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Law School Marks 2017 National Pro Bono Celebration

2017 National Celebration Pro Bono
Monday, November 13, 2017

Nine years ago, the American Bar Association launched its annual National Celebration of Pro Bono “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.”

St. John’s Law participates in the initiative with a series of events for students and the wider Law School community hosted by the Law School’s Public Interest Center. “The Center is committed to creating a culture at St. John’s of representing the underrepresented in society,” says Professor Ann L. Goldweber, who directs the Center with Professor Gina M. Calabrese. “Hosting events as part of the National Pro Bono Celebration is an important step in furthering this mission by bringing together public interest attorneys with our current students. Participation in the Law School’s pro bono programs is growing, and we’re hopeful that events like these will encourage students to engage in similar programs throughout their careers.”

Spearheading the Law School’s 2017 National Pro Bono Celebration were Antonia Edwards '19, the executive director of the Center’s student board of directors, Kaleigh Shea '18, director of special events, and the rest of the executive board.

“This year’s theme was assisting homeless youth,” Edwards says. “Working with Professors Calabrese and Goldweber, we organized events and activities to raise awareness of youth homelessness as a national issue, to spotlight the work being done to address the problem, and to connect students with opportunities to help the millions of children who experience homelessness every year and who confront a range of related legal issues.”

St. John’s celebration began with a compelling panel program on “Advocacy for Homeless Youth: A Multifaceted Approach” featuring Beth Hofmiester, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project; Craig Hughes, a legal advocate at the Urban Justice Center specializing in homelessness issues; Joean Villarin, assistant director of drop-in and HIV services at Streetwork Project; and Sr. Nancy Downing, executive director and in-house counsel at New York City’s Covenant House.

“I enjoyed the panel because it incorporated the first-hand perspective of a really diverse group of professionals who are dedicated to helping homeless youth,” says Emily McNiff '20. “It was especially inspiring to see that, within a legal community as large as New York City’s, these attorneys have networked to contribute to the homeless youth effort and have found ways to provide support for each other.”

The celebration continued with a presentation by Nikki Johnson-Huston, a successful Philadelphia tax attorney who, after facing severe poverty and homelessness as a child, went on to become the first student at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law to graduate in just four years with a J.D./LL.M. in taxation and an MBA.

During her talk, which was co-sponsored by the Law School’s Black Law Student Association and Women’s Law Society, Johnson-Huston shared that, although she isn’t a public interest lawyer, she is committed to using her legal skills to uplift her community and accomplishes that goal through pro bono work.

Gabi Pollard '20 found Johnson-Huston’s message inspiring. “She told us we don’t necessarily need to have had a big struggle, such as being homeless as a child, to now help and make a difference,” she says, agreeing with Johnson-Huston’s perspective that “being open to learning and helping people makes a huge difference.”

Johnson-Huston’s talk also impressed Adam Myren '19. “It was so refreshing to see someone doing good in the community and fighting for justice. It was even better that she shared it with us so candidly. She was so articulate about her legal work, then she gave us very genuine and organic insights about her choices and ethical motivators.”

Reflecting on these and other highlights of this year’s National Celebration of Pro Bono at St. John’s Law, Professor Calabrese says: “All of our events saw outstanding student turnout and alumni participation. Student enthusiasm for public interest and pro bono is high, and our growing network of public interest alumni is extending a helping hand. As the driving force behind our celebration, students on the Center’s executive board show that they are growing into their professional roles. They diligently organized these events, but more importantly, they remain dedicated to seeing that our justice system serves the poor and disenfranchised.”