3L Dara Cohen was the receipient of the 2012 Utah Experiences Pro Bono Student Award, reflecting her commitment to volunteer service and learning. During law school, she took full advantage of the College of Law’s many externship opportunities, including volunteering at the Street Law Clinic and completing clinical placements at the ACLU, Utah Legal Services, and the 3rd District Court. In the interview below, she describes her experiences and offers thoughtful advice on how students can optimize the value of clinical and pro bono placements.
You were recently involved in a case that came out of the Street Law Clinic where you worked under the supervision of Bill Ronnow of Smith Hartvigsen. Briefly describe that experience.
Working with Bill Ronnow, I recently completed a pro bono case in which we negotiated a settlement between our client and a government agency. Bill and I took the project up when the client came into Street Law Clinic. I conducted the initial consultation with the client and naïvely thought that it would be simple to resolve. Bill, who was volunteering at Street Law for the first time, agreed to supervise me in writing an answer to the government’s summons and complaint against the client. After four months of going back and forth with the government attorney, we restored the client’s lost property to everyone great satisfaction, and admitted surprise.
What role did Bill Ronnow play in this matter?
Bill played a wholly necessary role in the case. If he had not volunteered to supervise me, we could not have even taken up the case. Moreover, he was the one primarily communicating with the government attorney. Though I participated in some communications with the government, Bill was their only contact. I then communicated with our client in Spanish, both over the phone and in written communications. Bill reviewed all our documents and directed me on what research to pursue so that our strategy was well informed and we would be prepared for litigation, if that became necessary. Bill also welcomed our client and me into his office to discuss the case, sign papers, and use the office’s support services.
What was the most significant thing you learned from volunteering at the Street Law Clinic?
Street Law has been a huge part of my legal education. Our first semester in school we learn the foundations of contract law. Seeing how those principles play out by helping a distraught tenant at Street Law taught me two big lessons: what we learn in class has actual meaning in the real world; and, I have the knowledge to help someone who needs it. In this case, I saw that although the government sometimes makes mistakes, there is a system in place that permits citizens to correct those mistakes. On the other hand, had our client not come to Street Law on that night, and had I not been there with Bill, and had I not offered the client to write a simple response on his behalf, and had Bill not agreed to serve as a supervisor, this mistake by the government would have gone uncorrected. The justice system can self-correct, but only when the stars align. I see this lesson with a mix of optimism in the system and melancholy that pro bono services are so acutely limited. The importance of pro bono legal services cannot be overstated. This case illustrates a shiny example of the good that can be done without major expenditure.
How do you think your externship and other volunteer experiences will better prepare you professionally after law school?
Working at Street Law, other pro bono clinics, and other internship placements (I’ve spent a semester at the ACLU, Utah Legal Services, and the 3rd District Court) is invaluable professional experience. This pro bono project exposed me to how slow deliberation and calculated strategy are the sling permitting a David cohort of a single law student, a seasoned lawyer, and a citizen who does not speak English to take on a governmental Goliath. Speaking calmly and confidently, knowing that your client has been injured, and providing a thoroughly documented and well-researched argument will win the day.
How did your classes and the other programs at the College of Law prepare you for your clinical and pro bono placements?
The class that most prepared me for pro bono work, at least the variety seen at Street Law, was 1L Contracts. So many legal dealing boil down to contracts: landlord-tenant, debt collection, purchases, loans between friends, etc. In terms of this particular case, Constitutional Law was valuable for Due Process analysis. We knew right away that the client’s Due Process had been violated and a procedure was laid out that provided a pathway to remedy. Also, State & Local Government taught me that the government is often immune from suit, so you better have a mighty good case if you want to take on The Man. Fortuitously, we were confident in our client’s cause and proceeded.
You also received the Utah Experiences Pro Bono Student Award for 2012. What was your reaction when you found out that award was going to you?
I was genuinely touched and honored with receiving the Pro Bono award last year. Countless individuals contribute to the success of pro bono projects in Utah; students are just one cog in a large system. I had no idea the award existed and spent semesters attending clinics for the satisfaction of assisting others and also for the hands-on legal experience. Simply having a pro bono award reminds the school community that students can distinguish themselves in non-traditional ways, i.e.: outside class rankings. Pro bono work has given me the opportunity to see what kind of lawyer I want to be and develop a legal voice.