Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: “A Few Steps to a Fulfilling Journey in Pro Bono Work”
Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.
This week, the 2014-15 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. (This year’s Pro Bono Publico Award recipient, Alex Dutton, will publish his blog next week when he receives his award.) Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Southwestern Law School student Alexander Gamez, an advocate for undocumented immigrant children who recruited an unprecedented number of students to volunteer for the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, and without whom Esperanza believes it “would not have been able to respond to the surge of demand for legal screenings for unaccompanied children.”
How a Few Steps Can Lead to a Fulfilling Journey in Pro Bono Work
Alexander Gamez, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2014-2015 (Southwestern Law School)–
Attorneys and law students alike put in an obscene number of work hours week in-week out. The legal profession’s insatiable demand can make us frantic, cold, and exhausted, with little or no time for anything else once we are done with our work. With this in mind, many of us ask, how is it possible for me to get involved in pro bono work? Empathetic individuals who desire to do pro bono work may often find themselves conflicted when confronted with the task of striking a balance between their work and pro bono work. But have no fear! To ease this anxiety I propose the following six simple steps that have allowed me to find a healthy balance between my school/work obligations and pro bono opportunities.
Step 1. Realize & Prioritize. Pro bono work does not take up as much time as you would think. This of course varies with the sort of volunteer work you do, but in my experience volunteering may take one to three hours at a time. To put it in perspective, there are 168 hours in a week. Taking three hours out of a week once every few weeks or even once a month will not have much of an impact on your time. It will, however, have a tremendous impact on a client/applicant in need. Thus, I feel it is necessary to accept that volunteering does not have to be immensely time consuming and to make those occasional few hours of volunteering a priority. Are you extremely busy? I suggest being more productive during the times you set aside to do your work, i.e., stay away from social media. I also find it helpful to reward myself if I am able to accomplish the tasks I have set within a block of time, i.e., I get to watch a show on Netflix or have ice cream if I finish my work before 10:30.
Step 2. Volunteer with Friends. Probably the most difficult part of getting involved in pro bono work is actually signing up. In Los Angeles, there are plenty of nonprofits and a huge population of individuals that are in dire need of assistance so the issue isn’t really finding opportunities, it’s actually committing to them. It’s easy to say you’re going to sign up for a volunteer opportunity but once you take that bold step and confirm with an organization you’re going to volunteer, it’s almost as if there is no turning back because a no show may put your reputation in jeopardy.
When I began considering doing public interest work, this initial step was certainly the most difficult thing for me because of the angst I had relating to my other obligations with school. But, I found that by signing up with friends who have similar obligations, the volunteering process seemed effortless. Not only did we make a commitment to the organization, but we also made unspoken commitments to each other that we would not back out. If they could do it I could do it. By volunteering with friends you will reduce the anxiety of going into this alone and will also bring in more people to do pro bono work. Everybody wins!
Step 3. Lose the Ego. Okay, so I’m signed up, I have attended the training, and I am on my way to volunteer. Once this realization hits, anxiety pours over me. Doubts begin to surface: do I even have time to volunteer? Did I prepare enough beforehand? Should I look at the training material again? Is my Spanish up to par? Will I be able to help the client? Do I know where I’m going?
Although I have these thoughts because I want to ensure I do a good job for the applicant/client, I have come to find they are egoistic. Here I am on the verge of an anxiety attack but I never took a step back to think about the applicant/client’s concerns. In the context of interviewing unaccompanied minors facing the possibility of deportation, many of these individuals’ ages range from 6 to 18 years old. They’re children. Not only are they children but in most cases they’re thousands of miles away from their families, have been subjected to unimaginable circumstances such as sexual assault, trafficking, and near death experiences.
Like most other law students, I have lived a life of comfort compared to the person I am assisting. When this realization hits, ego goes right out the window and I gain composure. In this context it is integral that volunteers convey strength and compassion to the youths. This will instill confidence and trust in the person you are assisting which will result in them providing you with the necessary information to obtain their legal relief.
Step 5. Reflect & Repeat. It is by taking part in pro bono work that one comes to appreciate humanity and becomes determined that more must be done to ensure that humanity persists. After I complete my pro bono assignments I am humbled, distressed, and yet gratified because, despite the troubles my pro bono clients/applicants have endured, troubles which I will never fully understand, they still have the courage to share their stories and share laughs and tears with complete strangers like myself in the hopes that I will help them find some sort of legal reprieve. I just imagine what the client would do had our services not been there. They would not stand a chance. Knowing that I was there to let them know that someone is willing to listen to their story, show them they are not insignificant, and that they are human beings brings me hope. This is what drives me to come back and volunteer again.
Step 6. Surround Yourself with a Support Group. The ability to participate in pro bono work becomes even more realistic if you’re surrounded by an amazing support group. I have been tremendously fortunate to have professors that have motivated, encouraged and found ways for me to get involved with pro bono work. Moreover, I have an amazing fiancée who also supports me every step of the way and has also done pro bono work alongside me and on her own. Lastly, I have friends inside and outside of law school who have been incredibly understanding when my law related activities have kept me away. This group’s support was and continues to be a vital force in my pro bono work.
By following these six steps my law school pro bono experience been tremendously satisfying. If you’ve ever had any qualms about finding a balance between school/work obligations and taking advantage of pro bono opportunities I hope these six steps will quash those concerns and lead you on a fulfilling journey in pro bono work.