What I Learned From Pro Bono
What I Learned From Pro Bono
Students and alumni discuss their experiences volunteering to help others.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Jennifer Kelso '21
“Last year I did pro bono work over winter break at the same organization where I had previously worked as a legal assistant. It was fun to return to the office after completing my first semester and share my law school experience with my former colleagues. While there, I took on more substantive work than I had as a legal assistant, and it was great to be able to do that with attorneys I already knew well. Being back at Legal Aid also confirmed my commitment to going into public interest work in the future.”
Shweta Kumar '21
Diane Philips '21
Doriane Steva Nguenang Tchenga '21
“As the first person in my family to attend law school, I did not know what it meant to be a lawyer. My mother has always instilled in my sisters and me the importance of helping others as much as we can. I knew I wanted to use my degree to help others in some way. Coming to law school as a 1L and getting sucked in to the busy life of a first-semester student, often forgetting the bigger picture, I needed to find something outside of the everyday life of a law student. I discovered the Pro Bono Program and knew I had to get involved. It has become an essential part of my law school experience, and makes me feel that my work does have an impact on someone else’s life. I have been able to help in a meaningful way while also developing my legal research, writing and interpersonal skills.”
Ashley Cordero '21
“Coming into law school, I made the decision to make a conscious effort to work on a variety of pro bono projects and I am glad that I have stuck to that. Working on pro bono projects has helped shape me as an individual and has greatly influenced my career plans. I can confidently say that without pro bono, I would feel lost in my journey through law school.
“Pro bono has acted as a constant reminder of why I came to law school and has informed me as to what I am striving to do as a lawyer. I have had the opportunity to work with the Charlottesville Civilian Review Board, several different Commonwealth’s Attorney’s offices and Democracy Forward.
“These experiences have informed me as to which fields I am most interested in. On top of the personal enrichment, pro bono is a phenomenal way to build your hard legal skills and soft networking, interpersonal skills. The exposure to different offices and fields of law and being able to see and participate in the behind-the-scenes work is invaluable. Pro bono gives you a glimpse into the real professional lives of practitioners; it's hard to get that perspective through a case book. Pro bono has enriched my academic studies as well, as I am able to see doctrines put into play and see how the various players of the legal system interact with real-world facts and issues.”
Natasha Halloran '21
“As a first-generation law student, I was unfamiliar with what to expect of law school. However, I knew that my rigorous law school journey must include humbling and impactful pro bono work. Even when I was a pre-law student, I understood that law school is an educational privilege that comes with an esteemed responsibility. While pro bono work provides invaluable hands-on professional experience, the most significant value I derive is unlimited personal enrichment.
“The beautiful part of the program is that it presents a myriad of opportunities based on individual interests or passions. Personally, I am deeply interested in pro bono work that advocates for marginalized groups and those who have been systemically silenced. For two years as a volunteer with the Virginia Innocence Project, I have enjoyed gaining litigation experience while working on cases for innocence from my home state. This pro bono opportunity is one of the reasons why I chose Virginia Law. I was fully committed to the weekly investigations and writing responsibilities such as prison visits, court document requests, and calls with witnesses or co-defendants. This past year I worked on a team of six, which initially was investigatory, but quickly morphed into a 30-page petition for parole upon Gov. Ralph Northam’s “Fishback” bills in April 2020. I am grateful for VIPS and its impact on incarcerated individuals and their loved ones. Another meaningful pro bono opportunity I gained was in South Africa with the Black Law Students Association’s international service trip. On the trip, I was able to work on assignments centered on advocating for children and educating others about how to prevent gender-based violence.
“While I have already surpassed the Pro Bono Program’s 75-hour Challenge, I look forward to continuing to contribute pro bono hours during my 3L year and continuing this dedication after graduation.”
Henry Li '21
“Growing up in Portland, Oregon, made me think I knew the city well, but working pro bono at the public defender's office there over winter break showed me parts of my community that I had never seen before.
“I saw the holding cells where defendants were being kept. I saw a family distraught over a scam perpetrated on their grandparents. I spoke with an undocumented immigrant facing charges who was weeping for fear of being deported and separated from his family. But I also saw people who celebrated milestones in their freedom from addiction through the drug court program, and I saw the tenacity of those who advocate for the indigent. I have had a lot of winter breaks in Portland, but this one finally helped me see directly the struggles of the city I had lived and grown up in.
“Working pro bono is a fantastic way to gain extremely valuable experience and perspective. I cannot recommend it highly enough. When I wrote legal memoranda for the lawyers, I also had the amazing opportunity to apply and develop what I had just learned the semester before. When I knew and could apply the “Erie doctrine,” the rules of evidence, and my legal research and writing skills, I could truly feel the reality that I had been admitted into a new world through my legal education.”
Charlotte Bilski '22
“During my 1L year, I volunteered with the Virginia Innocence Project. Our weekly meetings were the highlight of my week, as they served as a constant reminder of the type of work I can tackle as a law student and as an attorney. I also had the opportunity to spend two weeks during winter break to work with New York Legal Aid’s Exploitation Intervention Project, where I helped assist non-citizen victims of human trafficking. My pro bono experiences at UVA Law have been extraordinary learning opportunities and have solidified my commitment to public service at every step of my legal career.”
Allison Burns '22
“The UVA Law Pro Bono Program offers diverse opportunities and allows students to get involved almost immediately after joining the UVA Law community. I came to law school with a passion for service, Spanish and traveling. My participation in the UVA Law Pro Bono Program has allowed me to combine these passions and channel them into meaningful projects.
“During the first semester of 1L, I joined the Migrant Farmworker Project and became a team leader. Every week, we went to rural farms in Virginia in small groups to speak with migrant workers, often in Spanish, about their legal rights in the United States. Working with this project allowed me to learn about employment law firsthand, practice my Spanish and develop my leadership skills. During Christmas break, I went to Cape Town, South Africa, as an international volunteer with BLSA. We worked with a law firm and non-profit organizations throughout the city and learned about issues facing the country, including gun violence, immigration policies and gender-based violence on college campuses. We completed various projects throughout the week and I was able to gain experience with an international law firm and further develop my researching and writing skills. I strongly believe that as law students and future lawyers, we have an obligation to give back to the community and use our education in service of others. The UVA Law Pro Bono Program is a great way to get involved in the community through interesting and engaging projects.”
Wes Williams '22
“While the Pro Bono Program provided incredible learning opportunities throughout my 1L year, working with The Bronx Defenders over spring break was what crystallized just how valuable pro bono experience can be. My supervising attorney let me take the lead on research that was central to a motion to dismiss for a client’s misdemeanor case. Experiencing firsthand the power that lawyers can wield on behalf of someone who the system has treated unfairly reminded me why I came to law school in the first place. As a first-generation law student, it is often difficult to comprehend how my legal education will inform real-world practice, but the pro bono work I have done at the law school has helped immensely toward envisioning my future, while allowing me to invest in the public interest in Charlottesville, in Virginia, and more broadly.”