Pro Bono Project

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As the nation’s eviction crisis persists, Wake Forest Law faculty and students join White House summit in search of solutions

The economic impact wrought by COVID-19 forced millions of people into the crosshairs of eviction — a life-altering event that can reverberate throughout a person’s life, harming their financial security, housing stability, and health for years to come. And as eviction moratoriums across the country hang in the balance, many more are at risk of losing their homes unless public officials respond quickly to prevent and divert evictions, and help ensure that the more than $46 billion in federal emergency rental assistance makes it into the hands of the tenants and landlords who need it.

It was with these pressing needs in mind that Wake Forest Law faculty and students participated in the White House’s virtual Eviction Prevent Summit on June 30, which brought together government, judicial, legal, housing, and community leaders to develop plans to prevent eviction in communities across the country.

Emily Benfer, a visiting professor of law and public health at Wake Forest who also chairs the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Eviction, Housing Stability, and Equity, collaborated with the White House to support planning for the summit and was among the experts who presented on eviction prevention best practices at the event.

Since March 2020, Benfer has comprehensively tracked federal, state, and local pandemic responses related to eviction and housing, and partnered with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University to create the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard. The ongoing research, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is supported by an interdisciplinary team that includes Wake Forest Law students.

“In light of the unprecedented $46 billion in rental assistance, and the unique ability of the courts and policymakers to divert cases, we have an unparalleled opportunity to both prevent housing loss among struggling families and stabilize small property owners,” she told the summit’s participants, who represented 46 high-eviction-risk cities nationwide including Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem.

Benfer, along with Wake Forest Law Professor Christine Coughlin and Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor Eleanor Morales, facilitated three of the breakout discussions at the summit, which focused on how sectors and organizations within each city were currently responding to the eviction crisis, as well as ways to create new or enhance existing eviction diversion and prevention programs in their communities.

Eviction diversion programs bring together the public and private sector to provide people with wraparound services that can help prevent housing loss, such as legal representation, mediation, rental assistance, support from the courts and legislature, and social services, among other interventions. The goal is twofold: to divert cases away from the court system — a solution that 70% of landlords prefer, according to a June 2021 survey conducted by the ABA and Harvard Law School — and ultimately to keep people housed.

The legal system in particular can play a critical role in diverting eviction, according to Benfer.

“Especially because this is the last point of intervention before irreparable harm to tenants, courts are critical to preventing the severe and lasting damage caused by the eviction filing alone,” she said.

More than three dozen Wake Forest Law students also had the opportunity to help prepare materials for the summit, as well as witness the development of eviction crisis interventions firsthand as they assisted facilitators with logistics and documented the commitments the participants from each of the cities pledged to make.

Katie Merlin (JD ’22) worked with Benfer to compile information about the eviction crisis in each city represented at the summit to inform the breakout discussions. She described how that research underscored for her the stark contrast between how well-positioned some cities are to address the eviction crisis compared to others, and the importance of events like the summit in facilitating meaningful discussion among those who are able to make a difference. The ability to see “progress in action,” as Merlin described it, also gave her hope for the future.

“Having had family members who have faced the threat of eviction this past year, seeing a group of individuals so dedicated to providing relief for their communities was both inspiring and comforting,” she said.

And as an aspiring public interest lawyer, she said the opportunity to be a part of events like the summit are what drew her to Wake Forest Law in particular.

“I think that this signals to current and future students who are interested in public interest law that Wake Forest Law is dedicated to truly embodying pro humanitate, and is constantly taking steps to ensure that we are living up to that creed,” said Merlin.

Jada Saxon (JD ’22), who is also interested in pursuing a career as a public interest lawyer, said that seeing such a wide range of individuals who were a part of the summit broadened her perspective on what she could do with her law degree.

“This experience in particular gave me insight into how you can be a lawyer without being in a courtroom and practicing law how you generally see it,” she said. “Coming in, you know your JD is versatile, but until you see it, it doesn’t really have the full impact on you.”

The impact of seeing the summit unfold firsthand also brought a new lens to examine legal concepts learned in the classroom for Breanna Miller (JD ’22).

“It’s different than just reading a case and how the court decided to handle it. These are actual people in the community trying to grapple with the situation,” she said. “What stuck with me was the genuine concern that people were bringing to the table on this issue.”

That sentiment was also echoed by Michael Amato (JD ’22), who said the summit provided an opportunity for students to apply themselves in ways they may not get to solely in the classroom.

“I definitely gained an appreciation for just how complex these issues are,” he said.

It’s a kind of complexity that inherently requires collaboration — the benefits of which Sam Brady (JD ’23) says he saw while supporting the facilitation of breakout discussion of the summit. This past year, Brady served as a co-coordinator for the COVID-19 Housing Eviction Project, an effort of Wake Forest Law’s Pro Bono Project in which students created pro se tenant and practitioner manuals detailing the eviction process in North Carolina to help people stay housed in light of the eviction moratorium. Many of the students who participated in the summit have also been involved in the more than a dozen Pro Bono Project efforts available to Wake Forest Law students.

“You can get as far down a path as you can go where you feel like you’ve explored it from every perspective, but getting people who had devoted a lot of their professional lives to this subject from one perspective together in a room to hear it from the other person’s perspective seemed to unlock so much more possibility,” said Brady.

The mission of Wake Forest Law is to advance the cause of justice by creating knowledge and educating students to meet the legal needs of the world with confidence, character, and creativity. We instill in students a respect for the law, a devotion to the ideal of service, and a commitment to professional values. We educate students from around the world in a richly diverse, equitable, and inclusive community. Learn more at, and stay up to date on what’s happening in the Wake Forest Law community by following us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Wake Forest Law student Henna Shah (JD ’21) stands in the Worrell Professional Center Commons.

Wake Forest Law student Henna Shah receives Smith Anderson Pro Bono Award for Exceptional Service

Wake Forest University School of Law student Henna Shah (JD ’21) has been chosen as the recipient of the 2021 Smith Anderson Pro Bono Award for Exceptional Service in recognition of her outstanding pro bono service to the Winston-Salem community. Now in its seventh year, the award is given annually to a Wake Forest Law student who demonstrates a passion to serve people in need, and whose pro bono service has a positive impact on the community and increases access to legal information.

Shah provided nearly 600 hours of pro bono work while a full-time student at Wake Forest Law, where she has also served as the executive director of the Pro Bono Project, community outreach director of the Public Interest Law Organization, president of the International Law Society, communications director of the Environmental Law Society and a member of the editorial staff of the Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy.

“Pro bono work is absolutely essential, and Henna’s work is reflective of Wake Forest University School of Law’s commitment to instilling its importance in each of our graduates so that they will continue to help those in need throughout their law careers,” said Wake Forest Law Dean Jane Aiken. “Henna sets an exceptional example of leadership for all of our students.”

The Triangle’s largest law firm, Smith Anderson, funded the establishment of the Smith Anderson Office of Community Outreach at Wake Forest Law, which houses the Public Interest Law Organization — a student-run organization that works in collaboration with Wake Forest Law to train future lawyers to serve both their clients and their communities — and the Pro Bono Project. Through the Pro Bono Project, students have the opportunity to provide assistance to attorneys who offer legal services at no fee or at a substantially reduced fee to individuals in need, fostering a life-long commitment to pro bono work among Wake Forest Law graduates.

“Pro bono work has taken on an added significance in the past year,” said Gerald Roach, Smith Anderson’s Firm Chair and Wake Forest University Board of Trustees’ Chair. “The pandemic created many needs, and Smith Anderson applauds Henna’s extraordinary dedication to serving others in these extraordinary times.”

In her application for the award, Shah described how the pro bono experiences she has had while at Wake Forest Law have been pivotal in her decision to pursue a career focused on pro bono work.

Of her time leading the Pro Bono Project, Shah said the experience she was most fond of was creating the Protesters’ Rights Project, which seeks to develop awareness around the legal rights of assembly and protest while building connections between law students and the community. In addition to that project, multiple others were established during her leadership, including the COVID-19 Unemployment Insurance Project, the COVID-19 Housing Eviction Project and the Driver’s License Restoration Project.

“During law school, I had the privilege of serving my community through pro bono legal work and services both in and outside of the courtroom,” said Shah. “It is an honor to be named the recipient of the 2021 Smith Anderson Pro Bono Award for Exceptional Service.”

Eligible candidates for the Smith Anderson Pro Bono Award for Exceptional Service must:

  • Be a Pro Bono Honor Society member, which requires students to complete 75 hours of pro bono service over a three-year period or 50 hours in one year;
  • Have 100 or more pro bono hours within three years or 75 hours or more within one year; and
  • Exhibit passion, creativity, dedication and commitment to serving those in need in a way that results in demonstrated impact or increased access to legal information among an underserved population.

For more details about the award, contact Bill Cresenzo, Communications and PR Coordinator for Smith Anderson, at or Amelia Nitz Kennedy, Director of Marketing, Communications and Public Relations for Wake Forest Law, at

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