By Frank Garza
Third-year J.D. student and decorated U.S. Army veteran Tanya Burke zipped through the pro bono hour requirement for graduation in her first semester at the St. Mary’s University School of Law.
Since then, she’s amassed more than 290 hours of pro bono service working with the St. Mary’s Law Pro Bono Program, Catholic Charities and the San Antonio Legal Services Association (SALSA).
“I just volunteer whenever I can. It’s all part of being a concerned citizen in America,” Burke said.
Burke is a retired U.S. Army Major with 23 awards and 26 years of service. She served in France, Germany, Iraq and Italy, and has done temporary duty in Japan and South Korea. She has earned both service and meritorious awards, including the Knowlton Award for those who contributed significantly to the promotion of military intelligence and an induction into the Honorable Order of Saint Barbara for demonstrating the highest standards of integrity and moral character, and contributing to the promotion of the Field Artillery.
Now in law school, she said she remains passionate about serving her community, especially her fellow veterans.
As part of SALSA, Burke has served as student coordinator for two clinics: a veteran’s workshop clinic and a wills clinic. Burke is also a Moody Veterans Law Fellow at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), working as a law clerk on veteran’s cases. Moody Veterans Law Fellows are committed to working on legal matters for veterans and often are provided a wider perspective on the many legal and social issues facing veterans, such as homelessness.
One particular case at TRLA stands out in Burke’s mind. The individual had been a homeless veteran for more than 10 years after losing his job as a commercial truck driver because he was charged with driving under the influence. Three months ago, TRLA completed his case , and reinstated his driving license. Now he has a job, and is no longer on the streets anymore.
“It’s really important to me to provide as much as I can in legal services to veterans,” Burke said. “I’ve wanted to do that since the beginning and I will continue to do that once I’m a licensed attorney.”
Burke has established herself as a fighter alongside her clients, said Greg Zlotnick, J.D., Director of Pro Bono Programs.
“Tanya demonstrates the Catholic and Marianist values of service, education and social justice that animate the St. Mary’s University School of Law,” Zlotnick said. “She is a remarkably reliable presence as a pro bono volunteer.”
Though a non-traditional student, Burke found her comfort zone with law school quickly. The readings for class reminded her of her role in the Army.
“I was in the intelligence field. I analyzed reports, I created briefs and then I gave the briefs. So I just needed to learn the language of law,” she said.
When she competed with the St. Mary’s Law Alternative Dispute Resolution team at the ABA 2019 Southwest Regional Arbitration Competition, she realized she had not only learned the language of law, but mastered it.
“The comments we got were that we didn’t look like law students pretending to be lawyers, but lawyers defending a client,” Burke said. “It made me feel like I’m ready to go out, start my firm and start helping people.