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March 10, 2021

Forging New Service Partnerships During the Pandemic: Matching Law Students with Pro Bono Attorneys in Legal Service

Kristi J. Denney, Assistant Clinical Professor Externship and Pro Bono Director, University of Idaho College of Law

The Idaho legal community is finding innovative ways to increase access to justice. Through a partnership between the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program (IVLP) and the University of Idaho College of Law (UI Law), law students are providing research, writing, and drafting assistance to licensed attorneys accepting pro bono cases. Here’s what that process looks like. An attorney volunteers to accept a pro bono case referral through IVLP. When IVLP forwards the case information, they include a short paragraph about requesting law student assistance through UI Law’s Pro Bono Program. The attorney can follow a link to a web form on the UI Law webpage to request student help. The web form takes only a couple minutes to complete and requests information such as the nature of the work, timeline for completion, and any preferred qualifications for a student. The Pro Bono Program intakes the information and matches an interested student with the attorney.

Then the magic of mentorship happens. The law student gets the opportunity to work one-on-one with a practitioner in the community on a meaningful project that makes a difference in the lives of individuals. Some examples of the fruit of this partnership include a law student drafting guardianship documents under the supervision of a pro bono attorney; a student writing an initial draft of an asylum appeal for review by the pro bono attorney; and a criminal law practitioner handling a divorce proceeding on behalf of an incarcerated individual and permitting a law student to assist in the process.

The benefits of this model accrue to all parties involved. Attorneys with busy schedules may feel more confident agreeing to a pro bono case if they can assign some of the work to a student. A lighter pro bono commitment can encourage more lawyers to volunteer and potentially reduce the time commitment of taking on a pro bono case. Of course, this leads to more clients served. And arguably the greatest beneficiary of this model are the students themselves. Students get to connect with a practitioner for mentorship and potential networking while gaining legal skills and getting an upfront view of the importance of pro bono work.  

As we all know, providing in-person pro bono legal services during the pandemic has presented many challenges. Consistent with the expectation that licensed attorneys will provide pro bono legal service, UI Law requires all students to complete 50 hours of pro bono service during their law school career. Many student pro bono service hours have been completed by through walk-in client clinics or other direct representation opportunities.

When the Covid-19 pandemic limited opportunities for direct legal representation, UI Law needed to be creative in finding opportunities for our students to fulfill their pro bono legal service. It turned out to be the perfect time to strengthen our partnership with the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program. IVLP, an arm of the Idaho State Bar’s Foundation, connects low-income individuals in need of legal services with pro bono volunteer attorneys in the community. In addition to matching screened applicants with attorneys, IVLP provides mentorship, CLEs, and malpractice insurance for volunteer attorneys. By working together in creative ways, we’ve been able to build connections, foster mentorship opportunities, and serve the needs of the community.