By REISS MORRISON
Hello, England! I’m a law student at the University of Nottingham spending my third year at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). I have been involved with the Pro Bono Society since I started University, serving as a volunteer in my first year, a Committee member in my second, and currently as a member on the other side of the world. Whilst in Texas I have experienced a whole different side to pro bono work.
I have broken down the pro bono I have encountered whilst on my year abroad into three ‘categories’: death row work, volunteering at the University of Texas Elementary School, and other general pro bono projects UT offers. There is no student-run pro bono society here but many professional pro bono organisations.
Unlike other year abroad destinations offered to Nottingham students, UT offers the chance to work on capital punishment cases through the Capital Punishment Clinic. The Clinic is a law office but also a class which students can choose to take, and serves indigent clients on a pro bono basis at different stages of the capital punishment process, whether at the trial, appellate or postconviction stage of their case.
I and a few other students from the Universities of Nottingham and Edinburgh were fortunate enough to be enrolled into the Clinic this year, and our work is really diverse; we shadow amazing attorneys specialising in capital punishment law and process, conducting research, strategising, drafting documents and a lot more. One of the most humbling and important aspects of the Clinic is visiting death row itself to speak with the clients. Unsurprisingly, I had never been to death row before, but it was an unforgettable experience I never thought I would have, and it was a privilege to interact with the clients.
Working on death row cases is incredibly meaningful pro bono work which is hard if not impossible to experience in the UK. Yet, it has a lot of similarities to Unbarred back in the UK. For example, being emotional and time-pressured work requiring an open mind, passion and a commitment to vindicating the rights of indigent inmates. The stakes are obviously a lot higher with death row work, but the basic spirit of pro bono is common.
The University of Texas Elementary School
Before coming to Austin, I found the UT Elementary School online and saw they were taking volunteers. I visited the school with some Nottingham students and have mentored three students (two from fourth grade and one from third grade), visiting every week to have lunch with them, play games and sometimes just chat. It’s a wonderful way to do pro bono work; the school is so flexible and welcoming, the students are polite, mature and smart, it is genuinely one of the highlights of my week.
Having managed Project Aspire in my second year it has also been educative seeing how schooling is done in the US. Besides naming things differently (“fourth grade”, “spring break”, and so on) the students are also a lot different to primary school children back home. The Elementary School students are generally more extrovert compared to a lot of the students I taught with Aspire last year.
There are many ways to volunteer with the UT Elementary School, not just mentoring students at lunch. For example, volunteers are often needed to assist with book sales, and I have been asked about possibly teaching a fifth-grade class (like Aspire).
Other Texan Pro Bono Opportunities
Finally, I thought it would be worthwhile to mention some of the other pro bono opportunities UT offers, some of which I have experienced and others I have simply heard about from friends. UT has an extensive list of pro bono projects on its website, updated regularly so students can look and plan the events they’d like to get involved with.
To give some examples, I worked in the Cancer Law Clinic witnessing and proof-reading documents for cancer patients. My friends have also worked on criminal record expunction projects, helping individuals who need assistance to clear their past convictions. Other projects include the ironically-named “Street Law High School Project” where volunteers can help teach legal topics, including Constitutional Law, to high school students, and the “Texas Law Youth Court” where volunteers mentor middle school students to prevent future criminality.
There are similarities to the work the Pro Bono Society does, but there are also huge differences, partially due to the existing laws and culture on this side of the pond.