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I know what you did last summer (in pro bono work)

Students tell their pro bono stories and offer their advice on how you can begin making your own legal impact.

Pro bono. We’ve all heard the term and know it well.

When it comes to providing pro bono services as a law student, you’re usually working under the direct supervision of a licensed lawyer without being compensated, in academic credits or pay, for the work you do.

Since 2009, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service has sponsored the National Celebration of Pro Bono. This year, it took place October 20-26. In the 10 years since the event was first held, more than 70 percent of its activities were direct-service clinics, volunteer training, or new-initiative launches.

It’s hard to go through law school without some student club or organization offering pro bono opportunities throughout the year. As of 2018, 39 law schools across the country even required some sort of pro bono or public service work for graduation.

There are so many ways engaging in pro bono work can help you navigate law school and your future career.

These are just some ways students have benefitted from pro bono work.

Knowledge becomes powerful

Seven students from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, spent a week volunteering with the Dilley Pro Bono Project at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

Second-year students Ruth Campbell, Michelle Ganow-Jones, and Jessica Gutierrez became involved through their school’s Immigration Student Group and spent the week preparing women and children at the detention center for their credible-fear interviews. There, the clients would have to tell their stories to asylum officers to establish that they had a credible fear of persecution or torture if they were to be returned to their home countries.

“We spent all week at the detention center working 12-hour days,” stated Ganow-Jones, speaking for herself and her colleagues. “We’d start off with a charla, a chat or conversation, led by a Dilley Pro Bono Project staff member or volunteer who gave an overview of the asylum process and credible-fear interview. After the charla, the detained mothers—frequently with small children—waited their turn to meet with a volunteer, which could sometimes stretch into several hours.”

Even though they knew asking the women and children to recount their stories meant forcing those clients to relive trauma, the students found a silver lining in helping the women understand which details of their stories were legally relevant to asylum.

“One of the most gratifying parts of the week was seeing a client walk out of the room feeling empowered to tell her story to the asylum officer,” stated Ganow-Jones. “Frequently, they’d want to give us a hug, and we wanted to hug them, too. Unfortunately, we had to decline. Hugs were against the detention center’s rules.”

If you’re insterested in pro bono work, the students suggest you identify an issue you feel strongly about, seek out organizations doing good work in that area, and reach out to learn how you can gain pro bono experience while supporting the groups’ efforts.

Step out of your comfort zone

Courtney Cole, a 2L at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., found herself entertaining a new field of post-graduation practice during her summer pro bono work at the Family Self-Help Center in Anchorage, Alaska. “I’m not focused on family law, but rather environmental law,” she said. “I wasn’t really sure how I’d feel in this position, but I’m extremely grateful for all the learning experiences I received this summer.”

In her time at the center, Cole found herself working with a team of attorneys who assisted pro se litigants in custody matters, dissolution matters, or any combination of the two. She helped screen cases for the possibility of settlement without the long-term effects of a trial, as well as prepared litigants for mediation and appearances in front of family court judges.

Cole said, “It was humbling to see when the families arrived at court and reached agreements for their children and themselves with the hopes of maintaining relationships. The judges even commended the individuals.”

While the practice of family law is still not Cole’s number-one goal, she admits it’s higher on her list than it originally was. She also offered this advice: “While you might fully believe the only area you want to practice in is environmental, criminal, or something else, use your school years to experience different areas. It might change your mind or teach you valuable lessons in the practice of law that you might not have otherwise received.”

Holding the system to account

Amy Greer, a 3L at Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, R.I., spent her summer working in the Capital Habeas Unit for the Federal Public Defender of the Northern District of Texas. That district covers more than 100 counties in the northern and central parts of Texas, including Fort Worth, Amarillo, Abilene, Lubbock, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls.

Greer started law school with the clear intention of becoming a criminal defense attorney. She cited systemic flaws in the legal system and the impacts they have on people of color, people in poverty, and people with mental illness, especially as they relate to death penalty cases.

“I sought internships in organizations that center the client and provide a holistic defense, and I wanted to work alongside the courageous lawyers holding the capital punishment system accountable to truth, fairness, and justice,” Greer said.

During her time in the unit, Greer did legal research and brief writing, attempted to identify Batson claims by reviewing jury-selection materials, and reviewed trial transcripts for discrepancies.

“I was exposed to the ways in which the capital system operates by viewing, in detail, its outcomes,” she stated. “I gained a fuller picture of how the system operates and the ripple effects of that system. My experience confirmed that I want to continue on my path to become a criminal defense attorney and, more specifically, a capital defense attorney.”

To find the right opportunity for you, Greer suggested attending career fairs in your area or even the Equal Justice Works Job Fair, held annually in Arlington, Va. She also recommended having someone review your application materials for typos and grammatical errors.

“You want to put your best foot forward and avoid the heart attack after you press send!” she said.

Reinforce your passion

University of Nebraska College of Law 2L Aimee Wieczorek spent her summer working with the Midwest Innocence Project. She says it did nothing but reinforce her passion for criminal defense work.

“I was assigned four cases, and all four cases were at the investigative stage where we were still learning the facts and determining if there was a case to move forward,” she recalled. “I read and digested trial transcripts and police records, made character charts and timelines, and interviewed qitnesses during investigation trips.”

While Wieczorek admitted the work became monotonous at times, she was reminded of the worth of her efforts when she met with clients in person. “The organization is the only hope these clients have of getting out of prison, and it was amazing getting to be one of those people providing a little bit of light in someone’s life.”

To do pro bono work, Wieczorek found, you have to have passion; the work can be draining, difficult, often thankless, and upsetting in different ways. But in the end, she said, it’s worth it. Her advice: “If you have a passion for it, or think you may want to do this as your career, go for it.”

These students’ experiences show that the benefits of doing pro bono work are innumerable. So find ways to start making the difference in your community.

The work we do as lawyers is significant. The work we do as lawyers for those who can’t otherwise afford legal services is even more so. Talk to a professor, your employer, or your school’s career development office to get started on making your impact.

Jessica Gilgor Jessica Gilgor is a 3L at Creighton University School of Law. A native of Las Vegas, she graduated from the University of Nevada Reno, where she studied Professional Chemistry and minored in Physics. Jessica was a part-time sports journalist for the United States Bowling Congress during their Open Championships tournament under the tutelage of Matt Cannizzaro and Aaron Smith.