Kaitlyn Lauber ’21 initially kept track, but soon lost count of the hours she spent staffing Erie County Family Court’s help desk. It turned out to be more than 400 hours last year - over the spring semester, full time in the summer, and then on into the fall.
That’s a clear commitment to pro bono work, and the New York State Bar Association took notice. Nominated by her supervisor at the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, Lauber has been recognized with the state bar’s President's Pro Bono Service Award. She’s the only law student in the state to receive that honor for 2021.
The help desk is the point of first contact for many people who have cases in family court or who want to bring a case. “They bring us all the questions they have, and we try to make sense of it and give them the best advice we can,” she says. “It’s limited-scope representation; we give them the tools to represent themselves.”
The cases range widely—custody and child support issues, abuse and neglect, even human trafficking. Lauber says she’d often confer with 10 to 20 clients a day. “You learn the law very quickly when dealing with these situations,” she says.
And doing this work in the midst of the pandemic only complicated the process. Except for a few weeks in the spring, she did it all by phone from her living room. “Most of these people couldn’t get hold of anybody during the pandemic,” she says. “For some of them, I was the first person they had talked to in months.”
Last summer she worked full time in VLP’s Positive Individuals and Families Unit, which serves people affected by HIV/AIDS. That included online investigating on behalf of one client who feared he might be scammed by a sham landlord. During the academic year, she continued her worked as part of the law school’s Access to Justice Hybrid Clinic.
“I was impressed by Kaitlyn’s ability to empathize with our clients and her desire to help them with their legal issues,” says Lori Roman Genovese ’11, her supervisor at VLP, who wrote an effusive two-page nomination letter to the state Bar. “She stayed late, requested case law so she could better understand the issues, and volunteered to work extra hours. Her work ethic and ability to connect with clients continued when we transitioned to the phone line model.
“I know I will be working with her as a colleague in the future and look forward to watching her in the courtroom—just hopefully not on the other side.”
Now studying for the bar exam, Lauber says her goal is to become a family court attorney, ideally doing juvenile criminal defense. Family law, she says, is underrated. “Generally, people find family law to be emotionally charged and difficult,” she says. “Logic isn’t necessarily a contributing factor to a client’s behavior. It requires a certain level of people work in addition to the legal work. But I fell in love with it.”