First-year law student Jonathan Routson assists a local legal services office with the delivery of restraining order documents.
First-year law student Jonathan Routson assists a local legal services office with the delivery of restraining order documents. UCI Law

The COVID-19 pandemic has awakened a vigorous spirit of public service in countless people across the globe. For UCI Law students, however, the urge to serve the most vulnerable is far from new.

Before the virus took hold in the U.S., more than 200 of them were already signed up for pro bono projects. After social distancing measures were put in place, 63 students stepped forward to take on new or additional work, with many of them jumping on board to support at least 20 COVID-19-related causes. Some of those who had preexisting projects pivoted and adapted their efforts to assist people most affected by the pandemic.

For example, legal clinics are now being held in the virtual sphere, allowing students to conduct vital client interviews through Zoom. One clinic helps unrepresented litigants draft domestic violence declarations to attach to their petitions for temporary restraining orders. Erica Navarro, a second-year UCI Law student who has been working with the clinic since before it went online, explains the importance of the transition.

“Between the time the in-person clinic closed and the virtual clinic started, I was worried for all the victims and survivors out there that we couldn’t reach. Besides giving a litigant a finished declaration, you give them a positive experience involving someone who listened to them, believed them and provided them validation. That positive experience can be just as significant as the actual declaration,” she says.

With support systems weakening because of the lack of social contact and victims having fewer or no opportunities to distance themselves from their abusers, the stakes are high. “I’m relieved we’re operating again,” Navarro says, “so that we can offer the support that quite possibly is what our litigants need to feel empowered to seek help.”

Another volunteer is Diana Hoag, a first-year UCI Law student who started working with the Mississippi Center for Justice in early March. When she returned to California after providing legal services at the center during spring break, just before the state’s shelter-in-place order, Hoag pursued remote activities with the organization. Then her role took a quick turn. Although she had been researching illegal police stops, Hoag was asked to oversee mask production for those who work or live in locked facilities in the Mississippi area and are especially susceptible to COVID-19.

Now she processes requests for masks, coordinates with local mask makers and ensures that the orders are promptly transported to the places that need them. Since Hoag is not from the region, the tasks are challenging, especially with more than 1,000 donations and about 20,000 requests from prisons, jails and mental institutions. Nevertheless, the aspiring lawyer remains committed.

These pro bono projects are just a fraction of those undertaken by UCI Law students in the past several weeks. Others include: 

Document delivery: Working with the Public Law Center, the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center, and Community Legal Aid SoCal, students are delivering time-sensitive legal documents to homebound elderly and immunocompromised people. 

Unemployment benefits for laid-off hospitality workers: Students are assisting Unite Here Local 11, which represents 30,000 hospitality workers, in submitting unemployment insurance claims.

BorderX: Students are submitting humanitarian parole requests on behalf of individuals subject to life-threatening conditions in immigration detention centers, notorious for their lack of medical services.

City council comments: Students are tracking city officials’ decisions in Orange County and participating in virtual city council meetings to advocate for the most vulnerable community members, who are facing eviction and homelessness during this time.

Orange County Workers’ Rights Clinic: Students are providing advice and legal road maps to low-wage workers who’ve been laid off due to COVID-19.

“Now more than ever, I appreciate being a part of the UCI Law community, as I came to UCI because of the school’s commitment to public service,” says Madison Gunning, a first-year student who has volunteered with the document delivery project and written multiple successful declarations for temporary restraining orders for clients in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in light of the increased danger of COVID-19 in detention facilities. “To see that commitment not only persist but strengthen under these circumstances is a big reminder of what I came here to do.”

Anna Davis, director of UCI Law’s pro bono program, is not surprised that students have been so active. “UCI Law has a very robust pro bono program, and we were well-situated to quickly provide services to underserved communities almost from the very beginning of the pandemic hitting the U.S.,” she says.

“While students at other law schools may struggle to engage with their classwork and community during these unique times, UCI Law students have been even more engaged than ever. I’ve heard from many that they’re doing pro bono work as a way to cope with the uncertainty. It’s just the type of students they are – constantly finding ways to serve those most in need.”