“Will I ever actually use this?”
This is a question that has likely crossed the mind of every student at one time in their academic career. When confined to a classroom, it can be difficult to see the effects of efforts made and can cause some people to rethink the decision they’ve made.
Gonzaga School of Law recognizes the exhaustion, both mentally and physically, that can come with hours of studying and offers remediation in the form of mandatory volunteer hours. While the word “mandatory” holds certain connotations, the 30 hours required to graduate actually bring relief to populations in need and real-world experience to early law students.
Center for Civil and Human Rights offers a variety of local legal projects and connections to other events and programs to help students make the most of their hours in areas that matter to them and the community. These projects range from single-day events with a large impact, such as Legal Financial Obligations Reconsideration Day, to longer-term programs like the Washington State Bar Association moderate means program.
“Students seem to crave interaction with clients, especially first-year students,” said Michele Fukawa, assistant director of Center for Civil and Human Rights. “They come into law school and they may not be able to interact with clients right away because they don’t have an internship. So, the pro bono opportunities that this center provides are sometimes the first time they get to interact.”
The pro bono distinction is an important aspect of the volunteer hours. While similar to public service, pro bono work differs in the sense that it’s in the legal field and under the supervision of an attorney in certain areas such as non-profits or a government agency, Fukawa said.
Christine Luckasen, a School of Law student in her third semester of the two-year program, said the WSBA moderate means program is one of the largest pro bono hour generators available to students.
The moderate means program works with Washington families who do not qualify for free legal assistance but don’t have enough disposable income to hire an attorney. If they fall into one of three legal areas, family law, consumer law or housing, moderate means will work to connect them with an attorney at a discounted rate, said Israel Carranza, a student in the School of Law.
Carranza selected GU’s School of Law because of its partnership with this program.
“Most of our country has a lot of people in the gray area where they don’t get the free help and they can’t afford it otherwise because they are just trying to make ends meet,” Carranza said. “When I heard about that project, it resonated with me because those are the type of people I want to help.”
Once in the program, students gather baseline information to determine each client’s eligibility.
“We are not providing legal representation, but we are doing the first step that an attorney would do to see if they could even take a case,” Luckasen said. “We ask all the legal questions an attorney would need to ask because we want to make it as easy as possible for an attorney to take this case.”
Another opportunity seeking the time of GU law students is Legal Financial Obligations (LFO) Reconsideration Day. LFO Reconsideration Day is being held at the Spokane courthouse on April 17 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is organized through the organization, I Did the Time.
This event is being held in accordance with newly passed House Bill 1783, which allows people who were incarcerated to waive nonrestitution court fees, fines and interest, said Layne Pavey, director of I Did the Time.
“Interest was accruing at a 12% rate and it was being compounded quarterly,” she said. “People were going to jail with $3,000 worth of [legal financial obligations] and coming out with $15,000 because the interest would compound, even when you were incarcerated.”
Although the bill was passed in 2018 and the weight of that money is crippling, people were not signing up for relief as it required additional time, money and court proceedings.
“My population has been through so many court proceedings and it’s time consuming,” Pavey said. “It costs more money to petition the court and it takes away from the fact that most people living with felony convictions have five jobs, five kids and no time to go in and be seen at 11 a.m. on a Thursday.”
This additional barrier stands to perpetuate poverty.
“When you are sentenced to a felony and you are sentenced to all of this LFO debt, you are also sentenced to poverty,” Pavey said. “We are trying to change that as an organization.”
In response to this final barrier, LFO Reconsideration Day was created. In the span of one day, 1,000 people will be processed and, depending on their individual circumstances, dismissed of their LFO debts.
For this event to run smoothly, the assistance of GU law students seeking pro bono hours is needed.
“Imagine if you could get $20,000 of your student loans waived,” Pavey said. “Imagine the kind of relief that would provide you with going forward.”
Among these two programs is a variety of others to fit the interest of any student and the needs of the community. This includes the juvenile record sealing project, the name and gender ID clinic, Gonzaga Law in Action and Transitions’ Women’s Hearth.
“Every day, it reminds me why I’m in law school,” Carranza said. “It gives me a connection to the community that needs the help and a sense of fulfillment.”
This connection fuels many students to volunteer well beyond the 30-hour requirement. Luckasen volunteered for the moderate means program every week for five hours a week during her first semester at the School of Law, amounting to 65 total hours.
Fukawa said students who earn a certain amount of hours above the minimum are eligible to be recognized during graduation. For most, however, this is not the motivation to continue their work.
“It has made everything a lot more tangible,” Luckasen said. “It can seem like maybe you’re not even sure if you want to be a lawyer after your first year of law school because it’s hard. But I think when you talk to people, you are taken out of your world and you see that there are all these people that need help. That’s what’s important.”
The impact holds more weight than students may realize, Pavey said.
“I hope [these programs] inspire law students to recognize the importance of being in the legal field for people who cannot afford access,” she said. “You have the key to the whole universe when you own the ability to help people interpret the law.”