freedom, I was able to have a pro bono experience that was intellectually rigorous and rewarding. Recently, I was thrilled to learn that the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in the church's favor, and that I was able to make a small, but deeply satisfying, contribution."
Ben Kim '18
"The Pro Bono Program helped me gain actual, practical experience as a first-year student. I spent my winter break volunteering at the Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office where I was given the opportunity to contribute work that actually had an effect on real-life cases. Briefs I wrote were filed in court and argued — by my supervising attorneys — in live hearings and trials. The internship was far more than just another bullet point on my resume; it helped me develop marketable skills, while having a meaningful — and hopefully beneficial — effect on the local community. I also loved being able to consult with an amazing set of prosecutors who never ceased to provide interesting assignments and genuinely helpful feedback.
"My two semesters with the Innocence Project were similarly rewarding. As part of a six-person team working on a clemency petition, I was able to work with peers who genuinely cared about helping other people. It's important to remember that legal work isn't just about writing briefs or arguing legal issues — it's also about having a positive effect on the lives of real human beings. My volunteer work grounded my legal education in something infinitely more tangible than the rule against perpetuities — although what you learn in class is pretty important too."
Peter Kye '17
"The pro bono program has been an essential part of my UVA Law experience. My pro bono activities have allowed me to gain practical experience involving a wide range of client populations and areas of the law. Starting in my first semester of law school, I volunteered with the Virginia Innocence Project Student Group's Prosecutorial Misconduct Project and was able to learn more about the criminal justice system. Over winter break, I volunteered at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, researching housing law to assist tenants living in substandard conditions. On an Alternative Spring Break trip to the Mississippi Center for Justice, I met with victims of the Gulf Oil Spill and helped them file claims to get compensation. Through my pro bono work, I have developed a better understanding of the issues facing low-income communities as a whole, as well as how to address the needs of individual clients. The attorneys I have worked with have also given me valuable advice about different career paths, how to navigate law school, and what skills are necessary to be an effective advocate.
"As a student, the law can sometimes feel abstract but my involvement in pro bono has allowed me to actually use the law to make a concrete difference in the lives of clients and issues I care about. Pro bono has enriched my time at UVA and has strengthened my commitment to pursuing a legal education."
Tex Pasley '17
"UVA Law's pro bono program was not only the most significant part of my 1L year, it has directly shaped my public interest career path. A few weeks after starting school, I applied to be a part of the Legal Aid Justice Center's Drive Down the Debt campaign. The focus was on improving a Virginia law that suspends the driver's license of anyone who fails to repay the costs and fees arising from a criminal conviction within 30 days of sentencing. Rather than serving as an effective enforcement tool, the law makes it harder for the already poor and disenfranchised to find and keep a job.
"While the initial focus was on work in the Virginia legislature, I had the opportunity to meet the chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court during my 1L winter break. From that relationship, we worked with the Supreme Court to draft a model payment plan policy that would ensure low-income individuals could repay their court costs and fees while keeping their driver's license. We also filed a lawsuit in July 2016 challenging the constitutionality of the law on 14th Amendment due process and equal protection grounds. In the spring of 2016, I earned academic credit to work on this lawsuit as a part-time extern with LAJC, performing substantial legal research, participating in strategy meetings and doing community outreach. I will continue this work during my 3L year.
"Through this project, I have gained a deep understanding of the challenges of low-income Virginians, and developed the skills necessary to become an effective advocate in both the courts and the legislature. This project has defined my UVA experience, and it only happened because of the Pro Bono Program."
Shanthi Rajagopalan '18
"I truly believe that giving back is essential to both personal and academic growth. The Pro Bono Program at UVA Law has provided me the chance to do just that: give back.
"Within the past year, I was given the opportunity to do pro bono work with a prosecutor's office in my hometown. I also became involved with the Innocence Project at the Law School. These experiences not only taught me indispensable skills and values, but also enabled me to use my legal education to help people. I felt my work, however slight, was still special and made a positive difference in individuals' lives. That is really an unforgettable feeling. Pro bono work has since become a fundamental aspect of my life and the Pro Bono Program has allowed me to embrace it."
Amber Strickland '17
"Participating in pro bono work my 1L year was easily one of the best choices I made in law school. For me, the pro bono projects kept me sane. I came to law school to learn how to be a public interest lawyer, and pro bono work allowed me to move beyond academia to the real-world impact of the law. One of the pro bono projects I participated in was with the Virginia Innocence Project. It is one thing to learn about Brady violations in class, but it is a completely different experience to see how they affected one man's story.
"Beyond the Innocence Project, I have had the opportunity to do pro bono work on two different international trips with UVA BLSA. The work we did, both in Uganda and South Africa, showed me the scope of what the law can do and the communities it can serve. Those pro bono projects also challenged me to think beyond traditional Western approaches for some legal solutions. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the work of law school, but participating in pro bono work reminds you that the law is just a tool and ultimately the goal should be to find ways to use it to serve your community."
Jah Akande '19
"The Pro Bono Program has been absolutely incredible. Community service and volunteerism are core components of who I am, so it was extremely important when coming to law school that I remained mindful and intentional about giving back to the community.
"During the first semester of my 1L year, I was a part of the Migrant Farmworker Project. This valuable pro bono initiative provided me and other law students with the educational resources necessary to support migrant workers working on nearby farms. We ventured out to local and distant farms to inform hard-working men and women of their legal rights in Virginia. In addition, we observed and reported their living conditions and ensured that they were being paid fairly. The work was extremely rewarding and I gained insight on the importance and intersection between immigration and employment law.
"At the end of my first semester, I was able to do voluntary pro bono work over the winter at the Office of the Federal Public Defender in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Working for the Federal Public Defender’s office during my 1L winter allowed me the privilege of helping attorneys represent indigent members of the community whilst gaining legal skills in research, writing, fact investigation and client interaction. This was my first long-term substantive legal experience and an opportunity which opened doors down the road for me. More importantly, this opportunity solidified the importance of pro bono work in my future legal practice."
Amy Fly '19
"My motivation for attending law school was the desire to positively impact those adversely affected by the criminal justice system. After spending the year prior to 1L assisting in the representation of indigent clients facing the death penalty in Arizona, it was difficult for me to transition back into a classroom. I craved the feeling of fulfillment that came along with meeting clients and generating work product that had direct consequences on their cases. Doing pro bono has kept me sane throughout 1L and allowed my passion for indigent defense to grow exponentially.
"During the academic year, I worked on investigation for a case in the Virginia Innocence Project Pro Bono Clinic, and conducted records collection and review for a death penalty appeal in Nebraska. Over winter break, I had the opportunity to travel to various cities in Nebraska to interview witnesses and assist in research and writing for a claim rooted in recently developed Supreme Court precedent. I also led the Alternative Spring Break trip of UVA volunteers for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Between these three projects, I have completed roughly 200 hours of pro bono work in my first year of law school alone. Pro bono has been a defining aspect of my law school experience so far, and I know my next two years will be filled with plenty more."
Andrew Ognibene '18
"One of the benefits of doing pro bono work is the clarity it can bring to your career search. If you arrive at law school open to different practice areas, or if you come across course material that piques your interest, there’s invariably a way to team up with a practicing attorney in that field and learn about their work shoulder-to-shoulder. Over the past two years, I’ve done civil rights work, issue advocacy, Supreme Court litigation, wills and probate work, and community economic development, and that just scratches the surface of what's possible here. Pro bono work is most important because it provides legal services to those who would otherwise go without, but it's also a great way for a law student to explore the practice of law itself."
Cory Sagduyu '18
"I came to law school with the goal of using my law degree to empower people to exercise their rights. Through my involvement in the Pro Bono Program, I have had the opportunity to begin providing legal assistance while still in law school. In my first year, I got involved with the Migrant Farmworkers Project. Through this program, we travel to farms in the Charlottesville and surrounding area and have know-your-rights discussions with migrant workers. Through these visits, we ensure that workers are not trapped in abusive situations, and that they are aware of available legal resources if they are mistreated or unpaid by their employer.
"During my first winter break, I worked at Ayuda, where I helped victims of human trafficking and domestic violence to gain immigration status. Later, at Human Rights First, I helped victims of political persecution, domestic violence, and trafficking to apply for asylum. I have been humbled by the gratitude from clients for my assistance. My work on various pro bono projects has allowed me to develop sufficient legal skills to complete substantial work on client cases. Seeing the drastic improvement that legal assistance can make in someone's life inspired me to continue doing as much pro bono work as I can while in school, so that I can hit the ground running in a public service career after graduation.
"I look forward to continuing my involvement in the Pro Bono Program this upcoming year by serving as the director of the Migrant Farmworkers Project. I highly encourage involvement in the Pro Bono Program, as it provides valuable perspective in law school and allows students to immediately begin developing their legal skills while giving back to the community."
Chinmayi Sharma '19
"Those who think that volunteer work is an unfortunate time-suck that our schedules can't spare have not spent enough time talking to the Pro Bono office. One of the reasons I came to UVA Law School was the program's consistent and sincere dedication to promoting public interest work — not just for individuals hoping to pursue public interest as a career, but for all law students as a culture and a habit to bring with them to the private sector.
"The available projects are diverse, engaging and far from overly time-consuming. I learned more than I could ever have expected volunteering with the Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office for two weeks — the team was truly interested in my development as a person and a lawyer. There are few other places that would let a green law student with just one semester under their belt do any substantive legal work. Through my work with the county office, I also learned that there is no better way to engage with the community you are living in than volunteering in it. Why not put our education to work ASAP?
"Pro bono work can also serve your interests. I have spent a good portion of my volunteer hours doing research with think tanks, nongovernmental organizations and various other groups on subjects that I hope to specialize in as a lawyer. There is no dearth of altruistic opportunity out there — poke around, find what interests you, identify a person with the patience to mentor you and figure out how to turn it into a project for social good."
Kevin Jackson '20
“From the first few weeks of class onward, pro bono projects gave me and my classmates opportunities to help people and gain legal experience. The Migrant Farmworker Project took us to orchards and farms around Charlottesville to check on working conditions and offer access to legal aid. Winter break pro bono opened up an internship with a public defender’s office. There, I stepped inside a courtroom for the first time and learned day-to-day realities of criminal defense. Alternative Spring Break introduced me to immigration aid with Church World Services. The rest of the spring semester, I interned at the Legal Aid Justice Center. My supervisor taught me how to set up appointments, translate applications and prepare immigration forms for clients. The Pro Bono Program enabled me to work for immigrants during my first year instead of just having an academic understanding of immigration law.
“I can’t overstate how helpful it has been to get real-world experience under the supervision of practicing attorneys. I have no legal background, and I had very little idea of what I was getting myself into when I came to law school. Pro bono projects allowed me to learn practical legal skills from attorneys in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. By my first summer as a law student, I had already picked up some immigration experience and practiced Spanish in a legal setting. As a result, my transition from coursework to internship went very smoothly. For anyone pursuing public interest law, the Pro Bono Program is more than worth your time.”
Christian “Josh” Myers '18
“Completing pro bono projects while in law school enriched my legal education, but it also allowed me to give back to my community. My latest pro bono project was with the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit in the South Carolina Office of the Attorney General. It was an invaluable experience. Over the course of the project, I worked with senior attorneys, including the head prosecutor, on Medicaid fraud and patient abuse cases. Some of my tasks included assisting with jury selection for a federal trial and creating exhibits for a state trial. In addition to helping the prosecutors, I was given assignments from the division’s investigators, which allowed me to handle evidence and learn how lawyers interact with investigators during the criminal process. It was exciting to give back, but also to understand the actual practice of law.
“I spent approximately a month with Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. Even though I made great connections and developed my legal skills, the most gratifying part of my experience was knowing that my work was helping to advance the public interest. While a pro bono project is short, one has the opportunity to make a positive difference in a limited amount of time. That difference can dramatically achieve justice or impact an individual’s life for the better. In my view, we all have a responsibility to return the benefits of which we have been given. Because of my pro bono projects in law school, I am certain that I will always incorporate a form of pro bono in my life.”
Corey Parker '20
"As a 1L interested in a career in public service, I was eager to dive in and gain real experience. Volunteering pro bono hours with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender’s Office over winter break provided me with that experience. Going into winter pro bono, I was fairly certain that I wanted to pursue a career as a public defender. I was also hoping that spending time with the attorneys in the office over winter break might help me to secure a position with the office for the summer.
“The attorneys at the office were busy, with very heavy caseloads. Despite this, they took the time to talk to me about their cases and answer my many questions. I was able to observe trials and hearings and provide support through research and helping with discovery. The entire office was extremely grateful for the help, but I walked away feeling as if I was the real beneficiary of the time that I spent there. It was a great experience and one that I highly recommend to anyone, both to learn about the work that you may be interested in and to see what life might look like in that job.
“During the pro bono experience, I had the chance to see what the day-to-day is like for a public defender in Charlottesville. Even though I do not know where I will ultimately practice, spending two weeks in the office gave me a glimpse of how life might look after law school. The fact that I enjoyed my experience so much helped solidify my decision to pursue a career as a public defender, which is something I did not necessarily expect to happen in just two short weeks. As a bonus, I ended up with a summer internship at Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender’s Office as a result of the relationships I built through winter pro bono.”
Sarah Houston '20
“I found out I was coming to UVA Law just days after I left Greece, where I had been working in a refugee camp, and heard the first news of the U.S. travel ban from afar. When the women I worked with in the camp asked me what this new policy meant, I felt completely unequipped to answer their questions. But I knew that with a law degree I would be better able to answer and begin to understand the complexities of the U.S. immigration system so that I could advocate for displaced women. Once I got to UVA, I loved many of my 1L classes. But it was the winter and spring pro bono projects that I was a part of that defined my first year of law school.
“Over winter break I volunteered with the Tahirih Justice Center, which provides legal and social services to immigrant women and girls facing violence. On the first day, I was surprised at how quickly they threw me into substantive case work. In only two weeks, I worked on several cases involving the Violence Against Women Act, drafting affidavits and declarations while conducting country conditions research to learn more about women’s stories. I had only been there a couple of days when I stepped back and realized, ‘This is it: This is the work that I want to be doing.’ It didn’t matter how challenging the task was, it was worth it because it meant that women who had experienced horrible acts of violence might be one step closer to safety. My supervisor allowed me to go with her to many events, including a stakeholders meeting at the Arlington Asylum Office in which nongovernmental organizations discussed the huge U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services backlog with DOS representatives. One of the most memorable parts of the winter break was attending a continuance hearing for minors at immigration court.
“I had such a meaningful experience during the winter project that I decided to help lead a spring break pro bono trip to the Bronx Defenders in February. This work was very different from Tahirih because we were working on ‘crim-im’ cases where the client was convicted of a crime that could affect his or her immigration status. I was blown away by the drive and passion of every single attorney I met at Bronx Defenders. You walked into the office, and you immediately felt like you were part of something bigger, something important. What I love about the Defenders is that everyone is placed in groups made up of lawyers, social workers and community grassroots leaders who work together to combat the collateral effects of criminal convictions for immigrant defendants. I was given the chance to work with legal and nonlegal specialists to ensure that clients and their families avoided unintended consequences such as housing eviction or loss of support. I assisted with intake interviews, and the client contact I had during these sessions solidified my long-term commitment to work with and for immigrant communities in New York City.
“When I started my summer internship at the International Refugee Assistance Project this May, I was so thankful for the foundation that I had built during my winter and spring break projects. It was because of my exposure to refugee and asylum law earlier this year that I was able to hit the ground running at IRAP. My pro bono experiences during my first year at UVA have not only reinforced, but truly strengthened, my commitment to immigration law."
Sara DeStefano '19
“Working on pro bono projects through the Pro Bono Program has been a rewarding experience both professionally and personally. Before law school, I spent time both in the United States and abroad working with Spanish-speaking communities. I enrolled at the University of Virginia with the intent of both keeping my Spanish language skills sharp and using them to provide better access to legal services for Spanish speakers. The Pro Bono Program provided me with opportunities to do just that.
“During my first semester of 1L, I began volunteering with the Migrant Farmworker Project. The project focuses on disseminating information about legal services to migrant farmworkers in Central Virginia. As student pro bono volunteers, this is done by conducting on-site visits that involve speaking with migrant workers in Spanish about their work conditions and about the resources available to them if they have legal inquiries or concerns. After my positive experience working with the Migrant Farmworker Project as a 1L volunteer, I became a co-coordinator as a 2L, leading weekly trips to conduct the on-site visits.
“Later in my 2L year, I built on my Spanish-speaking pro bono experience by spending a week working with Ayuda over winter break. Ayuda is an organization dedicated to providing immigration services to low-income clients. During my time at Ayuda, I was able to conduct client meetings entirely in Spanish, which was an incredible opportunity. The work I was able to do with Ayuda gave me the confidence to participate in more legal projects in Spanish, including some projects that I worked on as a summer associate at a law firm. I am excited to continue my work at Ayuda this fall as a full-time extern as well.
“It is incredibly important as law students and as future lawyers to use our skills and knowledge to better our communities. But if that doesn’t convince you, pro bono is also a unique opportunity to build up and sharpen marketable skills that will help you in your legal career. By participating in pro bono work as a law student, I have been able to augment my classroom learning experience and build upon professional skills that are not always being exercised in doctrinal courses. I would highly encourage students to get involved and stay involved with pro bono projects throughout their time in law school because it is a valuable opportunity both for the student and the organizations and clients that that they are able to serve.”