Five years into its highly successful run, the School of Law’s Federal Court Pro Se Assistance Program has made real strides in ensuring equal access to the justice system. Now that work is being celebrated in a big way.
The federal courts in New York’s Western District are honoring the program with the Robert H. Jackson Award for Distinguished Service, along with the law school’s partners in the effort, the Volunteer Lawyers Program in Buffalo and the Volunteer Legal Services Program in Rochester.
The award recognizes the work of students in a law school program that trains them to help unrepresented litigants, both in the federal courts in Buffalo and Rochester and in the family court in Erie County. Under the direction of Vice Dean Bernadette Gargano and adjunct instructor Bridget M. O’Connell ’98, students learn the delicate art of understanding a client’s situation, helping to determine the best course of action and guiding them through the court system. They staff help desks in the federal courts in both cities, gathering intake information for the volunteer lawyers who provide counsel to pro se litigants on a limited scope basis.
The award was a collective decision by the judges of the Western District, says Hon. Frank P. Geraci Jr., the district’s chief judge. “It’s a tremendous benefit to have attorneys and students help people through the process and be able to navigate a complex legal system,” Geraci says. “There might be jurisdiction issues, questions about what court would be proper to address particular litigation, whether there is merit to their case, how to properly draft a complaint and deal with the proper cause of action. All of this saves us time down the line.”
The need is great: As of the beginning of 2019, students had worked with over 1,100 low-income clients involved in more than 500 federal court cases.
“The strength of this program lies in the collaboration among UB School of Law, our community partners VLP and VLSP, the U.S. District Court, and volunteer lawyers, who donate their time and expertise in providing pro bono legal services,” says Gargano. “Although the work remains largely the same from five years ago, the longevity of the program speaks to its importance in the local and regional community.”
“I think it is very eye-opening for a lot of the students, and it’s the kind of front-line work that some students may never again experience,” says O’Connell, the current president of the Bar Association of Erie County. “As a young attorney, you don’t always have the chance to work on interview skills, and work with clients through their sometimes strong emotions to discern what the legal issue might be.”
“Our students have an opportunity to observe the many, many ways there are to practice law – how to deal with clients, how to help self-represented parties organize a motion or a case, how to help parties convey their message to the judge. It’s an opportunity to observe lawyers in the early days of fleshing out problems, identifying issues and giving advice – oftentimes difficult advice that’s not what the person wants to hear. The practicum also lets us talk about access-to-justice issues and how the Western New York legal community has worked to create relationships and collaborations to address some of those issues.”
The award will be presented at the annual Federal Court Dinner at Statler City in downtown Buffalo on Wednesday, October 23.
Also being honored are three attorneys receiving Pro Bono Awards, including Brian D. Barnas ’15 and Daniel J. Brady ’11, and six receiving Criminal Justice Act Awards, including Barry N. Covert ’89, Terrence M. Connors ’71 and James W. Grable Jr. ’96.