Law student Daniel Surfass finds passion for public defense with pro bono work

When Daniel Surfass began law school in 2016, he wasn’t sure what career path he wanted to follow. He just knew that he wanted to help people.

“I wanted to make some sort of impact,” he said. “A lot of people see lawyers as being the bad guy, and I wanted to break that stereotype and be the good guy.”

It didn’t take long for Surfass to find ways to be the “good guy”. During his first year of law school, he began participating in the S.J. Quinney College of Law’s Pro Bono Initiative, a program that allows students to volunteer their time to help communities in need at 12 different legal clinics.

Daniel Surfass, a 3L at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, has volunteered extensively through his time in law school to help clients through the Pro Bono Initiative program.

“I always looked forward to the hours I spent in the pro bono clinics,” said Surfass, now in his third year of law school. “It was the one chance to get out of reading books all day and actually see someone benefit from the work you’re doing.”

Even with a busy law student schedule, Surfass made time to stay involved in the community with pro bono work. He spent time working with people who were transitioning from foster care to adult life. He also worked with the Kid’s Court program, where he taught elementary and middle school students about the legal field and judicial system.

While Surfass has participated in several pro bono clinics and programs, he particularly enjoyed working with the Homeless Outreach Project. For nearly a year, he would spend his Sunday mornings in Liberty Park providing legal advice (or even just a listening ear) to anyone who needed it.

“Doing homeless outreach has really opened my eyes to the struggles that people have,” he said. “It’s like, don’t judge a book by its cover, you know? A lot of people seem to look down on homeless people, as if it’s all their fault that they’re in that situation. But people have problems and struggles that you don’t even know about.”

Surfass credits pro bono work for steering him towards his desired career path as a public defender.

“I’m working at the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association right now, and I really love the idea that you can’t turn anyone away,” he said. “You are appointed, you are here to represent them, and you’re going to give them their constitutional right to an attorney.”

Surfass has gotten some pushback from family members, who question why he would want to be a public defender.

“A lot of these people don’t have anyone on their side,” he said. “They have no one, not even their families. And I just want to be there to help them and do what I can for them. Obviously I can’t make the final decision, but I’m here to fight for them as much as I possibly can.”