Supreme Dedication

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor officially dedicated the renovated Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics.

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor officially dedicated the renovated Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics last year, she had a profound message for the law school community: “Law is about service.”

“We are the only profession that as part of our professional association credo requires public service—pro bono work,” she said. “Some do it by choice, but we’re obligated to do it by our training.”

Third-year law student Roberta Roberts stood in the audience as Justice Sotomayor spoke, absorbing each word. She chose GW Law specifically for its reputation as an institution that emphasizes the importance of  social justice and public service. For the past year, she has assisted local community members in need of legal representation through both the law school’s Domestic Violence Project and its Family Justice Litigation Clinic.

“What Justice Sotomayor said really spoke to my heart. I attended law school because I wanted the opportunity to help people solve their problems and give a voice to those who may be unheard,” Ms. Roberts said.

The experience became all the more poignant for Ms. Roberts once Justice Sotomayor finished her address and made her way from behind the podium directly toward her and several other students involved in the clinics. She lauded their exceptional service work and urged them to continue their efforts representing members of society who are in need.

Justice Sotomayor was chosen to cut the ribbon at the new clinic building at 650 20th Street NW because of her own career rooted in service. While studying at Princeton University, she volunteered as a Spanish interpreter at a local mental health facility, translating for patients who did not understand English. As a trial lawyer in Manhattan, Justice Sotomayor prosecuted murders, police brutality, and child pornography cases. When she entered private practice in 1984, she also took on a hefty load of pro bono work, serving the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the New York City Campaign Finance Board, and the New York Mortgage Agency.

 “One of the goals of the clinics is to teach students the skills, habits, and values of how to keep learning and growing as lawyers,” said Phyllis Goldfarb, Jacob Burns Foundation Professor of Clinical Law and associate dean for clinical affairs, at the dedication ceremony. “I can’t think of a more vibrant symbol of the clinical mission of lifelong learning as a central part of professional life than Justice Sotomayor.” 

Associate Dean Goldfarb leads the clinics, where students hone their legal skills and work on cases in the areas of international human rights law, immigration law, domestic violence advocacy, community economic development law, and more. The updated facility features 4,000 square feet of common space, a moot courtroom, four private rooms for client interviews, and five classrooms with state-of-the-art technical equipment. The building also boasts a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold rating. 

The university has a special connection to clinical education, Associate Dean Goldfarb told the crowd, explaining that GW Law alumnus William Pincus, JD ’53, is widely considered to be the father of clinical education. Inspired by the clinical programs that Mr. Pincus piloted, Professor Emeritus of Law Eric Sirulnik led the effort to open a legal clinic at GW more than four decades ago. The clinics later received significant support from Jacob Burns, LLB ’24, whose generosity allowed GW’s clinical program to thrive.

Today, hundreds of students participate in the clinics each semester, gaining hands-on legal experiences. Sonia Desai, JD ’14, a former student director at the clinics, assisted several young girls in Jamaica who were abused while in state custody, and her diligence may earn the girls compensation for their traumas. Last semester, Ms. Roberts worked with the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center to help undocumented victims of domestic violence apply for immigration relief, and now she’s representing clients in D.C. Superior Court cases involving child support, custody issues, and protection from abuse. 

Each year, the law school also places between 500 and 600 students in various governmental agencies and public interest and nonprofit organizations to engage in public service in exchange for academic credit. Through GW’s Public Interest and Pro Bono Program, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law Alan B. Morrison develops pro bono projects and identifies areas where students can provide legal advice, service, and consultation.

Because of these opportunities, GW Law Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Christopher A. Bracey explains that GW students leave law school inculcated with a commitment for service while touting résumés filled with real-life experience.

“They hit the ground running, and they are skilled in ways that typical graduates are not—precisely because we have so many ways for them to learn the practical skills of lawyering with live clients,” Senior Associate Dean Bracey says. “We provide a rich set of opportunities to do service, so that they understand that different people can serve in so many different ways.”

He adds that bringing a Supreme Court justice to campus sends a powerful message to students: that their university’s central location in the nation’s capital connects them to the most prominent legal professionals in the field. Justice Clarence Thomas co-teaches a seminar with Professor of Law Gregory E. Maggs. Justice Antonin Scalia celebrated Constitution Day at Lisner Auditorium last year, and in August, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the community to talk about the evolution of women’s rights.

Meeting Justice Sotomayor was a paramount event in Ms. Roberts’ law school experience. She remembers the details of the visit vividly, and the way Justice Sotomayor’s words fueled her passion for service.

“It just meant a lot to me that someone so esteemed got from behind the bench down to my level to tell me about how the work that I’m doing is important,” she says. “She wasn’t there to just smile for pictures and shake hands—she actually took the time to offer us encouraging words.”

Ms. Roberts wasn’t the only person moved by Justice Sotomayor’s advice. The justice left the entire community with a chance to reflect on the values of the legal profession and to rededicate themselves to service.

“The purpose every lawyer serves, in whatever capacity, is to help people with their problems and to try to better that client’s life situation,” Justice Sotomayor said at the dedication. “So long as we as lawyers act responsibly and with integrity, we serve the society in need.”

— By Julyssa Lopez