From drafting a will to granting power of attorney, there are some decisive moments in an individual's life that call for a lawyer. But legal services are expensive, and some North Carolinians can't afford them.
That's something the UNC School of Law is helping address with its pro bono program, which provides free legal services to people who need them.
Allison Standard Constance directs the law school’s pro bono initiatives. The school reported that 100 percent of this spring’s graduating class performed pro bono work while at UNC.
Constance said the school works with a wide variety of groups, including nonprofit organizations, government agencies, legal services organizations and private law firms to provide students with service opportunities.
“Our goal is two-fold,” Constance said. “To meet the vast amount of unmet legal needs in our community and beyond, but also to help students build skills for practice and create a lifelong commitment to some sort of service in their legal careers.”
Over spring break, law students will travel to Charlotte and Morganton, N.C. to offer legal counsel to people who are being evicted or are drafting wills.
Though many service projects are organized by the school’s pro bono board, some are also organized by clubs in the law school.
One such group, the Veterans Advocacy Legal Organization, takes a spring break trip to Asheville each year to help homeless veterans with tasks such as trying to upgrade their discharge status, which may prevent access to VA hospitals or similar benefits.
Adam Renkiewicz, a third-year law student, will lead a small group of students on this year’s trip. Students will visit a homeless veterans’ shelter to interview its residents about their discharge status and current needs, and help with documents necessary to appeal for an upgraded discharge status.
“They get training on something that really isn’t discussed in the law school,” Renkiewicz said.
Alex Rutgers, a third-year law student and former veteran himself, is a member of VALOR. Rutgers has provided over 500 hours of pro bono work while at UNC.
His first experience with the school’s pro bono program came three years ago, on a trip to help residents of Cherokee County draft wills.
“Pro bono became my favorite part of law school,” Rutgers said.
Rutgers has since coordinated similar projects, and is now the student director of the school’s pro bono board. He said he enjoys being someone clients can depend on.
“The part of law that I find really exciting is sitting down with an individual client, and helping them with their problem,” Rutgers said.
Rutgers said he was initially interested in the UNC School of Law because he felt it focused on public service. Though he said he wanted to be a prosecutor when he started law school, he recently accepted a job with Legal Aid of North Carolina to provide disaster relief by helping people with FEMA appeals. It falls very much in line with the volunteer work he has done at UNC, he said.
When asked about the importance of his pro bono work, Rutgers repeated a quote that he said many law students hear during their time at UNC.
“Each day, millions of poor North Carolinians pay taxes to help subsidize our education," he said. "What are we doing to give back to them?”
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