Posted: April 18th, 2016 | By: Sarah Saint
Kelly Austin (JD ’16) is the recipient of the 2016 Smith Anderson Exceptional Pro Bono Service Award. Austin was recognized for her unwavering commitment to increasing access to justice and living out the Pro Humanitate mission of Wake Forest University at the Pro Bono Honor Society dinner on April 16. Throughout her three years in law school, Austin volunteered for numerous projects that help children navigate the legal system, but the one that stood out to her most was the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program.
When Austin was choosing her law school, she knew that Wake Forest Law was right for her. Coming from an active volunteering career in undergrad, Austin knew that she wanted to continue serving throughout law school.
“[Wake Forest Law] seemed like the only law school that emphasized pro bono,” she said. “I was pretty passionate that when I came to law school that I wasn’t going to stop serving.”
Working in child advocacy at Legal Aid before law school, Austin noticed a lack of individuals who were committed to child advocacy work.
“I saw a need in the community for people who were passionate about that kind of work, not because it fell into their laps, but because they were really concerned with the outcome for the children,” she said.
As soon as she arrived at Wake Forest Law, she immediately started asking questions, because she wanted to find a pro bono project that she was going to be passionate about.
“I had a wonderful student mentor and told her ‘I love child advocacy. What can I do?” Austin said.
She tried Teen Court, Reclaiming Futures and the GAL program. By her second year of law school, her heart was set on GAL work, and she dedicated more than 100 hours of pro bono service to the program throughout law school.
“It’s been everything I thought it would be: It’s been challenging and rewarding and positive. I’ve established a relationship with my kids. I’ve seen them progress from a really negative state to a really happy state and having a positive outlook on their lives,” Austin said.
Two of the children she was serving went from being homeless to being on their school’s honor roll to being adopted. “They have flourished being in a loving, safe environment with people caring about where they are going,” Austin said.
As a law student, Austin was able to learn a lot about how to be a lawyer through pro bono work in law school.
“I was standing up in front of a judge in my first year, making recommendations, which was nothing like anything I was getting in my first year classes. This was real practical experience—not just looking at a textbook,” she explained.
She learned how to work with the players in a custody dispute, how to make and file reports, the structure of hearings, and what was important information for a judge to know.
The greatest gains for Austin, though, were in learning how to interact with clients.
“I had two cases with four kids between them,” she said. “I had to learn to adapt to each child and their needs, and to each parent and foster parent and their needs.”
Pro bono also opened the door for Austin to try three of Wake Forest Law’s clinics: the Child Advocacy Clinic, the Elder Law Clinic and the Innocence and Justice Clinic.
“I learned that I really enjoy working with people in the community, people who don’t have other options,” said Austin. “I used pro bono as an encouragement to sign up for as many clinics as I could to get as much practical skills training as possible.”
Pro bono work helped Austin see how her classes connected to her career and gave her motivation when she was stressed to keep pushing through.
“I liked law school more. I could see a purpose in my classes,” she said. “It served as an inspiration not just to look forward to my career after law school, but also to the difference I could make while still a law student.”
Particularly important to Austin was the flexibility allowed in pro bono work.
“With pro bono, you get to structure what you want to do — no one is forcing you to get involved in a matter that you’re not passionate about. You have the freedom to choose your passions and work on those,” Austin said.
She also loved that she has been able to adapt pro bono to her schedule while maintaining a steady commitment to volunteering.
Austin couldn’t imagine law school without pro bono.
“Pro bono serves as a reminder of why I came to law school,” she said. “It’s easy to become selfish in law school, especially with classes and papers and exams and the stress of the job search. It’s easy to focus just on me. Pro bono work serves as a positive reminder of all the wonderful things in my life and all the ways I can use my fortunate circumstances to help others.”