From New York to Kentucky, Record Number of Students Volunteered During Spring Break
A record 60 University of Virginia School of Law students spent their spring break volunteering in legal aid, indigent defense and prosecutors' offices across the country.
Students who participated in the Alternative Spring Break program this year contributed more than 2,000 hours at sites in North Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Orleans, New York, Charlottesville, Richmond and Washington, D.C.
Last year, 50 students participated in the Alternative Spring Break, which is organized by the student-run Public Interest Law Association. The program was launched in 2009 with 19 participants.
"Students are able to spend their spring breaks making an impact through pro bono work and it potentially ignites a spark for a career spent in public service, if it wasn't there already," said third-year law student Kate Gilman, director of the Alternative Spring Break program. "It also just feels great to be doing legal work outside the classroom and to really help people, which is why so many come to law school in the first place — to go to court, to work with passionate lawyers and to meet those needy clients and realize why being their lawyer is such a unique opportunity and responsibility."
Second-year law student Ilana Sinkin was one of 11 students who traveled to New Orleans to work at the Orleans Public Defenders office, which recently lost 20 attorneys due to budget cuts, leaving indigent defendants at risk of not having legal representation.
"The experience was incredible," Sinkin said. "Each of us was assigned to different attorneys and matters. Some of us transcribed jail calls, some went to court, some visited the jails to meet with clients, some conducted research projects and wrote memos, and some helped prepare the special litigation unit in a big case coming up to secure more funding from the state."
Having the opportunity to work in New Orleans was also a plus, she added. "We stayed near the beautiful Tulane campus and ate at delicious NOLA favorites — getting our fair share of po' boys, jambalaya, shrimp etouffee, and red beans and rice."
Denise Letendre, a second-year law student, stayed in Charlottesville to volunteer for the Legal Aid Justice Center.
Letendre analyzed letters and other records for Virginia prisoners with mental illness to understand more about their experience in Virginia's correctional facilities. Her efforts were part of the center's ongoing Virginia Institutionalized Persons Project, which investigates conditions in Virginia's prisons, jails and mental health institutions.
"I thought Charlottesville would be a great place to do [Alternative Spring Break] because that's the community I interact with on a daily basis," she said. "I also wanted to make some connections in the community because I'm always looking to do pro bono work. And it's a great way to give back locally."
Letendre said she gained practical legal experience that will help her make career choices in the future.
"I definitely want to do some kind of public service, whether it be in government or through nonprofit legal aid-type work," she said.
In addition to the Legal Aid Justice Center, law students staying in the Charlottesville area worked at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, the Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender Office.
In Richmond, students worked at the city's Commonwealth's Attorney's Office. In North Carolina, they worked at Legal Aid, the North Carolina Justice Center and the office of state's public defender. In New York, they worked at Bronx Defenders and the Legal Aid Society's criminal defense division in Manhattan.
Second-year law student Thomas Silverstein volunteered in Mississippi for a second consecutive year.
"I have had the opportunity to cement professional relationships with excellent public interest lawyers, perform a broad range of the tasks routinely done in a public interest law office, and acquaint many of my classmates with the satisfactions and frustrations of working for social justice in historically underserved communities," he said. "I would not exchange the experience for the most relaxing vacation imaginable."
Returning to Mississippi, he said, gave him an opportunity to see how the students' pro bono work has made a difference over time.
"Seeing how the situation on the Gulf Coast has evolved has unquestionably reaffirmed my commitment to public interest work," he said.
First-year law student Jacky Werman was part of the team that traveled to Kentucky, where the team worked with attorneys defending low-income residents in cases involving coal companies.
"Those coal companies' poor business practices caused major problems for our clients," she said. "We got a firsthand experience for settlement negotiations, witness preparation, and research and writing practice."
Gilman, the program's director, thanked Virginia Law professors Darryl Brown, Anne Coughlin and Richard Moore for participating in a panel discussion prior to spring break that helped prepare the law students for their efforts. She said this year's Alternative Spring Break trip would also not have been possible without the program's sponsors, BarBri and Themis, as well as the law firms Cahill Gordon & Reindel, Fried Frank and Hogan Lovells.