By Suzi Morales
It’s a weekday evening at the University Neighborhood Partners Hartland Partnership Center. A handful of women, many with young children in tow, sit in a semi-circle. The women are all immigrants. Several of them have come out of abusive relationships; some are refugees. They are all eligible for U.S. citizenship, and taking a civics test is part of the application process. So on this evening, as they share their stories and the children play with Play-Doh, the women study civics.
Despite all that the women have been through, the room is filled with laughter and energy. In the middle of the group, teaching about who was the first president of the U.S. and how many amendments are in the Constitution, is S.J. Quinney College of Law student Abby Philips, a volunteer with the law school’s Pro Bono Initiative (“PBI”).
PBI provides brief legal consultations on topics like family law, housing, and employment, as well as periodical legal-adjacent services like this citizenship class, a temporary offering over the summer of 2022. Each of 13 current PBI sites, staffed by student and attorney volunteers, covers a specific area of law. The sites are located at Salt Lake City-area community centers as well as some remote sites.
During a two-hour window one or two weeknights per month, volunteers give legal advice on simple issues, refer people to firms and legal services organizations, and provide other information and resources. Student directors run the logistics for each site, like appointment scheduling and volunteer coordination. In addition to noncredit volunteers, PBI supports a few student fellows per year with a stipend and tuition reimbursement.
New director rebuilding after pandemic
For the past year, Caisa Royer has been the director of PBI. She has helped regenerate the initiative after pandemic shutdowns and has grown community partnerships. Royer established a PBI employment site in conjunction with the Utah Employment Lawyers Association and a housing site with People’s Legal Aid. Currently, she is in talks with the Utah Department of Corrections to provide on-location services to incarcerated people.
“[Royer] has come in and truly understood the law school, has worked to understand the Salt Lake legal community, and then has taken that information and now started scaling our work in a way that’s been so inspiring to me and that I hope I can bring into any legal position,” says 3L Jessica Arthurs, Rocky Rognlie Fellow and student director of street law. (Street Law is a catch-all designation for legal issues including housing, employment, and more.)
“Better than a job interview”
Alumna Ana Flores (Class of 2021) selected S.J. Quinney for law school because of PBI. Flores’ parents came to the U.S. from Mexico on tourist visas and eventually overstayed the visas. For years, their immigration status was uncertain before they became U.S. citizens when she was around ten years old. “I was little when all that was happening, but I was old enough to understand that something was up,” Flores recalls. “I could see a lot of like hushed conversations. … There was always a little bit of fear and anxiety in the household when certain things would happen that I didn’t really understand until now [were] because of their legal status.”
Flores was interested in becoming a lawyer from an early age, but “as I got older, [I didn’t think] that was actually going to be realistic for someone like me and where I came from, and who my parents were.” The dream was rekindled when she was on staff at Holy Cross Ministries in Salt Lake City, working with immigrants and immigration attorneys.
It was around that time that Flores first heard about PBI and knew it was something she wanted to do. In the spring of her 1L year, she began volunteering with PBI’s immigration site, eventually becoming its director. Through PBI, she met attorney volunteers who worked at the local law firm Anderson and Benson. She clerked with the firm after her 2L year and is now an associate. She continues to volunteer with PBI.
“[PBI] is better than a job interview because they get to see you in action,” says Flores.
While PBI often draws students who are already interested in a specific area of law, Royer emphasizes that volunteers aren’t expected to be experts. New student volunteers are matched with experienced students, and all students are supervised by attorney volunteers.
Reclaiming the joy
When Royer speaks about PBI, she repeatedly uses a word that’s not often associated with legal services: joy. She says part of her job in re-building after the pandemic has been “reclaiming the joy of going out … and doing some community service.” It’s also the joy that the women in the citizenship class shared.
Now that most PBI sites are back in person, Royer is looking to the future. Along with increasing volunteers and providing services in more venues and subject matters, she wants to help volunteers have a fulfilling experience.
“I think [joy] isn’t a word that a lot of people in the legal field use,” she notes. “Candidly, the work is hard. You need to find spaces where the work is fulfilling, the work gives back to you as much as you’re giving into it. … For me, [PBI] is the space that gives back to me. It’s the space that creates fulfillment. And I think when you’re in a space like that, it’s joyful.”
The Pro Bono Initiative is raising money in honor of National Pro Bono Week. All funds will support PBI’s brief legal advice programs, allowing law students to gain important legal skills and give back to the local community.