Each October, the American Bar Association promotes Pro Bono Week —an annual effort to recognize pro bono service in the legal community. The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law this year again will host several events starting on Oct. 24 to encourage a spirit of volunteerism among students and attorneys, and to recognize those who donate their time and expertise in the community.
The Pro Bono Initiative, or PBI, at the S.J. Quinney College of Law is a unique noncredit volunteer program that allows students to build real world problem-solving skills to serve their community. The program has a three-part mission: to provide skill building legal opportunities under the direct supervision of attorneys; to develop placements where alumni can volunteer, network and serve as mentors to law students; and to demonstrate the professional responsibility of those in the legal profession to provide pro bono legal services to the underserved in the community who otherwise would not have access to the justice system.
“ I believe PBI is a vehicle for each law student to take what they have learned in the classroom and then connect it with real world experience,” said JoLynn Spruance, director of the law school’s Pro Bono Initiative. “PBI gives law students the opportunity to actively use what they are learning in the classroom in real-world situations with the brightest practicing attorneys in the valley. PBI cements their educational experiences together,” she said.
The U’s PBI sponsors nine free brief legal consultation clinics throughout the Salt Lake City and Ogden areas, including: American Indian Law; Debtors Counseling; Expungement; Family Law; Medical-Legal; Rainbow Law; Street Law; Community Legal Clinics.
Clinics operate year-round and are staffed by volunteer students and volunteer lawyer supervisors. PBI also pairs students with practitioners in various placements including law firms, where students assist on pro bono matters, as well as nonprofit organizations and legal-related agencies.
For students, the experience of participating in PBI can be life-changing. In honor of Pro Bono Week, the S.J. Quinney College of Law is highlighting the work of student volunteers. The law school spoke to student Melissa Moeinvaziri
about why she volunteers her time with PBI and how the experience of assisting refugees through one of PBI’s clinics is helping to round out her legal education.
Q: What drew you to the University of Utah?
A: I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. My father is from Iran and my mother is from Portugal. Growing up in an immigrant community shaped my career path prior to and in law school. I began getting involved in community service work, particularly with the refugee community, in high school and never really stopped. My commitment to this community encouraged me to get my undergrad degrees in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Utah. I then worked with local nonprofits for a few years before getting my Master’s degree in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford. I came back to the U for my law degree because Salt Lake City, as well as the S.J. Quinney College of Law is a small, tight-knit and welcoming community. The law school does not have a reputation for cutthroat competition, but rather for collaboration and support. And Salt Lake is a safe haven for all members of the refugee and immigrant community. Finally, where else do you have access to such amazing outdoor beauty and recreation? I love it here.
Q: Why did you decide to go to law school?
A: If I am honest, it was my dad. He has been saying, since I started arguing with him (age 2?), that I need to be a lawyer. And his words stuck. It is something I have always been focused on doing. I took debate and mock trial in high school because of this goal and it influenced the majors I chose in undergrad. But what made me really commit to law school was an organization I worked for during my master’s program. The 80+ year-old, powerhouse academic and anthropologist who ran the organization said that the one thing refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants really need is legal help. Her opinion solidified the decision for me.
Q: You’ve been working with the law school’s Pro Bono Initiative (PBI). How has your experience with PBI shaped your education?
A: The Pro Bono Initiative (PBI) kept me in law school. PBI is what made that demanding schedule doable. If I had not been able to volunteer and meet with real people, with real issues, then I would have lost the reason I came to law school. Because law school is so demanding, I think having that something to hold on to, that purpose is incredibly necessary. PBI runs several free legal advice clinics on a wide range of topics. People from the community who cannot afford legal representation can come to these clinics and get free brief legal advice from volunteer attorneys. During my second year I directed a clinic that was a little less legal, but taught the citizenship material to refugees and immigrants. Now I am a fellow with PBI and in addition to administrative tasks, I will be helping to open and run a new clinic focused on the refugee community.
Q: What are your hopes for a career path following graduation?
A: My long term goal is to aid the refugee and immigrant community. One day I see that being representing clients in their asylum and deportation proceedings. I am open to any opportunity that will hone my skills as an attorney and make me a better advocate. That could be working for the government, a nonprofit, a small immigration firm, or a big firm with an immigration practice. At the moment, I am dedicated to improving skills and am very open to how that happens.
Learn more about the Pro Bono Initiative and events happening at S.J. Quinney for Pro Bono Week starting Oct. 24 by visiting: http://www.law.utah.edu/event/utah-celebrates-pro-bono-3/.