May 12, 2009 — With 1,562 hours of pro bono service during her three years at the University of Virginia, graduating law student Rebecca Vallas has broken a school record for devotion to public service.
"My parents instilled in me very early on the importance of working to better the lives of those who are less fortunate," Vallas said. "Volunteering and working with the low-income community through the Law School's legal aid clinics has allowed me to gain hands-on experience doing the work I am committed to doing throughout my career, while having a tangible impact on the lives of individuals and families who need legal help."
Vallas has more hours than anyone who has ever volunteered through the Law School's Pro Bono Program, which encourages law students to dedicate at least 75 hours to pro bono work during their three years at Law School. Students have donated more than 85,000 hours since the program began in 1999.
A psychology major at Emory University, Vallas always envisioned herself as a social worker helping female abuse victims, and worked in internships to pursue that goal.
"I saw around me prosecutors, legal aid lawyers, public defenders — lawyers, who had more tools in their arsenal than I did to bring about real change in these women's and their families lives," Vallas said. "I knew then and there that if I wanted to have an impact on the community I cared about, then I wanted a law degree, too."
During her time at the Law School, Vallas served as president of the Public Interest Law Association, an organization that raises money for and distributes grants to students working in public service positions during the summer. This year PILA distributed more than $378,000 in grants, also a school record.
Vallas' service includes volunteering with the International Rescue Committee, working on behalf of detained immigrants and helping the indigent with housing issues. She is an American Bar Association John Curtin Fellow for Legal Services, an Equal Justice America Fellow, a Doris Buffet Fellow and a Patton Boggs Public Policy Fellow.
Last year she was awarded the Ritter Prize, given to four second-year students who show extraordinary character, honor and integrity. In addition to winning the Pro Bono Award in 2007 and 2008, she received the Claire Corcoran Award, presented to one or two second-year students who demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to public interest work.
"I have never met anyone so dedicated to helping those in our society who do not have the means to afford legal counsel," said Yared Getachew, director of the Law School's Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center. "Rebecca has completed numerous clinical programs, spending as much as 30 to 40 hours per week at the Legal Aid Justice Center assisting low-income clients to resolve legal problems concerning public benefits including food stamps and Medicaid, as well as representing individuals faced with eviction in housing court."
After graduation, Vallas will serve as a Skadden Fellow, the most prestigious honor for law graduates seeking to work in public service. The fellowship will allow her to work two years for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, serving the elderly, disabled and others who are improperly cut off from receiving government benefits.
"The project I'm going to be doing and that it's going to be funding is my dream job, and it's with my dream employer," Vallas said. "It's just the absolute best-case scenario for what I could be doing for two years after graduation."