A Call to Serve

September 23, 2020
Students seek out service over tumultuous summer months

The summer of 2020 will be remembered for many things: as a time of transition as Americans adapted to life in a pandemic, and prepared for the months ahead. As a reckoning on matters of social justice. And, for many Richmond Law students, as a time when they were called to help.

“One of the hardest emotions to wrestle with right now is helplessness, because we see what is sickening our society, but we don’t know how to effectuate its healing,” explained Tara Casey, director of the Carrico Center for Pro Bono & Public Service. “I think many students were feeling called to action,” said Casey. “For a lot of students, this is why they came to law school, because they wanted to be of service.”

Casey worked with local Richmond agencies to help facilitate that action in several ways. In partnership with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, she connected students with the Eviction Helpline to field calls from individuals facing eviction. And in partnership with the Legal Aid Justice Center, law students across Virginia trained to provide case support for the Virginia Redemption Project, aimed at accelerating the conditional pardon process for incarcerated individuals during the pandemic.

One of the larger partnerships came in the form of the RVA Legal Collaborative, whose organizers include Richmond Law alumni Sara Gaborik, L’02, Emilee Hasbrouck, L’09, and Doug Ramseur, L’96. This group focuses on providing legal support to those arrested during the protests for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. “For some of these charges, the commonwealth’s attorney is not seeking jail time,” explained Casey. “That means a public defender is not available. That was one of the driving forces for the creation of this group.”

According to their mission statement, “The RVA Legal Collaborative seeks to help connect protestors of racial injustice and police brutality with pro bono lawyers. Our goal is to support those who are speaking out against systems, institutions, laws, and narratives that have marginalized, silenced, and terrorized BIPOC people for centuries.” The collaborative has connected 21 attorneys with over 125 people on a variety of offenses.

One of the attorneys volunteering to represent protestors is Julie E. McConnell, L’99, director of the Children’s Defense Clinic at Richmond Law. In conjunction with Casey, she helped identify legal issues for the students to research and trained students to review police body-worn camera footage of the arrests of protestors to help identify important legal issues for the pro bono attorneys working through the RVA Legal Collaborative. Richmond Law professors Josh Kubicki and Roger Skalbeck also helped by forging a partnership with iConect, an eDiscovery platform for pro bono software for the project. 

“This is a wonderful opportunity for students to help improve access to justice for the citizens of Virginia who are working to help our community evolve,” said McConnell. “The students are learning firsthand what a difference thorough research and motions practice can make in effective representation. Additionally, they are developing a marketable skill in terms of how to efficiently review discovery and provide important feedback to the attorneys with whom they are working.”

When Casey reached out for student volunteers, “I thought it would be a good time to try to step in and help out with serving the Richmond community,” said Emily Gindhart, L’21. “I’ve been following on Twitter the protests, and I was pretty disheartened by the response of police in some circumstances,” she added. After being paired with an attorney, Gindhart was tasked with legal research and memo writing on the constitutional issues related to the arrests. Other students helped with review of cell phone and body camera footage.

Students returned to school in August, but that doesn’t mean they’re slowing down when it comes to helping their communities. “I’m hoping to stay in touch with the Legal Collab and provide more research as needed,” said Gindhart. Amidst challenges of delivering legal services safely – and, in some cases, remotely – Casey and the students at Richmond Law are continuing existing programs, like their housing law and immigration services, and looking for new opportunities to help. When it comes to pro bono service and community outreach, says Casey, “We’re pushing play for the fall.”