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Pro Bono Project, Public Interest Initiative give back to community

Law students, faculty and staff are striving to embody the university motto, Pro Humanitate,  through the efforts of the Pro Bono Project and the Public Interest Initiative, which were started last year by student and faculty leaders with the support of the dean.

The Pro Bono Project, which was formed originally as the Pro Bono Committee in the spring of 2009, was established to not only catalog the ongoing pro bono and service efforts of students and faculty, but also to innovate and create new opportunities.

This includes providing an interface for students and project sponsors to help streamline the delivery of those services by placing students with lawyers on pro bono cases, hosting pro bono service events, and planning week-long service trips throughout the year, according to Beth Hopkins, director of outreach, who helps facilitate both programs.

For example, the Pro Bono Project hosted David Smith (’84) for a discussion on the importance of pro bono work as part of the school’s second annual National Pro Bono Week celebration that was held Oct. 24-30, 2010. And during Spring Break 2010, a group of 10 Wake Forest law students traveled to Miami to help Haitians living in the U.S. before the devastating earthquake struck their island nation register for Temporary Protected Status.

Organized by Michael Lennox (’10),  Professor Margaret Taylor said, “it was Michael’s initiative that got the ball rolling in Miami and elsewhere for law students across the country to join this effort.More than 80  individuals and their families were directly assisted by the TPS drives held in Miami and students helped process an additional 1,300 applications.

The 2011 spring break trip will provide legal services and community outreach in conjunction with Legal Aid of Pembroke, N.C.  “We will have the opportunity to address credit, housing, and health care law issues, while providing legal services to the Lumbee tribe and other residents of the Lumberton area,” Kaitlyn Girard (‘12).  “As we’re working with Legal Aid, there is also potential to work with a variety of other legal issues present in Pembroke.”

Hopkins said the students are also working with the Lumbee Indians on research in an effort to help them achieve federal recognition.

“No other school has ever volunteered to help the Legal Aid office in Pembroke but ours,” Hopkins said. “Students drive three hours up and three hours back. A dinner with the Dean and the tribal leaders is in the works. We have some dedicated and committed students.”

Work the Pro Bono Project is involved in includes:

  • Establishing new law student Veterans Group which is seeking accreditation to handle veterans’ disability claims.
  • Working with Legal Aid of Forsyth and Iredell counties on foreclosure proceedings and Medicaid issues, among others.
  • Assisting local United Way with workshops on rights of homeless who have police encounters.
  • Helping a local homeless shelter develop a social media policy as well as employee job descriptions.
  • Acting as Guardian ad Litems and assisting in child custody disputes.
  • Presenting legal information clinics for parents of special needs children.
  • Working with Legal Aid on VITA. At least 40 students have signed up to volunteer.

“We are about to engage in an animal rights project and the Outlaw group is making plans to do presentations  to WFU students on  the pitfalls of bullying gay students,” Hopkins added.

The Public Interest Initiative was started with the goal of promoting public interest careers, by exposing students to career opportunities, public interest leaders, grant and fellowship opportunities, mentoring, skill development, and volunteer opportunities. The initiative hosted its second annual retreat on Feb. 4 with Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, as its keynote speaker.

“We are so excited that Mr. Dees agreed to speak at this year’s Public Interest Retreat,” said organizer Peter Ledford (’11).

As part of the retreat, students had the chance to meet in small groups with other public interest attorneys, including Gene Fishel (’02), senior assistant attorney general and chief of the computer crime section in the Virginia Attorney General’s Office; Lizmar Bosques, assistant Forsyth County District Attorney; Patrick Baker (‘93), Durham city attorney; Susan Cheng (‘07), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration; and Anita Earls, executive director, Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Both groups also co-sponsored a forum in the fall, “Arizona Senate Bill 1070: One State’s Attempt to Curb Illegal Immigration,” that focused on the controversial Arizona immigration law AB1070, which is one of the strictest anti-illegal immigration acts in years, sparking considerable media attention and controversy.

The law school has always prided itself on educating not just skilled attorneys but “citizen lawyers” who are capable of filling crucial advisory roles within their communities, according to Dean Blake D. Morant.

“The results and the goals of Pro Bono Project and Public Interest Initiative are the achievement of equal justice under law by promoting and assisting with the delivery of free or low-cost legal services,” says Jackie Willingham (’11), director of the Pro Bono Project. “As our organizations grow, we plan to be innovative and original in our efforts to deliver pro bono services and promote the public interest.”

 Both organizations have big plans and expect to build even greater enthusiasm and momentum for their programs, said Craig Principe (’12), public relations coordinator for the Pro Bono Project.

 “Wake Forest law has a strong tradition of promoting the university’s motto, Pro Humanitate, and we hope that through our Pro Bono and Public Interest programs we can continue and strengthen this tradition,” he said.

Public interest non-profits and attorneys in private practice doing pro bono work can recruit law students to help with client intake and interviewing, community legal education, courtroom representation, fact investigation, legal research and writing, government paperwork, or special projects.

“Law students can work in your office on a weekly basis throughout the semester or can help you with a specific case or project,” Principe added. “And lawyers doing pro bono work can get law student help.”

More information is available on the Pro Bono Project’s website.