group of students standing in front of a bar.

Left to right: Vice Dean Melinda Saran, Jillian Stenzel ‘22, Rachael Sparacino ‘22, Allison Contrera ‘22, Alexandra (Lexi) Heinz ‘22, Gianna Florentino ‘22, Lindsey Anderson (visiting student from U. of Oregon Law) and Abigail Whipple ‘22.

Pro Bono Scholars finish strong

The 2022 UB School of Law students who concluded their law school careers as Pro Bono Scholars were bar exam all-stars—all seven passed after taking the exam in February. That’s an outstanding accomplishment. But just as important is the hundreds of hours of public-interest legal work each of them provided the community in the months that followed.

It’s certainly a sacrifice to trade the final semester of law school to volunteer at nonprofit agencies in Western New York. While their classmates were winding down in O’Brian Hall with their final courses, the Pro Bono Scholars were working full time for 12 weeks in the public interest. They completed the ordeal of bar prep and the exam itself, and their internships more than satisfied the state’s requirement of 50 hours of volunteer legal service to qualify for bar admission.

“It’s a really rigorous program,” says Vice Dean Melinda Saran ’86, who administers the program at the law school. “They get about three days off, and there’s no spring break. But this was a strong cohort of students who provided important legal services to the community while also passing the bar and are now ready for admission.”

Conversations with two of the Scholars reflect both the practicalities of taking this route to graduation, and the real-world rewards of helping clients who might otherwise have nowhere to turn.

young woman posing for a portrait photo.

Gianna Florentino ‘22

Gianna Florentino22 served at the Volunteer Lawyers Project, coordinating the agency’s Afghan Arrival Project in partnership with the International Institute of Buffalo. She says dozens of Afghan nationals—individuals who worked with the American military or in the resistance to Taliban rule, along with their families—have arrived in Buffalo and need assistance in putting forth their claims for asylum. Florentino organized and trained law students to do intake interviews, working with translators, and routed them to volunteer attorneys who could help with their claims.

“These people really put their lives and families at risk to help the military,” Florentino says. “If you worked with the Americans or even the Afghan government, you’d be seen by the Taliban as anti-Muslim, and you face a high risk of torture and death.”

One challenge, she says, is that some clients lacked documentation that they had worked with the Americans, having destroyed such documents because they could put their families at risk of retaliation.

“I’ve always had a passion for immigration law,” says Florentino, who did a summer internship with Journey’s End Refugee Services during the summer after her first year. “I just believe it’s our job to advocate for those who are least able to navigate the legal system themselves.”

Post-graduation, Florentino is interviewing for legal jobs in Long Island where she grew up.

young woman with blonde hair posing for her portrait photo.

Jillian Stenzel ‘22

Her fellow Pro Bono Scholar   Jillian Stenzel ’22 worked with clients experiencing a different kind of distress: consumer credit collections. At the Western New York Law Center, she worked in the Consumer Debt Defense Department advising clients trying to defend themselves pro se against lawsuits.

“A lot of the clients were people who have had family issues or medical issues and ended up in a situation where they’re unable to prioritize paying their debt. They don’t hear from the credit card company, so they move on with their lives,” Stenzel says. “They may have a car loan that didn’t get paid off or other kinds of consumer debt, and so they’re being sued by a debt collector, often years after the fact. … It was really amazing to see what we were able to do for people in such a short time.”

Her placement also had a research component, as the agency is advocating for a Community Benefit Agreement in conjunction with plans for a new Buffalo Bills stadium in Orchard Park. As part of her research, she read up on the provisions of CBAs and looked at the potential for their long-term impact in the community.

Stenzel, who has a particular interest in real estate law, is beginning her professional career at the Buffalo law firm HoganWillig.

Of the Pro Bono Scholars program, she says, “I couldn’t recommend it enough. It’s a great opportunity to get actual work experience, and I felt a strong connection with the other Scholars, a strong sense of community. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.”

Four other members of the cohort worked at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo: Allison Contrera ’22, in the Attorneys for Children Unit; Alexandra Heinz ’22 and Abigail Whipple ’22, both in the Criminal Defense Unit; and Lindsey Anderson, a visiting student from the University of Oregon School of Law, in the Appeals and Post-Conviction Unit. In addition, student Rachel Sparacino ’22 served at Journey’s End.