A call to action: law students serve the community through pro bono work

Sarah Osborn, Ellen McKean, Natalie Smith

Left to Right: Sarah Osborn, Ellen McKean, Natalie Smith

Oregon Law has a long history of dedication to public service. In a year with a global pandemic and remote learning – that hasn’t changed. The law school recently reported that during the 2019-2020 academic year, 45 students logged 3,996 hours of pro bono work.

Jennifer Geller, managing director of the Public Law and Policy Program, says that the law school promotes a culture of pro bono and encourages all students to do at least 40 hours of pro bono during their legal studies.

She also points out that this year students volunteered with 39 local, state, and national organizations. Combined savings for these organizations conservatively total more than $60,000, according to Geller.

"Our students provide volunteer hours to a myriad of organizations that serve individuals who otherwise would not have access to justice,” said Geller. “Students can arrange their own pro bono or volunteer for one of the ongoing opportunities with local nonprofits.”

Sarah Osborn, a third-year law student, reported 508 pro bono hours, the most among her peers. She says that legal education plays an important role in socializing the next generation of lawyers, judges, and policymakers.

Osborn volunteered for the Northwest Workers Justice Project and served as a student leader with the St. Vincent De Paul Renter Education program.

In addition to her pro bono work, Osborn was the 2019-20 Hans Linde Fellow, managing editor of the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation, a competing member of the Moot Court Board, and board member at-large of the National LGBT Bar Law Student Congress.

“As law students, we have an obligation to develop good habits of providing legal assistance to those who are most vulnerable,” Osborn said. “Pro bono work is our collective professional responsibility.”

This fall, Oregon Law initiated a new effort with Springfield Eugene Tenants Association (SETA) to train law students to answer their Tenants Hotline. The effort meets an expected rise in housing related legal issues at a time when some of Oregon Law's usual pro bono efforts are on hold because of COVID-19.

McKean, a first-year law student, volunteers with SETA. In this role, McKean works on the hotline and provides information about issues related to housing. McKean, who is also a first-year representative with the Oregon Law Student Public Interest Fund (OLSPIF), says that pro bono is important to her because it reminds her of the reasons she came to law school.

“In our community, there is a tremendous gap between the need for legal services and the ability to access those services,” McKean said. “Pro bono advocacy equips members of our community with the tools and resources to realize better outcomes for themselves and their families. As a law student, the opportunity to engage with and advocate for our community enriches my understanding of the legal field and connects me to the Eugene area.”

Natalie Smith, a third-year law student, worked for Wills for the Underserved, an Oregon Law program created by Professor Emeritus Susan Gary. Through the program, students are paired with a local attorney and a client to assist seniors and low-income individuals with their basic estate planning needs. Smith says that she enjoyed the program so much last year that she returned a second year and currently serves as the Estate Planning Fellow. Now, she helps other students find pro bono opportunities within the program.

She also volunteered for the UO Law Remote Learning Taskforce, spearheaded by Professor Jennifer Reynolds. The Remote Learning Taskforce helps professors and staff navigate the transition to remote learning.

Pro bono is important to me because everyone should have an advocate in their corner who wants to help them - money shouldn’t prevent this,” Smith said. “No one should have to decide between getting legal help or putting food on the table.”

A sample of 2019-20 organizations, clinics, and nonprofits

1000 Friends of Oregon, Access the Law, Advocates for the West, Al Otro Lado, Cascadia Wildlands, Civil Liberties Defense Center, Domestic Violence Clinic, Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, Environmental Law Foundation, Eugene Community Court, Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Grupo Latino de Acción Directa of Lane County, Know Your IX,  Northwest Workers' Justice Project, Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, Senior Law Service, Sponsors, Inc., Springfield Eugene Tenant Association, St. Vincents Second-Chance Renter Rehabilitation Program, Voz and Wills for the Underserved

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