Utah Law’s Student Bar Association ready for fresh start after COVID-19

Nov 03, 2022 | Students

It’s just past noon on a Wednesday. A handful of students trickle in to the bright and airy room on the second floor of the S.J. Quinney College of Law, casually chatting about their classes and study time.

The meeting is called to order, and the nine law students start discussing talking points from the recent Utah Law Board of Trustees meeting and possible bands for the Barrister’s Ball (a springtime event often referred to as “law school prom”).

This is the weekly meeting of the Utah Law Student Bar Association, the student government made up of elected representatives from each of the three classes within the law school. Led by SBA President Jessica Arthurs, this group represents students to the college’s administration, plans social events and service projects, serves as a voice for their fellow classmates, and more.

The student leaders in the SBA have some big plans for this school year – they feel the time is right to take the Student Bar Association to the next level in community-building and advocacy, all while leaving a legacy behind for future student leaders.

Building community after a time of isolation

Like the rest of the world, the College of Law had to shift to a virtual format in March of 2020 in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law school is not just a place of learning, it’s a place of community – a place where lifelong friendships and connections can start. And the Zoom meetups and virtual classes made necessary by the pandemic weren’t quite cutting it.

“We lost a big part of our law school experience to the pandemic,” said Michelle James, SBA secretary. But with the world returning to normal and everyone craving that type of community they missed out on over the past two years, the members of the Student Bar Association knew they had a chance for a fresh start.

“COVID-19 has shown everyone how important social activities are to overall mental wellbeing,” said Callen Aten, SBA treasurer. “Law school is a very demanding pursuit in that it drains you constantly. I think it’s important for SBA to be providing opportunities for people to have healthy and fun outlets, so that they are in the best mental health that they can be in.”

Some law students already have a local community to rely on outside of the law school. But others, like Event Coordinator Shelby Stender, come from out of state. That’s why she makes an effort to plan events that will attract people of different ages, interests, and places in life within the law school.

“I think law school is a particularly isolating experience,” Stender said. “The specific workload requires dead silence to focus and study. So having something to look forward to is really important to me personally.”

2L Representative Carter Moore facilitates a game for his fellow law students at the Back to School Carnival.

The ultimate goal of events like the Back to School Carnival, held this past August, is to build community among the law students.

“One of our biggest goals is to try and create a space where students feel comfortable coming together and interacting with their fellow students,” Arthurs said. “Regardless of their interest in the law, regardless of what kind of background they come from, we want to unify the student body.”

And this idea of community isn’t limited to the three years spent in law school. Members of the Student Bar Association recognize that the foundation laid during law school can grow into something bigger as these future lawyers dive into their legal careers.

“The students that we share the law school with right now are going to be future colleagues, or future opposing council,” said 2L Representative Carter Moore. “Fostering that community now is going to make for a better legal community in the future.”

The students at the S.J. Quinney College of Law have varied backgrounds, bringing different perspectives, strengths, and talents to the student body. Brooke Porter Coles, the SBA communications director, recognizes that learning and growing together is one of the greatest parts of the law school community.

“Apart from the knowledge that we gain in law school, the one other thing that we get to take with us is the community that we’ve built,” Porter Coles said. “It adds value to our lives in a career sense and a personal sense. And hopefully that’s a community that we’ll be a part of for the rest of our lives.” 

Acting as a voice and a resource

The leaders in the Student Bar Association take their titles of “representative” very seriously. They are elected by their fellow students, and they know their classmates are relying on them to be a voice and a resource within the larger law school environment.

Kiersten Vandervelde has a particularly important role as representative for the first-year law students. When first starting law school and not knowing what to expect, having a peer with direct access to more experienced student leaders and college administration is a valuable resource.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, and so it’s really important for them to feel like the administration is listening to them and that there’s an open community to talk to other students and professors,” she said. “As 1L representative, I’ve really tried to talk to lots of different students and be open to any feedback. I try to provide a platform where if something’s going on, they can speak out about it.”

Moore said another important part of his role is serving as a voice if his fellow students need someone to advocate for them to the administration.

The SBA leaders are in the unique position of having the full student experience, while also having a direct line to the school’s administration in their roles as elected representatives. They can spot the problems and concerns their fellow students are having and raise those issues with the leadership at the college.

“We’ve very intentionally built a good relationship with the administration for that to go both ways,” said Porter Coles. “They come to us with concerns or flaws that they see, and we brainstorm ways to help them. And then we do the same in a very collaborative way.”

 The SBA has found the administration helpful and willing to listen.

“We are building a foundation this year, and everything’s not going to be fixed right away,” said SBA Vice President Grace Sponaugle. “But I think it’s a really good stepping stone to have those open and honest conversations and see what we need to do for the future.”

All of the SBA leaders want to emphasize that their door is always open, and they’re always willing to listen to any and all concerns from fellow students.

The SBA leaders, from left to right: Carter Moore, Kiersten Vanderbilt, Hannah Pickett, Brooke Porter Coles, Jessica Arthurs, Callen Atten. BACK: Grace Sponaugle. FRONT: Michelle James NOT PICTURED: Shelby Stender

Leaving a legacy for the future

Many of the student leaders in the SBA are in their last year of law school. But rather than using that as an excuse to take things easy, they are using that as motivation to make things even better for the future.

“I’ve been thinking about what this university has given to me, and what I can give back in return and the legacy that we as 3Ls can leave,” said 3L Representative Hannah Pickett. “I want to help represent the voice of 3Ls to get back some of what we lost and make up for lost time.”

With law school being only three years, the Student Bar Association has constant turnover. New leadership and a steep learning curve can make it difficult to pass the baton to the next student leaders. That’s why Arthurs made it a goal to create sustainable systems that will help future student leaders build upon what the current student government is doing.

Speaking of the future, all members of the SBA speak enthusiastically about being involved, and encourage other law students to consider getting more involved as well.

“SBA exists for students and because of students,” said Porter Coles. “We’re an elected body, so I think it should be as representative as possible of the student body here at SJQ.”

There’s room for all types of personalities within the Student Bar Association, says Arthurs.

“The SBA is an accessible group, and it’s only made better by students who haven’t typically been involved in things like this in the past,” Arthurs said. “I think something that’s unique about our group is that we all come from very different backgrounds. We’re bringing different perspectives. I think SBA is benefited by people who continue to bring their perspectives into it.”



Utah Law Student Bar Association 2022

Jessica Arthurs – President

Grace Sponaugle – Vice President

Michelle James – Secretary

Callen Aten – Treasurer

Shelby Stender – Director of Social Activities

Brooke Porter Coles – Director of Public Relations and Marketing

Hannah Pickett – 3L Representative

Carter Moore – 2L Representative

Kiersten Vandervelde – 1L Representative