By: Alexis Farmer

 

“I found it very rewarding to be doing work that actually helped people in detention,” said Joseph Tahbaz JD ’20. He was one of the 36 students who participated in the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ (OCP) spring break pro bono trips. Every year, a group of students spend their spring break working in legal organizations in the Boston area and across the United States and Puerto Rico, often responding to crises or disasters in local areas. The time spent outside of the halls of Harvard Law School can be re-energizing and reinforce the skills students learn in the classroom. Students were glad to be “doing substantive, real-life work that helped folks,” Tahbaz continued.

Students worked on an array of legal and social justice issues – from asylum claims, to debt collection statistics, bankruptcy and family law, and federal community development block grants for Puerto Rico. Many of the students did not know one another before getting on the plane to their respective destinations, but in just five days, students gained mentors and friends. “There was a great mix of students in our group, with JDs of every year as well as LLMs. The diversity of backgrounds and perspectives among students on the trip really added to the experience,” said Amanda Odasz, JD ’21. Students felt integrated into their organizations – attending staff meetings, contributing to legal strategies, and meeting members of the communities they were serving.

Students pictured with the staff at American Gateways

Walking through the ocean-front neighborhood of Condado, San Juan, it’s easy to forget a massive hurricane wreaked havoc on the island. Restaurants and small businesses are occupied with locals and tourists. Homes appear intact and the streets look freshly paved. Yet, many communities have yet to see any restoration. Just a few miles south, the put-togetherness of Condado fades. Half of the student group that traveled to Puerto Rico worked with Corporación ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña, an organization working on environmental restoration and sustainability for the communities surrounding El Caño Martín Peña, a polluted tidal channel at the center of the community. “[My] teammates and I were able to put our legal expertise and prior interests into practice while at the same time being able to tackle a pressing social issue that is affecting a group of low-income and unprotected residents in Puerto Rico,” said Alvaro Emilio Rojas Cuenca LLM ’19 who worked with ENLACE. Two students in Ponce, Puerto Rico were exposed to multiple parts of city government – interacting with the mayor and her legal team, the city council, and the legislative body of the municipality. Another student worked with the hotly contested financial oversight management board tasked with restructuring the island’s debt. “The trip was more than I expected. We faced challenging, yet rewarding, legal questions, and also got the time to get to know Puerto Rico,” said Gonzalo Robles, LLM ’19.

HLS JD and LLM students pictured with Estrella, Environmental Affairs Manager at ENLACE (middle). Credit: Alexis Farmer

Twelve students traveled to the Texas-Mexico border working with asylum seekers – 8 with American Gateways and 4 with ProBAR. American Gateways, a nonprofit organization that provides immigration legal services to low-income individuals and families throughout the Texas region. Students worked with individuals seeking asylum, a few having done so in their clinical work. “HIRC [the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic] prepared me extremely well for this work,” said Krista Oehlke JD ‘20. The significance of their work is heightened by the fact that immigrants in detention, particularly in remote locations, are the least likely to secure legal representation. Oehlke commented, “I was able to help asylum seekers in a very concrete way.” According to a 2015 study in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, only 14% of detained immigrants had legal representation. 2% of immigrants obtained pro bono representation from law school clinical, nonprofit organizations, and law firm volunteer opportunities.

Students working at American Gateways during spring break 2019

Civil Rights Corps employs advocacy, public education, and systemic civil rights litigation to challenge the injustice of the criminal justice system. Students assisted attorneys in their lawsuit against two private probation companies in Tennessee, contending that the companies “extort impoverished people to generate profit” to fund its court system. Jimmy Biblarz a first-year law student reflected, “I knew little about private probation or how the practice affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the 14 states who utilize it. Private probation has wreaked havoc on the Pulaski community – it seemed like nearly everyone in town was on probation. The informal slogan I heard from respondents was ‘Come to Pulaski for vacation, leave on probation.’ The week gave me wide exposure to the issue and I am much more committed to abolishing the practice than I was at the start of the week.”

Students traveled to Giles County, Tennessee to assist with a class-action lawsuit against private probation

In North Carolina, four students worked with Legal Aid of North Carolina. The organization provides free legal help to low-income North Carolinians in civil cases. The students worked on the office’s disaster relief efforts from Hurricane Florence and also researched housing and gentrification issues in mobile home parks. Students were able to attend a community organizing event that brought together tenants in mobile home parks with legal aid advocates to brainstorm solutions.

Students didn’t have to travel far to make an impact. On just the other side of the state, Jonathan Korn, JD ’20 spent his spring break in Springfield, MA, working with the new Consumer Debt Initiative through the Hampden County Bar Association. Working with Western Massachusetts Law School students, Jonathan represented underserved individuals facing housing, civil, probate and family law matters, as well as individuals with day-of evictions hearings in the Lawyer of the Day program. Locally in the Boston area, students contributed to working to close the access to justice gap at the Volunteer Lawyers Project and Project Citizenship.

Jonathan Korn JD ’20 (second from the right in the top row) pictured with students from Western New England Law School at the Roderick J. Ireland Courthouse in Springfield, MA.

Learn more about student experiences below:

See more photos here.