UVA Law Students Volunteer a Record-Breaking 10,000 Pro Bono Hours During Winter Recess
A record number of University of Virginia law students volunteered for more than 10,000 hours of pro bono work across the country during the winter break, far surpassing the Law School's previous tallies.
Over the holiday, 200 law students — primarily first-years — worked with 164 organizations and contributed a total of 10,060 hours. In the previous year, a then-record 177 law students collectively logged 8,252 volunteer hours.
"There's been lots of student interest in winter pro bono projects, which is really exciting," said Kimberly Emery, the Law School's assistant dean for pro bono and public interest. "We view it as a skill-building opportunity, and a way to build mentor relationships. It also allows the students to just try things out. If they do, say, two or three weeks of pro bono in a public defender's office, it's a way they can try it out before committing a whole summer to it."
First-year law student Edward Ledford worked at the public defender's office in Charlottesville for more than three weeks, performing a variety of tasks, including helping prepare public defender Jim Hingeley for a case before the Virginia Supreme Court.
"He gave me the briefs on it, the case history and then had me help prepare him for questions the court might ask him," Ledford said.
Ledford accompanied Hingeley when the court heard oral arguments in the case, Belew v. Commonwealth of Virginia, on Jan. 10. At issue in the appeal of Hingeley's client Vickie Belew was a question of criminal procedure that arose because of technical errors in the trial court's case management system that resulted in a significant part of the trial transcript being omitted.
Ledford also interviewed clients at the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail for the public defender's office.
"I sat down with these guys facing criminal charges, got their story, listened to their criminal history and just did the initial intake," he said. "For some of the people in jail, it's like they never really had an opportunity. I talked to one kid whose mom was in prison for murder. His father was in prison for trafficking in drugs. He grew up without a father. And here he was for malicious assault charges."
Ledford is interested in pursuing criminal law as a career, particularly criminal defense for the indigent.
"One of the big lessons that came out of this was simply the incredible volume and the vast requirement for good representation of the indigent, especially in contrast to the tremendous resources that the state government has," he said. "This is a small office, with only seven or eight attorneys. The number of people they're each representing is huge."
First-year law student Sharon Casola spent her winter break volunteering in New Jersey with the nonprofit organization Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, which provides pro bono legal representation to illegal immigrant minors facing deportation.
As part of her work with the organization, Casola interviewed clients at a juvenile detention center. One gang member Casola met who was facing deportation did not realize he was an illegal immigrant until he was apprehended.
"He was brought into this country by his mother when he was 3 and raised in the United States his entire life. A lot of these children come in and have no clue that they're illegal immigrants because they're too young to even know what that means," she said.
After the initial interview, KIND evaluates what type of immigration relief the child qualifies for and typically seeks to match the client with a pro bono attorney. She said KIND's mission is especially critical because there is no guarantee in the American legal system that an unaccompanied immigrant minor will have access to legal counsel.
Casola said she appreciated the opportunity to interact with clients and try her hand at real-world legal work.
"I was really excited, especially coming right out of finals, where you're just drilling yourself on all these facts," she said. "It kind of validates why you're going into the legal profession because you're helping real people instead of made-up fact patterns."
Anne Reser, also a first-year law student, spent two weeks working for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, which provides free civil legal representation to low-income area residents.
Reser worked with the organization's children and family practice group, dealing with cases involving domestic violence, divorce and child custody issues.
"Many of them wanted a divorce but were having issues because they had children," she said. "Most of the clients were under 150 percent of the federal poverty level, so there were also some pretty interesting financial situations that you had to figure out."
Reser attended court hearings, interacted with clients, and helped draft petitions and orders.
"I'm interested in family law in general, and [the area of] domestic violence is one of my passions," she said. "It was nice to see how what I've been learning would apply to the real world."
Reser is the second Virginia Law student to volunteer her time with the Chicago-based nonprofit.
"More people should do [winter pro bono projects]. I don't think most people really understand the need that legal service providers have," she said. "It's a lot greater than I'd expected."