balloon letters that spell out BPILP.

BPILP Auction celebrates a commitment to public service

Nearly thirty years and counting. That’s how long UB School of Law’s student-run fundraiser has been securing support for students’ public interest work.

This year’s edition of the BPILP (Buffalo Public Interest Law Program) Auction takes place Friday, February 16 starting at 6 p.m. at Pearl @ the Webb, next door to the Pearl Street Grill in downtown Buffalo. Tickets are available here, or visit the online auction; bidding opens the day before the event.

It’s all in service of the law school’s mission to advance justice by promoting law as a public good. BPILP awards competitive fellowships to law students who spend their summers in the public interest sector. Public interest and not-for-profit agencies are often understaffed and need help but don’t have the funds to pay students. BPILP fellowships “bridge the gap,” enabling students to do this important work while still making ends meet financially.

“I would call the auction the flagship event of the spring,” says Lisa Patterson, longtime faculty adviser to the group and the law school’s program director for externships, public interest offerings and access to justice initiatives. “It has traditionally been our celebration of public interest, and our BPILP alums love to come back to support the event and students. It’s also a way to applaud the great work that all public-sector lawyers are doing.”

man holds up basket containing goods he'd won at an auction.

Bill MacDonald, Assistant Dean for Academic and Bar Success, celebrates victory at the 2023 auction.

Patterson’s watercolor portraits of people’s pets, painted from a photo, are always a top seller, but what’s on the block runs the gamut: concert tickets for Tim McGraw and Drake, as well as Les Miserables; a hockey puck signed by former Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek; and the always popular “experience” offerings by faculty and staff, everything from yoga sessions to trivia nights to golf outings.

Typically, the auction funds three or four $3,000 fellowships. The students who receive them are active in BPILP both before and after their funded summer placements. As a result of BPILP’s fundraising efforts and the generous support of alumni and friends who fund additional placements, a total of over 30 fellowships were provided last summer, facilitating outstanding opportunities for law students to do access to justice work.

people looking over auction item.

Guests survey the prizes at last year’s auction.

“While law students may not be seasoned attorneys, we can help public interest organizations reach those in Western New York most in need of legal assistance,” says third-year student Steven Burke ’24, BPILP’s co-president. “Public interest organizations often rely on the ups and downs of charity and grants, and so any extra assistance law students can provide at low or no cost helps these organizations contact, inform and serve more of our community. It’s critical experience for us, and we fill critical roles for public interest organizations, nonprofits and government entities. The BPILP Auction serves as an extra fundraising boost, but also as a reminder that students are a critical part of the fight for equal justice.”

One recent beneficiary of BPILP support is second-year UB Law student Grace Vensel ’25, who spent last summer working in the Immigration Program of the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project. (She titled her blog post on the experience “How to Learn Immigration Law in 10 Days.”)

woman smiling.

Grace Vensel '25

“I was ready to experience anything that I could get my hands on,” Vensel says. “I was the only intern in the immigration department, and I worked with each of the attorneys there. It was really interesting to see the cases they had. A lot of our work involved client interactions, and that was probably my favorite part. I met people from all over the world—Afghanistan, Canada, Bangladesh. It was incredible.”

The placement was unpaid, and for Vensel, BPILP’s support made all the difference. “I’m really grateful,” she says. “I was able to pay my rent and buy groceries. If I didn’t have this opportunity, I would have had to get a minimum-wage job at a restaurant and I wouldn’t have gained this experience in the legal field. My experience at VLP has really opened me up to a lot of opportunities.”