Alternative Spring Break: Pro Bono in the Big Easy

Shannon Lane '18
Guest Contributor

Instead of spending their spring break on vacation or relaxing at home, nine groups of students joined Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trips. The ASB program, run by PILA, facilitates trips to serve for a full week with a public service organization. This year, students contributed over 1,000 pro bono hours to organizations in areas including public defense, children’s rights, immigration, environmental law, and general legal aid work. Students get another line on their resume, but they also have the opportunity to learn about new practice areas, get practical experience, and establish professional connections, all while knowing that the work they do goes a long way towards helping these organizations serve their clients. 

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

The trips were designed to give students a wide variety of options concerning the type of work and the location, and the pre-arranged trips ensure that students are easily able to find pro bono opportunities. Students applied for the program in November and have been preparing for the trips since then as they fundraised and got to know their teams. For those wishing to stay in Charlottesville, both the Legal Aid Justice Center and Central Virginia Legal Aid Society hosted students. Alternatively, students could head to DC to work with the public defender’s office or Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services. Students could also go to Norfolk’s federal public defenders or the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center in Kentucky to work on health and environmental issues.  Other students spent the week doing immigration work with Church World Services in Greensboro, NC, at the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte and at the New Orleans public defender’s office. 

Participants had opportunities to do critical work in interesting areas. The students working with Catholic Charities in DC spent the week trying to get a client’s bond reduced, researching asylum cases, translating legal documents, and working with client intake. I personally spent a large part of my week drafting a brief for an appeal in a minor’s deportation case, which involved researching jurisdiction issues, examining and distinguishing adverse precedent, and looking for multiple avenues to protect our client’s procedural due process rights before the Board of Immigration Appeals. Another group, working with the Council for Children’s Rights, assisted the lawyers there by researching issues, including the role of attorneys assigned for a child’s best interest and how to use litigation to ensure that children can get mental health care and foster care placements. They also had the opportunity to observe several proceedings and were inspired by the dedication to protecting children show by everyone in the legal process. 

The trip to New Orleans to work with the Orleans Public Defenders was by far the largest ASB trip this year. Students were each assigned to work with an attorney and spent the week reviewing body camera footage, working on procedural documents including interrogatories and discovery requests, joined attorneys on jail visits and in the courtroom, and researching anything the attorneys needed. For example, 1L Andrew Papa described his work looking for different ways to exculpate a client, including determining if the client’s Miranda rights were violated, researching possible defenses the attorney could raise, and drafting an investigation report to question witnesses. 

Still, it was spring break, and students made sure they had a good time. After work, students were free to explore their cities and spend time with friends. Students in DC made time for museums. The New Orleans group explored the city’s famous live music and food scenes, and even made it to a Pelicans basketball game. Some students were able to join a trip headed to their hometown. Despite the work involved, it wouldn’t be a spring break trip without some vacation. 

ASB, and pro bono work in general, present unique and valuable opportunities for law students. “What was a means to reach the fifty-hour pro bono requirement to qualify for the New York Bar (hours I had put off so far during law school) turned into so much more. On my first day, I put direct lessons from law school to work. I watched two hours of police body camera footage looking for Fourth Amendment violations. I was able to propose arguments and counterarguments that could potentially lead to the suppression of illegally obtained evidence. Most importantly, I could ensure that a client’s constitutional rights were secured. It felt amazing,” said Gannam Rifkah, a 3L who went on the New Orleans trip. 

As any student who has done pro bono work in law school knows, it gives students a chance to explore new fields, get practical experience, and give back to communities in ways that only lawyers and law students can. With an ASB trip, students can spend a full week immersed in the operations of some incredible public service legal organizations, work closely with staff and other volunteer attorneys, and grow their understanding of the law. As the ASB program grows each year, students will have expanded options and can find just the trip that they are looking for.