Cultivating Seeds of Service

GW Law Introduces Students to the Public Interest and Pro Bono World


The Hon. Lee F. Satterfield, JD ’83, followed three simple rules of his father as a young man: “get a good education, pass the bar, and help others,” he told a group of first-year GW Law students visiting his court. He kept to this simple creed as a law student at GW and now as chief judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

The judge, tall and thin in a gray, pinstripe suit, imparted similar advice on a late summer day, softly, yet with a clear message. “Do something in life that helps others,” he said. “Take the time to be credible, be prepared. Know your client. Represent your client.” 

Judge Satterfield’s talk was one of many heard by about 100 new law students attending pre-orientation this past August. They were there for a close-up introduction to public interest law and pro bono work. During the three-day program, they toured a county jail and a morgue, listened to human rights lawyers speak about transgender issues, met with GW alumni at the Council of the District of Columbia, and volunteered with the National Park Service. 

The pre-orientation program was established five years ago so that “no matter what students choose to do—work for the government, a law firm, or corporation—they will consider that part of their life is doing pro bono work in the legal field every year,” says Alan B. Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law.

Associate Dean Morrison has devoted his life to public interest law. For much of his career, he directed the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which he co-founded with Ralph Nader in 1972. He worked on law reform litigation, including enforcing principles of separation of powers, protecting the rights of consumers, and helping unrepresented class members in class action settlements. He has argued 20 cases before the Supreme Court. 

Associate Dean Morrison and David M. Johnson, assistant dean for pro bono and advocacy programs, believe exposing law students to a wide range of public interest and pro bono opportunities early in their time at GW might influence the direction of their careers. Few other law schools offer a similar pre-orientation program. 

“Why is it important?” Assistant Dean Johnson asks. “We want to teach students to begin a pro bono habit before they leave school. They have a lot more time as students than as practitioners. We expose them to the legal system in a first-hand way, so law is not just an ivory tower. They will see a lot of public service jobs, think about them, and some may say, ‘Wow, that sounds interesting. I might be willing to pursue that.’”

The emphasis on service is rooted in the university’s strategic plan to develop students with deep commitments to citizenship and a keen interest in contributing to the community and world. The habit is catching on. Since the inception of the pre-orientation event and the school’s broader Pro Bono Program, GW Law students have volunteered an increasing number of hours each year. This past academic year, 144 students were active in pro bono work, a record for the law school. 

Monica Porter, a second-year law student, is part of the growing statistic. She enrolled in the pre-orientation program last year and returned as a group leader this year. “It was a great introduction to GW,” she says. “As an admitted student, I was looking at options in public interest law. The pre-orientation [program] showed us how to use our legal education in ways we hadn’t thought of.”

Ms. Porter has pursued a number of pro bono opportunities. As a public interest scholar at GW, she received a stipend last summer to work at the Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland, Calif. This year, she is interning at the Department of Justice and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She also is a Writing Fellow and on the International Law Review

She was drawn to public interest law “initially because different people in my family had difficulty navigating the legal system,” she says. “The game changer was getting legal assistance. I saw how attorneys made a difference. I’m not sure where I’ll be after law school, but I know I will be working in public service, with employment issues, or with veterans.”

During this year’s pre-orientation, Ms. Porter was happy to be back in court, listening to Judge Satterfield. “Every time you go to court, it’s different,” she says. “This time around, as a group leader, I heard speakers from the Human Rights Campaign and District of Columbia City Council, and went to the morgue to hear the chief medical examiner.

“It’s always nice to hear different perspectives and people’s memories of law school and their career trajectories,” she says.

Before her pre-orientation three years ago, 3L Navneet Jaswal had never stepped into a jail or a real court. Now, in her final year at GW, she sees law “as a mechanism for change.”

That’s the message she and others heard at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) headquarters. The HRC is a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. Alumna Alison Gill, a lobbyist for the campaign, told the students how language and the law are evolving. 

People can change their gender identity legally, as they do their names, she said. “Someone’s gender identity may be different from what it was at birth,” Ms. Gill stated. “You must treat transgender clients respectfully and reflect their language and how they use it back to them.” 

Across town, in a completely different set of circumstances, GW law students toured the Arlington County Detention Facility in Virginia. The jail has about 450 inmates awaiting trial or appeals at the county courthouse nearby. The inmates are incarcerated for a variety of charges, from drug dealing to capital murder. They stay anywhere from a few days to a year. 

Deputies William O’Neill and Jeff Peck led the group through metal detectors, cells, common rooms, the cafeteria, visiting areas, and booths where lawyers meet with their clients. “This jail is a little different,” Mr. Peck told the students. “There aren’t any bars on the windows. The average time people are in here is 30 days to six months. It’s mostly alcohol or drug related.” 

But the wheels of justice can turn slowly. For some, the path from arrest to trial is complicated, long, and thwarted by many obstacles, said author Karen Houppert during another pre-orientation session at GW. She has written a book, Chasing Gideon: the Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice. 

Her book chronicles the justice system in the 50 years since the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Gideon v. Wainwright, affirming the guarantee of the right to legal counsel for all criminal defendants regardless of income.

Today, that guarantee is unfulfilled, Ms. Houppert said. Many indigent people still are caught in a legal system in which they are underrepresented and accused of crimes they did not commit. Public defenders are underfunded, overworked, and overwhelmed. 

Rachael Krane, JD ’14, is stepping straight into this complicated system as an assistant public defender in Baltimore after serving as a law clerk at D.C. Superior Court. She remembers sitting in a courtroom for the first time a few years ago during her pre-orientation, not knowing who was who. “Which person was the prosecutor?” she recalls thinking. “Who was the defense? What was all the questioning about?” 

In many ways, the pre-orientation shaped Ms. Krane’s time at GW. She met some of her closest friends in law school. And she was encouraged by upperclassmen and faculty to get out of the classroom and work as a student lawyer. She passed on this advice to the group of incoming first-year students. 

“Get your hands dirty in the law,” she said. “There are so many opportunities at GW and in the District to not just study law, but practice it as a student.” 

Ms. Krane did just that. She, along with Tim Pezzoli, JD ’13, and Mike Barfield, JD ’13, co-founded the District Record Sealing Service. A conviction or an arrest on someone’s record can stop the person from getting a job, securing student loans, or renting a house, she explains. 

The District Record Sealing Service partnered with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia to help eligible community members request that part of their records be sealed. The co-founders, along with Leah Maloney, JD ’13, Carlos Morales, JD ’13, and Whitney McOwen, JD ’13, helped train other law students on the record sealing statutes and client interviewing skills.

Students went to the Public Defender Service twice weekly during the school year to interview candidates and assisted them with crafting motions to seal their records. The applicants filed pro se after these sessions.

After law school, Ms. Krane clerked for Judge Robert E. Morin, presiding judge of the criminal division at the District of Columbia Superior Court. “One of the reasons I was interested in clerking was I knew I would learn what matters to judges when they make decisions,” she says. “I knew having that insight into the judicial perspective would help me make more persuasive arguments as a lawyer.”

Her other piece of advice to new law students was “find your own path,” she told the group. “You can do the moot court competition to build skills, or you can be in an actual court,” she said. “Law school is a time to find yourself, through trial and error. Doing internships, clinics, and pro bono work is an excellent way to figure out what kind of work you want to do.”

Associate Dean Morrison and Assistant Dean Johnson have developed a number of pro bono projects at the law school through which students gain valuable hands-on experience. Through the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, approximately 10 GW law students are paired with volunteer lawyers every semester to provide legal assistance to the homeless. 

They see clients in soup kitchens, shelters, and community centers, assisting them with a variety of legal challenges. “There are a lot of shelter issues,” says Kaitlyn Uhl, the volunteer coordinator for the clinic. “Someone might have been terminated in the shelter or have a housing issue. Folks could be trying to get subsidized housing or public benefits. Someone’s food stamps may have been cut off.”

GW students assist with interviews, taking notes and asking questions. “It’s a really good experience for GW law students,” Ms. Uhl says. “Some of the cases are pretty involved. Students work with a huge range of lawyers, from third-year associates in the corporate world to government lawyers.”

Volunteering for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which is housed at GW, students review cases and write memos. They help investigate the most compelling cases where clients have been wrongfully convicted. The project receives more than 500 requests each year. 

This past summer, one GW student unearthed a key piece of evidence for a murder case that had been buried in old files at a courthouse on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “The student was very persistent,” says Eily Ramen, screening director for the project. “She went to the courthouse and managed to locate evidence that we had previously been told had been lost or destroyed. DNA testing of this evidence could potentially help prove our client’s innocence.” 

Students also volunteer for the Resource Center of the District of Columbia Office of Administrative Hearings. They interview clients, under the supervision of an attorney, about unemployment denial, shelter suspension, and notices of violation from the Department of Public Works in the District. 

For the GW Cancer Pro Bono project, GW students and a licensed lawyer work with cancer patients, helping them with advanced directives, employment issues, health insurance, wills, and Social Security benefits. 

There are other opportunities as well, such as the Family Law Pro Bono Project and the Alternative Spring Break, where students travel to the Arizona/Mexico border during their break to learn about and work on immigration issues. The students also work on a pro bono project while there. 

The pre-orientation is a good introduction to the many possibilities. “I do plan on following up with some of the pro bono projects at GW,” says 1L Dan Fielder.

During the pre-orientation, Mr. Fielder was most interested in the visit to Superior Court. “We got to see real judges administering real law,” he said after the pre-orientation. “We also heard attorneys at trial and even the emotional statements of defendants.” 

If Mr. Fielder and his peers opt to get involved in pro bono work or pursue a career in public interest law, Assistant Dean Johnson believes his job has been successful. “There are so many ways to make the system better,” he says. “We are planting seeds of excitement.” 

Ms. Krane is a perfect example of that success. As she launches her career as an assistant public defender, she still recalls Assistant Dean Johnson’s compelling words to her as a first-year law student: “You may not be able to change the whole world, Rachael, but you can definitely change someone’s world for the better.”

— by Laura Hambleton