Law Students

Law Students

Pro Bono Proves Powerful in Career Hunt
By: Ayssa Palacios, Brooke Holland, and Stephanie Harlien

The term pro bono is short for pro bono publico, a Latin phrase meaning “for the public good.” It is often used to reference the contribution of free legal services to the underprivileged. For law students, it is much more.

Pro bono work gives students the opportunity to give back to their community while simultaneously developing legal skills and networking for future careers. Three J.D. students studying at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio share their perspectives on the skills, job prospects, and service experiences they gained through pro bono work.

Gaining Practical Skills: Ayssa Palacios, 2L, part-time student

As an evening law student, my life is pretty busy. My days are filled with work, and at quitting time, I rush to class. I knew I had to make the transition from accountant to lawyer but wasn’t sure how. Because of the time crunch, I had to be creative in finding ways to apply the skills I learned in class to get internships and legal experience. The St. Mary’s University Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program gave me that opportunity.

As a tax preparer for VITA, I was responsible for filling out client intakes and tax returns. I communicated with taxpayers one-on-one, which provided important client interviewing skills. Discussing confidential information, such as Social Security numbers and W-2s, with a stranger quickly taught me how to communicate with different personality types.

I applied the knowledge I acquired from my Federal Income Tax class when completing tax returns or answering client questions. This helped me learn the material from class more thoroughly and gain knowledge beyond the scope of the course. I learned the importance of informing the taxpayer about the process so they could feel a sense of security and relief the next time they were exposed to this information.

Armed with my pro bono experience with VITA on my résumé, I landed a summer internship for which I worked with five attorneys on tax, employment, and immigration law.

Boosting Employment Opportunities: Brooke Holland, 3L, full-time student

Let’s be honest: Law school does not teach you how to be a lawyer. It teaches you how to think like a lawyer. It prepares you to read cases, spot issues, learn the law, pick it all apart, and form arguments. Law school didn’t prepare me for the client crying in front of me because she was being unlawfully evicted, and it certainly didn’t prepare me for my first day in court.

Nothing new happens in your comfort zone. I had no prior legal experience, but there I was, standing in a courtroom in my brand-new suit with no idea what to do with myself. Where do I stand? How do I know when I get to present my case? Where is my client and supervising attorney? There I was, all alone and in the wrong courtroom.

That’s when it hit me: I need some work experience to supplement my legal education. I started volunteering at pro bono service events offered through St. Mary’s University and the Community Justice Program until I found my niche in the ID Recovery Program helping the homeless community with identification barriers.

My continuing commitment to pro bono service helped me receive multiple employment offers. Currently, I intern in the legal department at Haven for Hope under the contracts director. The professional reputation and career network I gained through the service events got me the job. Compared with my peers, I can go beyond research. I am practice ready because I have real-world experience.

Committing to Service: Stephanie Harlien, 2L, full-time student

From a very young age, my parents instilled in me the importance of helping others. Throughout my childhood, I remember spending weekends and evenings after school volunteering at events with my mom. It was never a chore or a hassle; it was something that brought me a wonderful sense of fulfillment. If I can do something to help, why shouldn't I?

After settling into a (hectic) law school routine, I realized that using different colored highlighters for book briefing didn’t work for me (I’m a yellow-only girl), I learned how many espresso shots I could drink without getting the shakes (usually four to five), and, even more importantly, I started my pro bono service.

My first pro bono event was a family law clinic. Indigent clients seeking uncontested divorces were waiting to be paired with volunteer attorneys. I came to law school knowing that my passion was family law, so I immediately sought out the attorneys at the event. I didn’t even truly understand what taking a case pro bono meant, but I was enthralled when I learned the attorneys were helping individuals for free!

Since that first pro bono experience, I have lost count of the number of clients I have assisted. I have received numerous hugs, kind words, and blessings from those I have helped. I have heard stories of struggles, suffering, and worry. But I also heard hopefulness, gratitude, and happiness in clients’ voices when we parted ways.

I could acquire the same legal experience working at a law firm, but I have a purpose in life to help individuals who may not otherwise receive the legal help they need. As a law student, I am busy just like the rest of my peers. I may not have the time to volunteer, but I have the heart – and my heart tells me to make time.

Pro bono service is a vital component of the practice of law, and the need for help is boundless. When we are asked why we spend our time doing pro bono service, our response is always, “It’s just who we are and reminds us of where we are from.”

Ayssa Palacios, part-time 2L; Brooke Holland, full-time 3L; and Stephanie Harlien, full-time 2L, study at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.

Views and opinions expressed in eNews are those of their authors and not necessarily those of the Texas Young Lawyers Association or the State Bar of Texas.

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