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How law students helped others during the pandemic

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Even remotely, it’s possible to do pro bono if you’re looking in the right places. That’s what these students did.

Law students have leveraged their legal training to pursue relief for tenants and prisoners confined during the pandemic.

While some have worked though their law schools’ clinical programs or local legal aid societies, others have teamed up directly with local attorneys engaged in pro bono cases. They’ve helped tenants fight evictions and incarcerated people seek compassionate release. And they’ve assisted consumers facing debt collection, residents without water, and communities seeking to organize for legislative changes.

No evictions on their watch

Students at the University of Virginia School of Law, Yale Law School, Notre Dame Law School, and Georgetown University Law Center assisted tenants facing evictions and utility shutoffs.

Two UVA law students were among several who volunteered at the Virginia Poverty Law Center’s eviction helpline, which provided tenants general legal information, specific legal advice from an attorney, and referrals to other providers or services.

Nicole Banton, at 3L at UVA law, assisted with the center’s intake process by interviewing tenants before licensed attorneys provided legal advice about their potential eviction. Banton said the work took on an urgency because of the pandemic.

“Helping with the intake process provided an opportunity to talk with tenants who need housing-related services or who were facing financial challenges or unlawful eviction,” Banton said. “Talking with individual tenants and hearing their stories grounded the enormous eviction crisis Virginia was facing. It’s one thing to understand that millions of people are affected by eviction. It’s much more affecting to hear individual people’s stories and what they need.”

Homelessness is an emergency in every case, according to Jack Hoover, a 2L at UVA law. And the sudden lack of income some tenants faced as a result of the pandemic meant the center’s eviction helpline had a lot of urgent work to do.

Law students helped licensed attorneys on their pro bono work for financially unstable clients. And many of those clients had no other way to navigate the complicated legal world without assistance, Hoover said. In fact, he said many clients are dealing with multiple crises at once, including health issues, loss of a job, or other legal issues.

“We listen to clients’ initial descriptions of their situations, open case files, find court dockets, and follow up with clients to gather more information,” Hoover said. “We ask questions we know to be legally salient so that a licensed attorney can call back to advise the client on how best to proceed. Law student volunteers also read out generalized information about the eviction process most relevant to clients’ cases so that clients leave the call better informed about their rights.”

A legal brief on the impact of evictions on the spread of COVID-19 was the focus of Evan Walker-Wells, a 2L at Yale law. He researched and helped draft the brief for Yale’s Housing Clinic. He stated that evictions are about more than the immediate housing crisis the eviction itself causes; other long-term consequences arise for tenants.

“By working with clients from the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, it was clear to us that eviction moratoriums are really important to keeping people safe from COVID-19,” he said.

Walker-Wells said Yale’s Housing Clinic wanted to make the link between evictions and the spread of infectious disease a concept accessible to courts—and to highlight new research that indicates that eviction moratoriums effectively prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

At Notre Dame law, students helped low-income clients facing housing and consumer law issues in their community as part of the school’s Economic Justice Clinic.

Natalie D. Fulk, a 3L at the school, said she’s interested in working in legal services in housing law after she graduates. She joined the clinic because she wanted to help clients in her community while simultaneously learning more about providing direct legal aid to clients with housing issues.

“We work to keep people in their housing, to improve their housing conditions, and to defend them in consumer law matters,” Fulk said. “It’s vitally important for people to maintain stable housing and adequate incomes, especially during this pandemic.”

Fulk’s fellow Notre Dame law student, Nicole Paige, also a 3L, said it was rewarding to use her legal training to help someone in need. In fact, Paige said she had a duty to use her legal education to help others. She said some matters didn’t even require much time or effort on her part but nonetheless made a significant impact on a client’s life. Some matters, she said, could be resolved with a simple phone call to a landlord.

“A few hours a week can change someone’s life,” Paige said.

The fight for decarceration

Several students at UVA law and the Georgetown University Law Center helped file compassionate release motions for people experiencing incarceration during the pandemic.

Imani Gunn, a 3L at Georgetown law who said she went to law school to advocate for the Black community, said her participation in Georgetown’s Criminal Justice Clinic provided an opportunity to have a tangible impact on her community.

“There’s something about the feeling of helplessness that has always been very uncomfortable for me and in being Black in America,” she said. “And particularly when it comes to the way the criminal justice system treats Black folks, that helplessness has been magnified. I saw the law as a way to empower myself and also as a tool to be leveraged to help the Black community, especially those who haven’t had the privilege I have to find themselves at a place like Georgetown law.”

Gunn and others in her clinic have been working in pairs to file compassionate release motions for people who reached out to the clinic during their incarceration. The students have interviewed prisoners, as well as their families and friends, to help judges connect with their clients and understand why those clients are ready to rejoin society.

“In the age of COVID, the virus is spreading like wildfire throughout facilities, with rates much higher than in the general population,” Gunn said. “When a prison goes on lockdown to slow the spread, clients are unable to communicate by phone or email, making the experience even
more isolating.”

Gunn said she finally feels like she’s cracking away at those feelings of helplessness and leveraging the law to make a difference, and doing it all before completing her law degree.

Three students at UVA law joined their school’s efforts to mitigate the risks posed by COVID-19 on women experiencing incarceration. They conducted interviews, did legal research, and compiled information sheets for those clients. In fact, some of their research resulted in licensed attorneys filing petitions for conditional pardons for nonviolent prisoners.

The Virginia Pardon Project got an assist from Abby Maner, a 2L at UVA law. She worked on it through the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, Va. The goal of the project, she said, was to help incarcerated individuals at high risk for COVID-19 complications get out of prison early based on the increased risk of infection in densely populated prisons.

Maner said she wanted to use her free time to help lessen the impact of the pandemic on the community. “I had read about the risks that the pandemic created for incarcerated individuals. I felt strongly that the state had an obligation to take care of the people that it brings into its custody.”

Kaylen Strench, a UVA law 3L, said she and her colleagues worked on projects to encourage Virginia’s governor to use his clemency power to release low-risk and vulnerable people throughout the state to protect those clients and the remaining jail and prison populations from the virus.

They not only conducted interviews, but they also researched state laws to identify legal tools to seek prisoners’ release, including medical clemency and geriatric parole.

The clinic provided an opportunity for Strench to learn how lawyers use the law to protect and promote the rights of others. “I was particularly drawn to work associated with the prison litigation because of the palpable human element involved in the case,” she said. “My interviews with clients amplified the gravity and importance of the work I was doing. Additionally, I was able to see how impactful civil rights lawyering is. It’s about much more than having the best legal arguments— it’s also about listening to clients and being an effective advocate.”

Dominique Fenton, also a UVA law 3L, initially worked on the Legal Aid Justice Center’s federal suit concerning medical care brought against a correctional center for women.

“That work became even more urgent as the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and the threat it posed to our incarcerated clients became clear,” he said. “It folded into what became the Legal Aid Justice Center’s broader COVID-19 response.”

Fenton drafted a COVID-19 questionnaire that was sent to hundreds of women at the correctional center to find out how the prison was responding to the pandemic. He also compiled an information sheet that explained the rights prisoners had under a settlement agreement and the self-advocacy steps they could take.

“We put a great deal of pressure on the prison to take the safety and well-being of our clients seriously during the pandemic,” Fenton said.

A guide for good

A comprehensive COVID-19 legal guide for Washington, D.C., residents was where Michael Smith, a 2L at Georgetown law, volunteered some of his time. He worked with a professor to develop the flyer, which was aimed at providing information on residents’ rights and the resources available to low-income families as a result of changes in Washington, D.C., law during the pandemic.

Smith said he appreciated being able to use his education to benefit those in need in his community.

“It was cool to be able to apply what I’d been learning throughout the year and use those skills to be able to help people,” Smith said.

“One thing I’d recommend for all students,” he added, “is if there’s a professor who’s doing public interest work you find interesting, reach out to them to ask if you can do pro bono work with them. The worst thing that could happen is that they say no. But if they say yes, it’ll be beneficial for both of you.”

Using privilege positively

All these students stated that law students can—and should—use their legal education to help those who need it during the pandemic. “The pandemic has proved challenging for everyone, but law students responded to support their communities,” Hoover said. “Every offer of pro bono work I saw filled up immediately—from petitions to release vulnerable individuals from incarceration to drafting policy proposals. My colleagues demonstrated that they truly care.”

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.