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December 14, 2009

Law School students and professors to travel to Houston and the Rio Grande Valley to offer free legal assistance to low-income people

Photo of Lawson Konvalinka, Leanne Heine, Lindzi Timberlake, Shannon Sims, Nick Solish, Tina Fernandez, and Mary Crouter

Front row, left to right: Lawson Konvalinka, Leanne Heine. Middle row: Lindzi Timberlake, Shannon Sims, Nick Solish. Back row: Tina Fernandez, director, pro bono programs, and Mary Crouter, assistant director, William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law. In January, UT Law students and professors will travel to Houston and the Rio Grande Valley to take part in pro bono projects for low-income residents. Student group Pro Bono in January and the William Wayne Justice Center’s Pro Bono Program were recently created in order to offer students the chance to engage in meaningful pro bono work over the winter break.

In January, University of Texas School of Law students will travel to the Rio Grande Valley and Houston to participate in volunteer legal projects as part of service trips organized by Pro Bono in January, a new student organization at the Law School, and the Law School’s newly launched Law Pro Bono Program. The purpose of the trips is for Law School students to engage in meaningful pro bono work during the winter break. Students going to Houston will focus on assisting Hurricane Ike victims clear title on their land, while students in the Rio Grande Valley will assist low-income residents with wills and estate planning and immigrant detainees with asylum and other immigration matters.

Thirty students will work in the Rio Grande Valley from January 11–15, 2010. Twenty-four of them will work with the South Texas Civil Rights Project and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid hosting wills clinics, where they will interview low-income clients about their estate needs and help draft their wills. Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, regional director of South Texas Civil Rights Project, said this work will address “one of the biggest, largely unmet needs in the community. A lot of the future probate and property issues will be solved with these clinics. In addition, we will be helping very low-income people preserve whatever small wealth they are able to acquire through their lifetimes and pass it on to give a step up to future generations.” In addition to staffing the wills clinics, students will participate in document review in a complex case for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Meanwhile, six students will work with the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project to help immigration detainees fill out asylum applications and write personal declarations. Students will also investigate conditions in detainee’s home countries and research legal issues.

During the same week, ten students will aid Hurricane Ike victims in Houston. A large number of low-income families whose homes were damaged by the hurricane have been unable to receive housing assistance because they lack clear title to their property. Students will partner with volunteer attorneys in Houston to review title commitments for prospective clients, help families determine the ownership status of their land, prepare affidavits of heirship, assist with contract for deed conversions, and prepare deeds. At the end of the week, pro bono attorneys will assume full representation of unresolved cases.

Tina Fernandez, Director of Pro Bono Programs at the Law School’s William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, said the service trips are modeled after past Student Hurricane Network (SHN) trips. SHN was a nationwide pro bono student group founded to aid people affected by Hurricane Katrina. With the Justice Center’s assistance, UT Law students organized trips in January 2008 and 2009 to participate in SHN projects in Mississippi. When the SHN dissolved, students who had participated in those trips formed Pro Bono in January to continue to do pro bono legal work over the winter break. Fernandez helped the student group determine its vision for the trips and organize the work projects, application process, and logistics. “We reached out to public-interest legal-aid organizations and the pro bono section of the Texas State Bar to find projects for the students to work on, and then organized the trips to Houston and the Valley,” she said.

In addition to Fernandez, several UT Law Professors—including Justice Center Assistant Director Mary Crouter; Immigration Clinic Director Barbara Hines; Community Development Clinic Director Heather K. Way; and Community Development Clinic Adjunct Professor Frances Martinez—will accompany students to the Rio Grande Valley and Houston to oversee, advise, and assist with their work.

Fernandez said the service trips will offer participating students, most of whom are in their first or second years at the Law School, an opportunity to see how the legal issues they’re studying play out in the real world. “It’s a chance for them to see law in context,” she said. “They get hands-on experience that puts some real-life perspective on the degree they’re getting, and it’s really energizing for them.” She plans to work with students to organize similar trips every January, and she hopes the trips will allow the Pro Bono Program to develop longer-term working relationships with Texas pro bono and legal-aid groups outside Austin to create opportunities for even more Law School students to participate in service trips. There is currently a waiting list of twenty-four students to participate in the January 2010 trips, so the student interest is there. “Our goal is to establish enduring relationships with these organizations so we can do this every year,” she said. “And eventually it would be great to offer additional trips, perhaps during spring or summer break, in partnership with these and other organizations.”


Tina Fernandez, director, Pro Bono Programs at the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, 512-232-6170,