OneJustice Blog

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600 miles, bald eagles and elk? Debra dives into an unusual classroom through pro bono

Debra is a law student and mom – and a proud participant in the OneJustice pro bono network

She shares her first-hand reflections here as part of our series during National Volunteer Month.

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Debra is a law student at USF School of Law, works full-time at Verizon, is the mom of a toddler, and is also a proud participant in OneJustice’s Justice Bus and Law Student Pro Bono Projects.

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By Debra Pinzon-Hamilton

When I began law school in August 2011, I wanted to eventually use my law degree to promote social justice, so I was excited to learn that University of San Francisco would give me an opportunity to start immediately through USF’s partnership with OneJustice.  I took a couple days to consider making the Pro Bono pledge, worried about how to fit the volunteer hours in my full-time work and part-time school schedule without sacrificing more time with my infant daughter.  I decided to do it, and making the Pro Bono pledge has been the best decision I made since I first decided to go to law school.

I have taken advantage of a wealth of pro bono opportunities during my time in law school.  My experiences started with the APILO/AABA Civil Justice Clinic, where I was paired with an attorney to serve as the translator for a Spanish-speaking client.  We were able to get someone on track toward resolving a complex immigration problem, exactly what I want to do after law school.  I have also volunteered for the San Francisco Bar Association’s Legal Advice and Referral Clinic (LARC), assisting with social security, tax, disability issues, family, criminal, and immigration law.

Given my interest in immigration law, I have volunteered twice with the East Bay Naturalization Collaborative, a day-long clinic to assist clients with citizenship applications.  This year my husband (who is an LLM student at Golden Gate University – another OneJustice partner school) and I volunteered together, while my mother-in-law watched our daughter.  I also attended a couple of immigration hearings on behalf of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.  That was one of the most educational experiences to date.  I saw how immigration judges, government attorneys, court interpreters, and detainees interact; I saw how very few detainees have legal representation; I witnessed that we treat immigrants as if they were prisoners; and I saw how intricately criminal law is interwoven with immigration law.

Yurok Veteran clients_2013

These veterans received legal assistance and advice at the inaugural Justice Bus clinics for the Yurok Tribe in January of this year.

This school year when my husband started the LLM program, I knew we both would have even less time.  We take turns studying and spending time with our daughter, so I knew that at the beginning of the semester, I would have more time to fit in this type of invaluable experience.  I waffled a bit because I had not yet spent a night away from my now 2-year old daughter, but I decided to join the first-ever Justice Bus trip to Humboldt and Del Norte counties to bring legal assistance to veterans who were members of the Yurok Tribe.

We spent two days with the Yurok Tribe.  The Swords to Plowshares attorneys did a great job of teaching us the substantive law in terms of benefits for veterans and encouraged us to put our legal skills to the task.  After I conducted some initial research on a question that came up, the attorney checked over my work – and I realized that one of the most important skills from law school is learning how to find answers, not simply knowing them.  The OneJustice attorneys were also outstanding at relating everything back to real world law practice.  A OneJustice attorney had me interview the tribal council chief.  He then related it to deposing witnesses and how best to phrase questions.

In the end, we didn’t help as many veterans on the trip as we had hoped, but having fewer clients gave us an opportunity to spend more time with each one.  It also gave a member of the hosting tribe time to take a couple of us to see a tribal ceremonial site and to teach us about their way of life, the differences in their legal system, and about the legal and social challenges faced by Native Americans and by people living in rural America.

USF students Yurok Tribal Center

Thank you to Debra and the other USF law students who traveled over 600 miles round trip to bring Justice Bus clinics to veterans in Del Norte and Humboldt counties!

In two short days, I learned some new substantive law; I was introduced to an entirely new culture; I made more connections for life-after-school; and I also learned that I can survive one night without kissing my toddler goodnight, and it was absolutely worth it.  I even saw a bald eagle flying over a river during my tour, and we all saw elk during our drive north.  That is some classroom!

I also work with other organizations, but OneJustice got me started on pro bono work and has provided the bulk of my experiences.  I feel very lucky to attend a law school with such a strong commitment to social justice, and OneJustice is a large part of that.

Social justice aside, there is no replacement for the type of experience you get from pro bono work.  The legal community is small, so if for no other reason than to make future connections, I highly recommend getting out there and doing everything you can.  No task is too menial – make copies, fill out forms, send faxes, translate if you can – it will relate to your job, it feels good, and people will remember that you enthusiastically helped.  If you keep going back, each time you will have more opportunities to carry greater responsibility.  It will make you a better lawyer, regardless of what you practice.

A heartfelt Volunteer Month THANK YOU from everyone in the OneJustice network to Debra and all our amazing volunteers!

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Debra Pinzon-Hamilton is a second year student at University of San Francisco School of Law in the part-time division. She also works full-time as a Senior Consultant in Pricing and Contract Management at Verizon.  After completing her Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering at Louisiana State University, she moved to San Francisco to work in her field.  She spent two years traveling and volunteering in Latin America, which helped inspire her to return to law school.  She aspires to pursue social justice after law school.

One response to “600 miles, bald eagles and elk? Debra dives into an unusual classroom through pro bono

  1. Pingback: Did you ever spend spring break stuck in a classroom? | OneJustice Blog

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