LAWBreaks offers students pro bono lawyering opportunities over winter break

By Annie Hagstrom
Michigan Law

Michigan Law’s weeklong break in late February gave students a well-earned respite from academic life. For participants in Legal Alternative Winter (LAW) Breaks, it also provided a glimpse into ways their legal training can make a difference.

LAWBreaks is a student-run group—guided by the Law School’s Office of Experiential Education and Pro Bono Programs.

The last LAWBreaks trips took place in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.  This year, Alissa Cammarata, Pro Bono Program administrator, knew the time was right to bring it back.

A number of students answered the call.

“It sounded like an excellent opportunity,” said Victoria Pedri, a 1L and the new treasurer of LAWBreaks. “When I saw that the number of students who showed up for the kickoff meeting exceeded the number who had signed up, I knew others thought it sounded like an excellent opportunity, too.”

Pedri was a site leader for one of this year’s three trips. She led a group of students to Washington, DC, to work with the Network for Victim Recovery DC (NVRDC).

“I’m a junior board member with NVRDC, a nonprofit organization that helps survivors of crime,” she said. “I was happy to act as a bridge to connect them with LAWBreaks.”

During their five-day trip, each student was tasked with client screening. When they weren’t referring callers to health and legal services, they worked on projects for the organization, including a brochure on NVRDC’s hospital-based Violence Intervention Program and a Title IX guide for all schools in the District of Columbia.

 NVRDC gave the students a court tour, during which they observed a civil protection order hearing and part of a criminal case. They also had the opportunity to ask full-time staff members questions during an office-organized happy hour.

This year’s two additional placement sites were stationed in Chicago. One group was led by Camila Calvo, an LLM from Argentina, and the other by Alana Porter, a 1L. Sarah Portwood, a 2L, was a site leader who assisted both Chicago groups.

Calvo’s group worked with the Exoneration Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to wrongfully convicted people. Students conducted client screenings, witnessed a trial hearing in court, and attended a press conference where the organization assisted recently released clients with reentry. Porter’s group worked with Ascend Justice’s Domestic Violence Courthouse in Chicago.

Operating similar to a drop-in clinic, the students met survivors in the morning and worked with them throughout the day to help complete necessary paperwork. In the afternoon, they assisted the survivors in court while a judge adjudicated their filing.
With the successful return of LAWBreaks, Cammarata said she’s excited to build on the momentum.

“Our board members and site leaders did an amazing job helping with planning and logistics. It was a lot of work, but I'm so pleased with how the trips turned out, especially for our first year back. I look forward to watching the program grow in the coming years.”

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