PUBLISHED:May 08, 2020

Students honored for commitment to public interest and pro bono at Duke Law


"There was probably a moment when you were someone’s hero,” Dean Kerry Abrams told the honorees.

Students recognized as public interest leaders These students were recognized as Public Interest Leaders at the virtual ceremony.

In opening remarks at the Public Interest and Pro Bono Recognition Event held via Zoom on May 6, Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law and professor of law, observed that the issues students handle on behalf of clients can be among the most important things in those clients’ lives. “I’m really proud of the tradition of service that’s integral to who we are at Duke Law,” Abrams said.

She told the third-year students being honored to keep two things in mind. “First, think about the pro bono or public interest work that you did while you were here at Duke. There was probably a moment when you were someone’s hero. Reflect on the challenges and rewards, and really hang onto that feeling. I’m confident that you will remember this early work throughout your careers. It’s going to make an indelible impression on you. And you can use that memory to power through when you are feeling especially challenged.

“Second, I want you to remember that you didn’t do it alone. It takes all of us working together to make a difference. Without a robust community of people doing this work we won’t be able to help enough people. It’s our job as lawyers and future lawyers to hold our profession accountable to the people to make pro bono service a part of everyone’s lives in the law, and I very much hope for all of you that it becomes a significant part of your legal practice going forward.”

Assistant Dean for Public Interest and Pro Bono Stella Boswell spoke about the 14 pro bono projects students undertook at Duke Law in the 2019-2020 academic year. Among those she highlighted

  • the new Consumer Rights and Economic Justice Project through which students took on projects throughout the country and worked closely with the Civil Justice Clinic;
  • the Fair Chance Project, which handles criminal record expunction petitions for clients as even dismissed charges and not guilty verdicts remain on a client’s record in North Carolina and can have a negative impact on employment and housing and drivers’ license restoration work for North Carolinians who have lost their licenses and can’t regain them due to an inability to pay the associated fees;
  • the expanded Duke Immigration and Refugee Project through which students partnered with Clinical Professor Kate Evans and a local organization to conduct “know your rights” presentations and collect information that can support asylum petitions with immigrant detainees at the Alamance Country Detention Center;
  • and the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund that partnered with Harvard Law School’s Animal Legal Clinic on a variety of projects.

Boswell also lauded the work of various “pop-up” projects, such as Wills for Heroes through which student volunteers prepared wills, health care powers of attorney, and advanced directives for first responders in North Carolina in partnership with the N.C. Bar Foundation; a similar endeavor for Retiree Appreciation Day at Fort Bragg; and students who worked with the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence under the supervision of a local lawyer, Sherry Honeycutt Everett.

“This is an example of when students have to pivot and respond really quickly,” Boswell said. “Once the COVID-19 crisis happened, they started looking into the ways in which victims of domestic violence were particularly vulnerable when quarantined. That was just a great effort, and that’s been primarily first-year students on the project.”

Boswell announced that 44 students provided a full week of pro bono service during their fall, winter, or spring breaks. She said that 158 students from the Class of 2020 completed at least 50 hours of pro bono service while at the law school, and 32 students performed pro bono service during all three years in law school. Those numbers are likely to increase as students continue to report their pro bono hours, she said.

Recognizing pro bono “all stars”

Kim Burrucker, director of Public Interest and Pro Bono, recognized a number of students for their overall commitment to pro bono service and their special contributions beyond their invested hours.

Sajika Ratnam, a 2020 LLM candidate, approached Burrucker early in the year, “eager to learn and serve,” she said, noting her interest in being involved with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) even though it did not qualify to fulfill the New York State Bar pro bono requirement. She certified to prepare regular U.S. returns and was one of only two students certified to prepare foreign students’ tax returns. She also spent a week in December at the Mississippi Center for Justice in Biloxi working on civil issues for low-income marginalized residents of that area.

Amanda Ng ’20 represented Duke Law in Guardian ad Litem (GAL) and served as student co-director of the project in her second year and as director in her third year. “Although the children with whom Amanda worked resided a couple of counties away, she still fulfilled her responsibilities as a GAL with regular interviews and visits,” Burrucker said. Ng was also an Innocence Project volunteer and completed extra hours in both the Health Justice Clinic and the Immigrant Rights Clinic.

Anna Ellement ’20 volunteered with VITA through all three years at Duke Law and for two years with the Coalition Against Gendered Violence, holding leadership positions in both projects, and in both, identified and worked to fill gaps in service. She also participated in the Community Enterprise Clinic, where she exceeded the required clinic hours, Burrucker said.

Over his time at Duke Law, David Gardner ’20 participated in the Innocence Project, the Cancer Pro Bono Project, and Lawyer on the Line, serving as student leader of the latter two as a 2L. “In his role as co-director of the Cancer Pro Bono Project, one of David’s duties was to confirm client appointments,” Burrucker said. “David went beyond just leaving a message, but made sure he actually connected with the client and that the client was ready for their appointment and if they needed to cancel he could assist them with rescheduling or, if need be, securing other resources.” Gardner also exceeded his required clinic hours with multiple semesters in the Health Justice Clinic and one in the Immigrant Rights Clinic, and with an externship in the North Carolina Department of Justice.

Maddy Mumma ’20 participated in the Innocence Project all three years of her law school career, and served as student director as a 2L. “During this leadership, Maddy helped start numerous groups within the project, including a podcast and an exoneree reintegration group,” Burrucker said. “She also increased volunteer participation overall.” She also participated in the Civil Justice Clinic and completed externships with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of North Carolina and the Durham District Attorney’s office, where she exceeded her required hours.

Megan Sharkey ’20 has served in the Duke Immigrant and Refugee Project and VITA. “During her 1L year, we got word that the State Employees Credit Union, SECU, which had in the past prepared over 100,000 tax returns statewide, was pulling out of the VITA program,” Burrucker said. “The exit of SECU from the program was leaving a large gap of service to rural communities throughout North Carolina, and Megan was one of a few students who joined me in a [long] trip, on a Sunday, to Onslow County to prepare tax returns.” Sharkey also exceeded the required hours in both the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and the International Human Rights Clinic.

Michael Wajda ’20 participated in the Cancer Pro Bono Project, VITA, Lawyer on the Line, and Wills for Heroes. As co-director of the Cancer Pro Bono Project, he devised a more equitable formula for allocating shifts for volunteers, Burrucker said. He also participated in the Brake Light Clinic and completed extra hours as an extern with the State Board of Elections and in the First Amendment Clinic.

Justin Pack exceeded the required hours for the Health Justice Clinic and spent spring break with the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s office. He and Juliet Park ’20, another honoree, did an extraordinary job as the student founders of the Duke Law Fair Chance Project, Burrucker said. “Together Juliet and Justin coordinated assignments, recruited student volunteers and supervisors, worked on expunction files and petitions, and reviewed driving records to advise clients with unpaid fees for license renewals,” she said. “This spring, they organized a highly successful, in person clinic for Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers — TROSA — and also successfully converted the project to one that can be done remotely. Both are well on their way to becoming pros in North Carolina expunction law.”

“Nicholas Lynch ’20 has participated in a number of projects, many of them simultaneously,” Burrucker said. Lynch has participated in a winter break and spring break legal service trip, he served as leader of a spring break legal service trip and the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund. He has helped rewrite the ACLU Alaska Prisoner Rights Guide and conducted research for the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission. “Nick has exceeded required hours in clinics and externships and the list goes on and on,” she said.

Recognizing public interest leaders

Boswell concluded the ceremony by praising a number of “public interest leaders” who she said were integral to running public interest and pro bono activities at Duke Law by helping plan and host the Public Interest Retreat, raising money for summer service through the Public Interest Law Foundation, hosting panels, advocating for curricular changes, training peers, and helping students practice for public interest employment interviews, among many other activities. “We are regularly just amazed at the insight and the skill with which they coach their peers, and they lead student organizations,” Boswell said. These public interest leaders, all members of the Class of 2020 are: Melissa Dix, Hannah Elson, Gardner, Chelsea Kapes, Ng, Shoshana Silverstein, Calypso Taylor, Wajda, and Heather Whittemore.

“Every year, I think to myself, ‘How are we going to do this without them?’” Boswell said. “I know that they will go forth and continue to contribute to public interest at Duke Law School even after they are gone.”