Student-Run Pro Bono Program Connects Students to Service Opportunities
On Monday mornings during the fall semester, Ali Grant (J.D. ’18) interviews clients affected by HIV/AIDS, cancer, and ALS to prepare an estate plan. On Wednesdays, Jessica Hunt (J.D. ’19) and Monica Bai (J.D. ’19) assist tenants with answers to dispossessory proceedings. Throughout the week, students like Adriana Heffley (J.D. ’19) prepare motions requesting bond for immigrants detained at Stewart Detention Center.
Grant, Hunt, Bai and Heffley are among the 33 students who collectively have contributed more than 200 hours of free legal services to low-income individuals through the College of Law’s Pro Bono Program. This student-led initiative of the Center for Access to Justice connects law students with 10 different meaningful pro bono service opportunities at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, the Housing Court Assistance Center (HCAC), the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the GSU Law Volunteer Clinic for Veterans.
“My classmates bring their enthusiasm, desire to serve, and budding legal skills to our partner organizations,” said Andrew Navratil (J.D. ’18), Pro Bono Program student director. “Our partner organizations provide meaningful learning opportunities under the supervision of licensed attorneys.”
With the assistance of class coordinators McKinley Anderson (J.D. ’18), Thomaesa Bailey (J.D. ’19) and Lina Machado (J.D. ’20), Navratil recruits student volunteers and identifies service opportunities.
Grant volunteers with Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s Health Law Unit, where she helps clients fill out estate planning questionnaires. “Every client I have assisted has been so appreciative and kind,” she said. “Giving clients the slightest piece of mind about their estate has been incredibly rewarding for me, and I hope to continue volunteering in the future.”
Hunt and Bai volunteer with the Housing Court Assistance Center, where they help tenants respond to dispossessory complaints.
“For many, an eviction notice equates to imminent homelessness,” said HCAC staff attorney Andrew Thompson. “Students have the opportunity to meet with and assist individuals and families that receive an eviction notice. Often, they are the last line of defense. Students help real people in profound, life-altering ways by meeting with them for half an hour—sometimes less.”
Students unable to participate in the Pro Bono Program during the work day because of employment, family, and other obligations can volunteer with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative.
Heffley spent two weeks connecting with a detained immigrant’s family to learn details about his life and collect supporting documentation. Then with guidance from Carolina Antonini (J.D. ’96), adjunct professor, Heffley drafted a motion requesting bond.
“As an evening student, I’m extremely grateful to the Pro Bono Program for connecting students with a project that can be completed remotely,” Heffley said. “SPLC’s bond project is invaluable to our community—with representation, detained immigrants are far likelier to receive bond than detainees without attorneys.”
The Pro Bono Program launched in August and plans to expand to include more projects and more student volunteers this spring.
“Nothing like this existed when I started at the College of Law,” said Erin Haire (J.D. ’18), the Public Interest Law Association president. “I had to seek out pro bono organizations and opportunities on my own.”
The American Bar Association and the Georgia Bar Association encourage lawyers to commit at least 50 hours of pro bono service each year. Accordingly, the College of Law honors students with pro bono and public service distinction at graduation. Students who serve 50, 100, and 150 hours graduate with distinction, with high distinction, and with highest distinction, respectively.
“We hope that the Pro Bono Program is a means of instilling in students a desire to give of their time and legal expertise throughout their careers, starting with their first year in law school,” said Darcy Meals, assistant director of the Center for Access to Justice and faculty supervisor of the Pro Bono Program. “With the number of service opportunities growing and student interest continuing to expand, the program seems to be doing just that.”