Students and faculty members from The University of Texas at Austin School of Law will fan out across the United States-Mexico border region during the second week in January to volunteer on a range of law-related projects and assist underserved communities.
Organized by the Law School’s Pro Bono Program, the trip will allow 56 students and seven faculty members to work with local public interest legal organizations in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and El Paso. The students will consult with immigrant detainees, help assemble immigration petitions for victims of domestic violence, and assist in drafting wills in communities where multiple informal land transfers have created thorny titling issues.
“I am very impressed that so many of our students are willing to give up a week of their winter break to help communities in need. Collectively, our students will volunteer over 2,000 hours and will build capacity for multiple legal services organizations,” said Tina Fernandez, director of the Pro Bono Program.
Launched in 2009, the Pro Bono Program is a project of the Law School’s William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law. The program encourages students to engage in pro bono work that will increase access to justice and to develop a lifetime commitment to providing legal services to those in need.
“Attorneys are charged with a moral responsibility to share their time and skills with those who are less fortunate,” said Patrick Lopez, a second-year law student who will participate in the trip again this year. “The wills clinics in particular are a great experience. People who have worked most of their life to purchase homes and other valuable property greatly appreciate the sense of security a will gives them in knowing that when they are gone their wishes will be carried out.”
Many of the students will also conduct field research in colonias in five border counties — Cameron, El Paso, Hidalgo, Starr and Webb — for a major study funded by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs on the prevalence and impact of contracts for deed. The project is co-administered by the William Wayne Justice Center and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
The students will conduct extensive interviews of residents to understand the impact of recent legislation aimed at protecting them from abusive practices involving informal transfers of property. The research team is also reviewing contract for deed practices in five Central Texas counties, and will prepare a report for review by the Texas Legislature on how residents of these communities acquire property and the titling issues that stem from informal, or unrecorded, sales.
The combination of field research and service is a promising model through which to engage law students in social justice work. “The project directly involves law students in both the study of a socio-legal problem and the provision of pro bono services to begin to address that problem,” said Lucy Wood, co-director of the study. Other co-directors are Dr. Peter M. Ward, C.B. Smith Sr. Centennial Chair in U.S.-Mexico Relations at the LBJ School, and Heather Way, director of the Law School’s Community Development Clinic.