Georgia State University selected the Center for Access to Justice’s Pro Bono Program to receive the 2018 Carl V. Patton President’s Award for Community Service and Social Justice: Outstanding University Program Award.
Launched in August 2017, the Pro Bono Program connects students with volunteer opportunities to address low-income people’s unmet legal needs. To date, more than 64 students have volunteered for 240 shifts, providing an estimated 720 hours of pro bono service under the supervision of practicing attorneys in the nonprofit, public and private sectors. In addition to regular volunteer opportunities, students can participate in the program’s Alternative Spring Break and spend a week learning about a substantive access to justice issue, such eviction defense or immigration detention, while engaging in pro bono service.
“We are thrilled that the Center for Access to Justice’s Pro Bono Program has received the Outstanding University Program Award,” said Lauren Sudeall Lucas, founding faculty director of the center and associate professor of law. “The fact that the program has been recognized so early in its existence is a testament to the vision and hard work of all of those involved in its launch and operation, including assistant director Darcy Meals, student pro bono director Andrew Navratil, student class representatives, and of course all of the student volunteers.”
Lucas said they also are extremely grateful to the organizations that have partnered with the program, including Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Veteran’s Clinic and the Housing Court Assistance Center.
Payal K. Kapoor, managing attorney for the Health Law Unit at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, has partnered with the Pro Bono Program on a variety of projects, including three this spring.
“The creativity and imagination of the Pro Bono Program was so successful on our project last fall that there was a resounding excitement to continue the program in the spring,” Kapoor said.
Through the partnership with Atlanta Legal Aid Society, students volunteer in the Family Law Information Center at Fulton County Court, assisting pro se parties with form pleadings – ranging from paternity establishment to child support. Through the Estate Planning & Senior Hotline Project, students help senior citizens and their caregivers complete estate-planning questionnaires, draft simple estate plans and execute power of attorney documents. For the Health Law Unit, students offer guidance on estate planning to clients affected by HIV/AIDS, cancer and ALS.
“What is most heartwarming is that these law students are volunteering their spare time to assist an underserved Atlanta population. They are not doing this because the State Bar suggested they take on pro bono hours or for course credit. They are doing this because they want to serve our clients,” Kapoor said. “The students have displayed a level of maturity and professionalism that has been quite impressive. Our collaboration makes the work we do possible.”
Andrew J. Thompson, supervising staff attorney at the Fulton County Superior Court’s Housing Court Assistance Center (HCAC), has worked with the program to help renters facing eviction or enduring poor housing conditions. Students interview tenants, enter data and record case results, and perform other tasks that help the HCAC serve its clients.
“The HCAC has saved hundreds of Atlanta’s most vulnerable from homelessness and judgments that could impact their long-term prospects for housing, and helped secure representation for tenants with claims against landlords,” Thompson said. “I can say with absolute certainty that this would not be possible without the Center for Access to Justice’s support. The bright, energetic and hard-working student volunteers are the backbone of what makes the HCAC accessible for all. Not only does the program help address immediate client needs, it is also actively involved with finding public policy solutions to legal issues that low-income individuals face. I simply could not handle the hundreds of tenants the HCAC serves without the program’s support.”
Navratil (J.D. ’18) oversees the program as student director, recruiting and managing student volunteers, developing projects, and facilitating the program’s relationships with partnering organizations.
“We have been very well-received by the legal community. Our partners consistently praise the professionalism and dedication of our student volunteers. I am very proud of all of our success, particularly that we have engaged a diverse range of student volunteers across all class years, the full and part-time programs, and LL.M.s,” Navratil said.
“The Pro Bono Program is successful because of the commitment of our partner legal organizations, the dedication and service ethic of participating law students, the endorsement of the Georgia State Law administration, and the advocacy of our class coordinators: McKinley Anderson (J.D. ’18), Thomaesa Bailey (J.D. ’19) and Lina Machado (J.D. ’20). While we all play a role, Darcy and professor Lucas offer tireless support and dedication – providing the institutional support, structure and leadership to ensure the Pro Bono Program is a lasting institution that will grow, endure and thrive for many years in the future,” he continued.
The Outstanding University Program Award is a testament to the work the Pro Bono Program is providing within the community. Instilling in students the desire to serve others and seek social justice is one of the program’s primary goals.
“Having the Pro Bono Program on campus is critical to emphasize that, as lawyers, we have a responsibility to use the skills we learn in law school to help those who would otherwise have limited or no access to the legal system,” said Meals. “We hope that the program fosters a commitment to pro bono work that will remain with the students after graduation and as they begin their legal careers.”
Georgia State will formally recognize the Pro Bono Program, along with other award nominees and organizations doing outstanding community outreach work, at the Service Recognition ceremony Monday, April 16.