by Frank Garza
Even before licensure, St. Mary’s students have made pro bono a part of their practice.
During the 2016-2017 academic year, St. Mary’s University School of Law students recorded nearly 5,000 pro bono and public service hours, a 36 percent increase compared with the prior school year.
The increase is due not only to the law school’s evolving response to new situations, such as Hurricane Harvey or fluctuating immigration regulations, but also to new programs that the Pro Bono Program continues to pursue.
At Lanier High School, discipline is handled … somewhat differently. When a person commits an infraction, a student at Lanier High School may be judged by a jury of their peers.
Based on a teen court model, the Peer Court Program trains St. Mary’s Law students to act as coaches for high school student jurors, who have taken on the responsibility of sentencing their peers.
The St. Mary’s Law Peer Court Program represents a novel approach and may be the first teen court program in Texas to partner with a law school. Despite having minimal precedent, participation in the first year outpaced expectations: 24 law students signed up to be coaches and 33 high school students volunteered.
The program heard 18 cases in a year, 10 of which were referrals from campus police that would have otherwise likely resulted in a juvenile criminal record.
When a warrant is lifted, a person can obtain a photo ID or pursue employment. In other words, they can begin rebuilding their lives.
On three occasions, the St. Mary’s Criminal Justice Clinic partnered with the San Antonio Municipal Court and Haven for Hope to provide warrants clinics for homeless clients and Haven for Hope members.
In September 2016, law students and clinical faculty and staff took care of 31 individuals in a single afternoon.
The following year, the Criminal Justice Clinic advised six clients, helped 32 individuals, closed out 42 warrants and reviewed 56 letters regarding warrants.
St. Mary’s Law students have started giving free advice through the State Bar of Texas’ new online portal for pro bono legal advice, TexasLegalAnswers.com. In July 2017, after hearing a presentation from the State Bar’s Hannah Allison and Brianna Stone, nine students enrolled in tackled four questions from the new website.
Law school students, faculty and staff have looked at ways they can engage the community to address the fear and uncertainty surrounding shifting immigration policy. Some students formed a new student organization, the Immigration Law Students Association, to promote pro bono opportunities and organize an advocacy campaign.
The Immigration and Human Rights Clinic has been a resource for the campus following September’s announced changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The clinic has held information sessions for students and has accepted requests for help with DACA renewal applications from the student body.
In Fall 2017, St. Mary’s University community members contributed 91 hours to Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, the most of any organization in Texas.
On top of all of this, the clinic has continued its representation of individuals and families detained at facilities south of San Antonio in Karnes City and Pearsall.
In response to Hurricane Harvey, one student – Stephanie Harlien, a Corpus Christi native – has taken a leadership role in bringing student organizations together. Not only has she coordinated donation efforts across student organizations, but she also began organizing a school-sponsored Alternative Spring Break for the Coastal Bend.
Faculty and staff have worked closely with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., or TRLA, as it coordinates statewide disaster recovery efforts, particularly with law schools. Clinical Professor of Law Genevieve Hébert Fajardo has agreed to accept referrals from TRLA on cases involving mobile home title issues, and Staff Attorney Greg Zlotnick, who supervises the Pro Bono Program, has volunteered to help people replace IDs.
“The School of Law takes seriously its responsibility to advocate for under-served populations, to develop a culture of public service in its students and alumni, and to foster a student body engaged with its surrounding neighborhoods, region, nation and world,” Zlotnick said.