Liz Thomas learned the value of community service at an early age. She grew up volunteering with her family at multiple organizations to educate communities and provide outreach for families with children with autism. When she arrived at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law three years ago, she knew she wanted to find a new outlet to continue working in the community with underserved individuals.
The College of Law’s Pro Bono Initiative (PBI) quickly became Thomas’ new outlet for community service, but her position changed as her views on the legal field developed. PBI is a unique volunteer program that allows students to build real world problem-solving skills while providing free legal advice to individuals that otherwise would fall through the cracks of the justice system. 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 provide pro bono legal services to the individuals within the community.
When Thomas discovered the law school’s pro bono volunteer opportunities, she said she found her niche.
“When I got to law school I felt completely lost not being able to work with clients during our first semester. When we were finally able to start applying our limited knowledge during my second semester, I knew I’d found the type of work I wanted to be part of for the rest of my life,” she said. “Through PBI, I learned about client-interaction, applied my legal knowledge to real-world situations, and connected with some of the most talented attorneys in Salt Lake.”
After her first clinic, Thomas was hooked and began volunteering with every available PBI clinic during her first year. PBI currently provides 10 free legal clinics throughout Salt Lake City and Ogden, including: American Indian Law; Debtors Counseling; Expungement; Family Law; Medical-Legal; Rainbow Law; Street Law; and Community Legal Clinics that specialize in immigration.
The clinics operate year-round and are run by student directors, staffed by student volunteers, and supervised by local attorneys. PBI also pairs students with practitioners in various placements, including law firms, where students assist on pro bono matters. Thomas was a regular at the Community Legal Clinics in Salt Lake City and Ogden, logging more than 300 volunteer hours on top of handling a challenging course load.
Thomas —who excelled as a volunteer through PBI –will be recognized May 1 at the Utah State Bar’s Law Day celebration, where she will receive the Pro Bono Publico Award, given to a law student in Utah who demonstrates outstanding commitment to volunteer legal services for disadvantaged populations in the community.
“Ms. Thomas has not only helped expand and secure pro bono services in Salt Lake and Ogden, but she has had a major effect on human rights worldwide while in law school by her volunteer work with the South African Human Rights Commission and other human rights-based organizations,” said JoLynn Spruance, director of the law school’s Pro Bono Initiative, said of Thomas.
“Liz has been a champion for the underserved in our community and she has shown this by large and small examples in her connection to clients and by her commitment to the law school and the Pro Bono Office specifically,” Spruance said.
Professor Erika George, who wrote a letter of support for Thomas to receive the award, said Thomas has been a standout student for a number of reasons. Thomas has been actively involved in service to the broader human rights community in volunteering her time at Human Rights Watch and also served as president of the law school’s International Law Society.
“Liz has been a strong student leader because she is able to balance her commitments and she approaches problems with an intelligence and sensitivity that yields creative solutions. She is a pleasure to work with interpersonally, and is extremely hard working. Liz’s self-direction is a key attribute. For example, she worked with me on researching novel issues involving international human rights law where the law is unsettled. Her intellectual curiosity has served her well and she is creative in her approach to precisely the sorts of issues central to nonprofit law,” said George. “Liz combines independence and intellect with compassion and concern for others in a way that makes her well suited to work in a field that requires respect for difference and the capacity to deconstruct complicated issues.”
Professor Amos Guiora, who selected her to be a part of the college’s Jessup International Law Moot Court Team, echoed praise for Thomas as an impressive student with a tireless work ethic.
“I was particularly impressed by her commitment, dedication, and willingness to work with teammates in a collegial, supportive manner,” said Guiora. “There is no doubt her efforts contributed to the team’s success.”
Professor Robin Craig, who also wrote a letter of support for Thomas to receive the award, echoed other praise, stating it’s clear Thomas will spend much of her career fighting for others.
“She cares passionately about helping those in need of her ever-increasing legal expertise. I predict that most of her career will revolve around defending—with minimal to no pay—human rights around the world, particularly with respect to the expected increasing numbers of refugees displaced from their homes by climate change impacts, whether in the South Pacific, or in response to the desertification of Africa, or closer to home as a result of changing water supplies,” said Craig.
Thomas said she pursued going to law school to learn how to advocate for those without the power, knowledge, or ability to fight for their rights within the justice system.
“In becoming a lawyer, I hope to use my understanding of the system to help others protect their rights,” she said.
She knew the University of Utah was the right law school for her when she learned it was one of the only schools in the U.S. where she could specialize in international environmental law. Professors have given her advice, courage, support and understanding along the way and she’s now poised for a new chapter after graduation. She said she’s grateful the law school offered her a personal experience while she worked to achieve her goals.
“That’s something that S.J. Quinney College of Law has that most other schools can’t compare to; a faculty that knows their students on a personal level and that are willing to support those students well beyond the classroom,” said Thomas. “Right now, I’m planning on taking the New York Bar and looking for international human-rights based work in New York City. Based on the past three years, I know I will be well prepared for whatever the future may hold.”