TYLA eNews | By Trish McAllister, TAJC Executive Director
Forget the beaches – dozens of Texas law students now spend their spring break volunteering to help others.
For the last two years, Pro Bono Spring Break harnessed the energy of student lawyers to support legal aid offices in underserved areas of the state. The gain for these students is two-fold: the satisfaction of helping low-income Texans in need of legal assistance and the hands-on experience that turns student lawyers into working attorneys.
In its third year, pro bono spring break has grown from 49 students in 2013 to more than 80 applicants and a waiting list this year. Placements are offered in both urban and rural settings and all expenses are paid.
These efforts benefit hundreds of low-income clients each year, and students who participate describe the experience as invaluable.
“What struck me was that everyone coming in truly needed help,” said Michael Gardner, a Texas A&M University law student. “The attorneys didn't simply turn people away without providing some level of immediate assistance… I came away convinced that I'd enjoy doing the work they did.”
Those who cannot participate in the spring break program – or who desire a deeper commitment – can apply for the Access to Justice Internship Program.
The experience is similar; participants work with non-profit providers of civil legal aid and are supervised by accomplished lawyers. They provide direct legal services to low-income clients while receiving training and mentorship. The internship is offered over the summer or during two school semesters and has been expanded this year to include both urban and rural placements.
Each supervising attorney provides their law students with a variety of experiences and assignments, including significant research and writing.
When Yvette Perez, a Texas Tech University law student, worked with the South Texas Civil Rights Project for her internship, she learned that “zealously fighting for clients” can be about more than solving an individual’s problems – it can bring equality to the state’s most vulnerable communities.
“Attorneys possess the power to make a difference in their community because of the knowledge they possess,” Perez said. “Without organizations like the South Texas Civil Rights Project and attorneys willing to use their talents to help others, people… would fall in the cracks of the justice system.
More than 5.6 million Texans qualify for legal aid, but only 20 percent of them get it. Law schools and their students can make a life-changing difference in the lives of veterans, domestic violence victims and low-income families by increasing the number of people who receive help. Visit www.texasatj.org/law-schools for more information and direct law students you know to one of these signature programs.
Trish McAllister is the Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission and has over 20 years of experience in the access to justice field. Prior to joining the Commission, she served as the Executive Director of Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, a non-profit pro bono legal service provider.