U.Va. Law Student Group Provides Record $378,000 in Public Interest Grants

May 4, 2009 — The University of Virginia's Public Interest Law Association has distributed a record 81 grants worth $378,000 to U.Va. law students working in public service jobs this summer.

"This year's applicants' commitment to public service and enthusiasm for public service was just incredible," the group's president, Rebecca Vallas, said. "Choosing from among those candidates was one of the hardest tasks any PILA board has ever had to undertake."

Nine more students will receive grants this year than did last year; 15 second-year law students will pocket grants of $7,083 and 66 first-year law students will each get $4,123.

Vallas said a record number of students applied for grants this year, which she attributed to an increase in the number of students interested in public interest careers, and the current state of the economy.

Students who apply for the grants complete a lengthy application and an interview with the association's board. To be eligible, first-year students must have completed 10 public service hours; second-year students must have completed 25 hours.

"This year was just incredible — the number of people who not just met, but exceeded the minimum requirements. We had applicants with as many as 200 and 300 public service hours completed prior to the deadline," including first-year law students, Vallas said. "The PILA board was just blown away by the public service hour requirement."

The money awarded in grants comes from several major fundraising campaigns, including an annual auction, sales of used books and study guides, and a large game tournament.

Typically, the Law School Foundation matches the association's funds, but Vallas said the foundation was especially generous this year.

"The Law School Foundation has been even more generous this year, exceeding its one-to-one match, allowing us to extend grants to a greater percentage of the applicants," Vallas said.

Grant recipients will undertake a variety of public interest internships this summer. Some will work internationally, while others remain in the United States to work in areas such as civil legal services, public interest organizations and state, local and national government.

First-year law student Jeree Harris will use her PILA grant to work for JustChildren, a Legal Aid Justice Center program that works to improve Virginia's public education, juvenile justice and foster care systems.

"Child advocacy and juvenile justice is really my passion and I'll say that this job with JustChildren is like getting my dream job for the summer," Harris said.

In her first year of law school, Harris worked with JustChildren through the Law School's Pro Bono Program and also through the Black Law Students Association. However, Harris' interest in the organization began before she even became a law student, when she was a senior at the College of William & Mary.

"My senior year, I came here for the annual Conference on Public Service and the Law, and I had the opportunity to meet some of the folks who work at JustChildren," Harris said. "I realized I really wanted to go to law school at U.Va., and that I wanted to be involved with JustChildren."

If it weren't for her grant, Harris said she's not sure if she would be able to accept an unpaid internship for the summer.

"The grant made it feasible. It made it possible, because I still have to pay rent. I'm really grateful to PILA," she said.

Erin Crowgey, a second-year law student, will use her grant to intern at the Colorado Springs Public Defender's Office. Because she holds a third-year practice certificate, she will represent her own clients.

"I want to work hard for something I care about and am passionate about," Crowgey said. "This summer I'll get experience in the courtroom and I'll get experience with the clients by going to jail and doing the interviews and dealing with the caseload in a public defender office."

Crowgey wants to work as a public defender after graduation, and hopes to provide services for children. Prior to law school, she worked with victims of domestic violence providing advocacy and counseling, and became interested in combating inequalities in the criminal justice system.

"I've always had an internal sense of justice and fairness, and there's such injustice in the criminal system for people who don't have money," she said.

Jesse Stewart, a first-year law student, will use his grant to work for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. He will work with attorneys who represent juveniles.

Stewart's interest in working with children began before law school when he was a legislative aide for New York City Councilor Eva Moskowitz, who chaired the Council Education Committee. He then taught first grade at a public school in Newark, N.J., through Teach for America.

"When I got into the classroom, I saw the disparities in education," Stewart said. "I realized that success isn't just about going to school and working really hard. It's also about being lucky enough to have good teachers and high standards set for you."

Now, because of the public-service grant, Stewart will have the chance to explore the juvenile justice system.

"When kids get caught up in the justice system at such an important part of their lives both educationally and socially, and they're often being pulled out of nurturing environments and just sort of stuck in the system," he said. "My interest in kids, my interest in social justice, draws me to this type of work."

A full list of grantees can be found here.

— By Ashley Matthews