University of Chicago Law School students Eileen Ho and Mishan Wroe spent the past year working to fill a void in their school's offerings.
And with some help from the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services, the Women's Board at the university and two professors, the duo created a pro bono domestic violence project, an idea that led to the law school's January launch of its Gendered Violence and the Law Clinic.
Despite the countless hours they spent lining up funding, looking for a legal aid agency to partner with and recruiting students, Ho and Wroe will not participate in the project's first quarter of existence.
The seven students they recruited, however, will begin their work next week during a training session presented by Melanie Revett MacBride, an attorney at Legal Aid Society who will supervise the students under the partnership between her group and the project.
"It was just important to us that it existed," said Wroe, a 2L currently interning at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
Ho, a 3L who plans to work at Sidley, Austin LLP after graduation, said while their law school provides students with classes, clinics and pro bono opportunities, it didn't have any options related to domestic violence or women's issues.
"We thought it was a good opportunity to start something and make it be pro bono," she said. "I think it's a great area for law students to get involved in."
Susan J. Curry, director of public interest law and policy at the law school, said the student-initiated domestic violence project meshes well with the school's new pro bono pledge program.
Curry, who started the newly created position at the law school in July 2010, said the pledge program launched in October 2010.
Since then, Curry said, about 185 students pledged to complete at least 50 pro bono hours before they graduate.
Curry said Wroe and Ho took the pro bono pledge a step further by creating their own pro bono project. Their project, she said, also spurred the law school to create its own domestic violence clinic under a partnership with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.
"Those two are really amazing," Curry said of Wroe and Ho. "You always hear about people with pet projects, but these students didn't just isolate a problem area they saw, but took active steps in doing something about it."
Wroe said she and Ho began working on the project about a year ago, when they visited several local legal aid groups to find a partner to supervise and train students. Legal Aid Society, Wroe said, appeared most receptive.
Once the legal aid group signed on as a partner, the two women focused on finding some seed money to get the project off the ground.
They applied for and received a nearly $5,000 grant from the Women's Board, a group of University of Chicago alumnae that funds new academic programs, projects and research.
A large portion of that money, Wroe said, will pay for transportation between the Hyde Park law school and the Harrison Street courthouse that houses the circuit's Domestic Violence Division.
Under the pro bono project, which is separate from the school's new domestic violence clinic, third-year law students with their 711 licenses will handle orders of protection under the supervision of MacBride, who handles domestic violence cases for Legal Aid Society.
Wroe said first- and second-year law students who participate in the project will shadow the 3Ls, an arrangement that she and Ho said they hope will ensure the project will continue after they leave law school.
Bethany Fisher, a 3L in the project, will be one of two students in the project with a 711 license. She said she looks forward to getting some practical experience in the courtroom before she officially joins the legal profession. She said she hopes to find a job in the public interest field.
MacBride said she will teach the students about the Domestic Violence Act and how to handle paperwork associated with petitions seeking emergency orders of protections at next week's training session.
She said domestic violence work is perfect for law students because it comes with specific paperwork and a rather routine process to follow.
Students will also learn how to work with clients in sensitive situations and get the opportunity to handle a case from start to finish, she said. Emergency orders of protection only last two to three weeks, after which time, Curry said, the students will have to represent their client in a hearing or negotiate with the other party's attorney.
"They are also getting the experience of being in court, which is totally beneficially and not something every law student gets, even if it is just stepping up and presenting yourself to the judge," MacBride said.
Kendra Reinshagen, executive director of Legal Aid Society, said while the partnership with the University of Chicago Law School will require some extra work for her group when it comes to training, it is more than worthwhile.
"We are really excited about making this connection," she said. "The students showed a lot of interest and we are glad we are going to be able to help them not only learn, but get a sense of what public interest law is all about."