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St. John’s Law Celebrates Pro Bono Week 2016

Jeffrey Deskovic (center) with PILSA students.
Thursday, November 3, 2016

During the week of October 24-29, 2016, the Law School’s Public Interest Center and its student association, the Public Interest Law Student Association (PILSA), marked National Pro Bono Week with a series of events.

The American Bar Association launched its National Celebration of Pro Bono initiative four years ago “to provide a format for showcasing the incredible difference that pro bono lawyers make to our nation, to our system of justice, to our communities and, most of all, to the clients they serve.”

The celebration’s theme for this year was “And Justice for All.” PILSA’s director of special events, Philip George ’18, and its assistant director of special events, Dana Kurtti ‘18, worked closely with Professors Gina M. Calabrese and Ann L. Goldweber, the Public Interest Center’s co-directors, to plan campus events that promoted the theme of justice, that raised awareness of public interest law, and that connected students with alumni and public interest resources.

“As the Center’s co-directors, Professor Calabrese and I are committed to creating a culture at St. John’s Law of representing the underrepresented in society,” says Professor Goldweber. “Pro Bono Week is an important step in furthering this mission by bringing together public interest alumni with our current students. Participation in our pro bono programs is growing and we’re hopeful that events like Pro Bono Week will encourage students to participate in similar programs throughout their careers.”   

St. John’s Pro Bono Week celebration began with a “Meet the Public Defenders” panel program on Monday, October 24, 2016. Kerry Jamieson '06, Masai Lord '14, and David Narain '02 recounted a day in the life of a public defender for the more than 30 students in attendance. Sharing their unique career paths, the three alumni offered practical advice to students interested in pursuing this rewarding work. They also explained how participating in clinics and otherwise demonstrating a commitment to public service facilitates the job search process.

The next day, St. John’s Law students had the opportunity to observe fellow students who are participating in the Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic this semester. They sat in on a class and learned about the work undertaken in this in-house clinic that represents low-income elderly Queens residents in matters including deed theft, foreclosure, and debt collection.

Later that same day, the Law School’s Coalition for Social Justice, Criminal Law Society, Black Law Student Association, Asian Pacific Law Students Association, and Latin American Law Students Association teamed with the New York State Bar Association to bring exonerated prisoner Jeffrey Deskovic to speak to over 80 students, faculty members, and alumni.

Deskovic shared how he was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated while still in high school. For the next 16 years, he maintained his innocence through seven unsuccessful appeals until, with the help of the non-profit Innocence Project, he was exonerated in 2006 by then-Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore '81.

Deskovic, who went on to earn a master’s degree and is now in law school, expressed his belief that every lawyer has a role to play in ending wrongful convictions and in helping those already wrongfully convicted. He also offered suggestions for reforming the criminal justice system.

“It was truly an eye-opening event,” says Laina Boris '18. “I find it amazing that the exonerees' spirits haven’t been crushed by the injustice they have had to face. I can’t even imagine having to go through everything they went through, especially knowing that all along the true offender was still at large.”

For Stephanie Tan ’18 the event was a call to action. "It was a great opportunity to hear about someone's experience in the criminal justice system, and to learn how we can give back in the legal profession,” she shares, adding, “Mr. Deskovic truly embodies St. John's Vincentian spirit and inspired me to work towards improving the criminal justice system."

The Law School’s Pro Bono Week celebration continued on Wednesday, October 26, 2016, with a panel program featuring Amanda Carter '16, Emily Corcione '14, Amanda Kurtti '15, Hillary Martin '15, and Robert Seewald '09. The panelists discussed their paths through law school, their experience in the clinical program, and their current work in the public interest. The 30-plus students attending the event had a chance to ask questions and to network with alumni.

The weeklong celebration closed with a training for the Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO) on Friday, October 28, 2016. Victoria Hill '17, St. John’s student coordinator for CLARO, led the training for students interested in volunteering for CLARO, which provides limited legal advice to low-income New Yorkers being sued by debt collectors. The students were trained to conduct intake of litigants, review pleadings, accompany volunteer attorneys at litigant interviews, and assist with court paperwork. They’re now qualified to be CLARO volunteers in Queens Civil Court.

“All of our pro bono week events saw outstanding student turnout and alumni participation,” Professor Calabrese says. “Student enthusiasm for public interest and pro bono is high, and our growing network of public interest alumni are extending a helping hand. As the driving force behind our Pro Bono Week activities, our PILSA students showed that they are growing into their professional roles. They diligently organized the events, but more importantly, they are dedicated to seeing that our justice system serves the poor and disenfranchised.”