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How a law student sparked a mass pro bono movement

Using Social Media
A tweet during the pandemic resulted in law students and paralegals volunteering more than 2,500 hours of their time for others.

If you haven’t yet realized that one person can make a huge difference in today’s world, behold the power of one law student’s tweet.

As millions of people lost their jobs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one law student’s simple tweet in March offering to do pro bono projects unexpectedly morphed into a massive, nationwide effort.

With law schools moving to online classes and pass/fail grading, thousands of law students, paralegals, and paralegal students—some of whom had even lost their own jobs—suddenly had extra time on their hands.

But, instead of taking it easy, thousands of them rolled up their sleeves and got busy helping some of the most vulnerable among us.

How the ball started moving

Alyssa Leader, then a 3L at the University of North Carolina School of Law, noticed that lawyers working in family law, immigration, indigent defense, and legal aid were hit with a huge wave of COVID-19–related work as soon as states started to lock down activities. “At the same time,” Leader said, “all of my plans for the end of law school kind of blew up.”

Realizing she had extra time, Leader posted an offer on Twitter to give her own time drafting motions and assisting with other remote legal work.

As millions of workers were laid off—with more than 45 million Americans filing for unemployment at its peak during the pandemic—the need for pro bono legal services grew exponentially.

“The response was fairly overwhelming,” Leader said. “I realized there was no way I could support all the folks who were asking. But at the same time, students were chiming in offering to help. I started by connecting friends of friends to projects through email, and eventually it made sense to formalize things a little more.”

On March 18, Leader, whose Twitter feed @alittleleader now has more than 13,000 followers, put her social media skills to work. She launched her effort to pair law students, paralegals, and paralegal students with licensed attorneys who were working with clients on matters related to COVID-19.

While not formally affiliated with any university or other organization, the Law Student COVID-19 Pro Bono Support Project nevertheless received wide publicity on social media, as well as law school websites and listservs.

The good it’s accomplishing

Each day, Leader’s program offers projects to a listserv of 5,000-plus law students, paralegals, and paralegal students who’ve offered to help licensed attorneys on COVID-19 related matters. Students sign up for remote-work projects on a first-come, first-served basis and always work under the guidance of licensed attorneys.

“We started out doing mostly motions for bail and release in criminal and immigration cases,” Leader said. As of June, that still makes up the core of the work students were doing.

But students have also done research on changes to unemployment provisions, compiled resources for clients with food insecurity, explored the impacts on family and custody arrangements, and more. They’ve also researched paid leave and work-from-home policies, drafted responses to eviction proceedings, gathered lists of resources for people seeking assistance, and translated documents for clients.

“All our project slots have filled up immediately,” Leader said. “We’ve filled more than 100 requests for services, most of them seeking multiple law students’ support and representing work for several clients. The students have committed more than 2,500 hours of service so far.”

Can you still help?

Leader’s project, which started to see a reduction in requests by mid-June, was still active and available for law students, paralegals, and paralegal students interested in helping licensed attorneys on COVID-related projects through late summer.

“I think when difficult things are happening in our communities, it’s really hard to feel as if we’re sitting on our hands,” Leader said. “This project gave students an avenue to use their skills and time to make a difference.

“Law students like to be busy,” she added. “The virus left us all with a lot of unexpected free time to fill.”

In fact, a number of law schools modified their own pro bono programs in the wake of the pandemic to give students more opportunities to help those in need of legal assistance.

Find your calling

Leader said you shouldn’t be afraid to jump in when you see a need you can help fill.

“As a law student, it’s really easy to feel like you’re not the right person or like you don’t know enough,” she said. “I know I’ve felt those things and continue to feel them. But I try to remind myself that an imperfect person helping is better than no one stepping in. I do what I can in the moment and remain open to feedback, correction, and mentorship.”

Leader, who also studied for the bar exam and looked for jobs this summer, said she hopes to work in legal aid or public defense. “I want to use my skills and education to help people fighting against oppressive and unfair systems,” she said.

She encourages other law students to think about how their own unique skills, qualities, and interests can bring something new to the table.

“I spend way too much time online,” Leader admitted. “Some people might see that as a negative, especially during finals season. But I know I have a knack for online communication and organizing. In this case, I was able to leverage those skills and interests to benefit others. If you want to help out, just think about what it is that you can offer.”

Leader also noted that you don’t have to do something new or big to make a difference. She participated in clinic and pro bono at UNC law, but said it’s not necessary to create something new to make an impact on others’ lives.

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is just to show up and be ready to work,” she said. “We’re so privileged to have a legal education and skill set. When we’re able, we owe it to those around us to use our privilege for good.”

In fact, as an undergraduate at Harvard University, Leader served as a peer counselor and was active in issues around domestic violence and sexual assault. She also worked as a victim advocate and a crisis counselor after graduation.

“I really enjoyed the work but realized that so many of my clients’ problems related to the fact that they didn’t have access to legal services or folks who could advocate on their behalf in the legal system,” stated Leader.

“That was what ultimately led me to go to law school.”

Having entered law school intending to focus specifically on victims’ rights work, Leader said she’s broadened her perspective. “Now I hope to build my career helping anyone who’s facing systemic oppression and would benefit from high-quality, affordable counsel.”

Travis Thickstun Travis Thickstun is a 2L at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and a member of the ABA Law Student Division editorial board. He has master’s degrees in jurisprudence from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and in theological studies from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He's also a husband, a father, and a police lieutenant.