Instead of catching up on sleep and the latest Netflix shows during spring break, Anja Minninger (J.D. ’24) worked with advocates to assist survivors of domestic violence as part of the Center for Access to Justice’s Alternative Spring Break.
“The trip re-energized me and reminded me of my purpose for putting so many hours into law school—I want to be able to make an impact,” Minninger said.
Thirty-four students in total participated in one of four learning experiences from March 13-18, 2022. They spent the week immersed in an area of law and putting their skills into practice with local pro bono service projects.
The program helps students gain an understanding of how a multi-faceted approach—engaging journalists, social workers, organizers, or other professionals—is sometimes necessary to create the change they seek for their clients.
“It’s valuable for law students to get to see the law in action, both how powerful it can be to help people and how sometimes the legal solution is more limited than one might think, given practical realities,” said Darcy Meals, assistant director of the Center for Access to Justice (A2J).
The pro bono component of the program shows participants they can make an impact, even as students.
“The students already have this facility with some of the skills and with some of the language that’s really confounding for people who don’t have any exposure to the legal systems that they are often trying to navigate on their own,” Meals said. “In the span of the week, students are able to do something that may feel like a drop in the bucket on the broader social problem but makes an incredible difference for their client in bettering that person’s life.”
This year, the A2J Alternative Spring Break projects focused on issues of housing instability, domestic violence, disaster preparedness, and school discipline cases.
Combating Housing Instability
One group of students spent the week with advocates from the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) Standing with Our Neighbors Program and the Truancy Intervention Project, learning about the intersection of housing conditions and education. They toured Atlanta neighborhoods, visited a shelter for homeless families, and observed hearings at the Fulton County Courthouse. Through these activities and workshops, students also learned about the determinants of homelessness and housing instability.
Alex Patafio (J.D.’23), the student trip leader, said the experience was illuminating.
“It’s important to understand what resources are available in the community to help people get what they need in a system that is going to continually fail them for the foreseeable future,” Patafio said. “Lawyers are there for part of the battle, but they are not going to fix the problem alone.”
Visiting AVLF’s Housing Court Assistance Center, a walk-in advice clinic for Atlanta tenants whose landlords are taking them to court, shed light on how even a short amount of time spent helping a client could have a big impact, Patafio said.
“The advocates broke down a confusing system for clients so they could be better prepared for court. It only took the lawyer 20 minutes, but for that person, it could save them from being evicted that day,” she explained.
Patafio, who works in a criminal defense firm and participates in the HeLP Clinic, said the trip fortified her desire to follow the path of advocacy and community or grassroots lawyering.
“It is so important to exercise your privilege in a way that is benefitting the community,” she said. “Lawyers have a special skill that is integral to community success.”
Working with Survivors of Domestic Violence
Although a week spent immersed in domestic violence cases was emotionally difficult, it also was inspiring to meet with attorneys who are making a difference, said Anja Minninger (J.D. ’24). The group of student volunteers spent the week with lawyers and advocates from the Victims Legal Assistance Network (VLAN) learning how to assist domestic violence survivors.
They discussed the many life barriers that often make it difficult for a person to leave an abuser, and how oftentimes victims will go back, even after reaching out for help, before leaving the situation for good.
The group learned about applying trauma-informed principles to lawyering to better serve their clients.
“You need to be able to meet the clients with the grace and understanding they deserve,” said Minninger, who is interested in pursuing public interest law. “You have to approach your professional life with the kind of non-judgment that will make you and your client most successful.”
During the week the students also visited Haven House, a nonprofit women’s shelter, watched temporary protective order hearings in court, and took a self-defense class. In addition, they helped research a case and edit manuals provided to clients.
Advocating for Children
Another group of student volunteers, working primarily with the Georgia Legal Services Program, focused on how to represent children who are being unfairly or inappropriately disciplined in schools. The group also learned about advocating for children with special needs to receive appropriate treatment for mental health issues and support for learning disabilities.
The students met with foster care advocates, a child psychologist, a juvenile court judge, and two victims of the school-to-prison pipeline: a mother of a child who was unfairly disciplined, and a student.
Dan B. Wingate, Jr. (J.D.’23) said the experience deepened his understanding of how pervasive and traumatic the criminal legal system can be. It also reinforced that public interest law is not a solo effort, but requires teamwork from many different professions.
“It was emotional and gut-wrenching to hear their stories and learn of just some of the pain and trauma our legal system inflicts on people. But it was also inspiring to learn from them that it isn’t hopeless and there is good work to be done,” he said. “If we focused more attention and resources on the front end rather than on prosecution and incarceration, we would all be in a safer and healthier place.”
An army veteran who feels called to serve his community, Wingate plans to pursue a career in public interest law or become a public defender so that he can help amplify the often-overlooked voices.
“I am so very fortunate and lucky to be here and have the opportunity to receive a first-rate legal education,” he said. “I want to make sure that I work to give back to the community what it has invested in me. The law should be a level and equal playing field. It is up to us as lawyers (or future lawyers) to ensure that.”
Improving Disaster Legal Services and Preparedness
Carrie Lee Hunter (J.D.’02), who grew up in Florida and has experienced several hurricanes in her lifetime, chose to participate in the program to learn more about disaster relief.
“I’ve seen the relief plans go well and badly,” she said. “I wanted more insight on the behind-the-scenes process.”
This group of law students worked with stakeholders from across the state, including legal services organizations, law firms, corporate counsel, and disaster relief agencies, to understand how lawyers can be deployed to help in the aftermath of a disaster.
One of the more interesting facets of law Hunter learned about was heirs property law, which has implications for both disaster relief and building generational wealth.
“Many families never update their deed, and after a while it can cause a house to have dozens of people to have interest in the property,” Hunter said. “Even if you’ve been living in the house and paying taxes for 20 years, another heir could demand use of the property or try to push you to sell it. Trying to resolve it is an expensive mess.”
Hunter enjoyed the experience and felt that it was a great opportunity to bond with other students. One of the highlights was a volunteer project to help clean up damage from recent tornados in Coweta County.
“We had a wonderful time,” Hunter said. “Some of my classmates got to learn to drive bobcats and use chainsaws and it was awesome.”
The Alternative Spring Break program is open to all College of Law students. Learn more at law.gsu.edu/student-experience/pro-bono-service-in-the-community/alternative-spring-break.
Written by Stacey L. Evans (B.A. ’02)