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Jason Zuckerman
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Jason Zuckerman

'The need is overwhelming': Law student takes lead in providing volunteer services

By Robert Brickhouse

During America's current economic boom, salaries for lawyers entering the profession have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, government funding for legal services for those unable to afford them has dropped significantly, and new limitations have been placed on those services.

As a result, "there's more need than ever before for lawyers in private practice to devote time to pro bono [volunteer] work," says Jason Zuckerman, a Law School graduate who spearheaded a new program to encourage his peers to perform such service as part of their career preparation. The aim is not only to provide greatly needed legal assistance to the poor and working poor, but to help law students learn more about professional commitment and responsibility to society.

Like many graduating law students, Zuckerman has significant tuition debts to pay and knows he will work long hours to do that. But he passionately intends to keep offering volunteer services on his own when he goes to work for the Washington firm, Shaw Pittman. In fact, he purposefully chose a firm with a strong commitment to pro bono work.

At the Law School, he is praised for setting a phenomenal example of providing aid to those who are least able to find help.

As litigation director of the Pro Bono Criminal Assistance Project, the largest pro bono project at the Law School, he worked tirelessly to assist prisoners in their appeals and to investigate claims of violations of their rights. With about 50 students actively involved, the organization receives up to 1,000 requests for assistance a year from prisoners, mostly in Virginia.

"People often don't care what happens to prisoners, says Zuckerman. "But I don't think you have to give up all your rights because you are in prison. The U.S. can't be a human rights model for the world without extending some basic rights to inmates."

After receiving numerous letters, Zuckerman and another student recently visited inmates at the state's Red Onion "super-max" prison in Southwest Virginia and have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate allegations of constitutional and human rights violations there, including excessive use of force and denial of necessary medical treatment.

"We don't doubt for a moment that most of the inmates committed heinous crimes," he says. "But we were astounded that prison officials have such unchecked power to physically and verbally abuse inmates at will."

Zuckerman also served as co-director of the Law School's Western State Hospital Project, which provides legal services to individuals committed there. Like the work with prisoners, he describes it as "a very eye-opening experience."

One man he worked with at Western State was being released, no longer a threat to himself or society, but wasn't able to earn enough to live on his own. Although the man had just spent almost a decade in a mental institution, he was turned down for Social Security disability assistance. "He fit the requirements, says Zuckerman, who spent close to 60 volunteer hours on the case.

All along, Zuckerman has encouraged student involvement in pro bono work through his role as chair of the Student Bar Association's Pro Bono Committee. Last fall, the Law School formally launched a voluntary pro bono program for all its students, with the school's Public Service Center providing a database of service projects.

Zuckerman was the major inspiration behind development of the program. He persuades with a simple argument: "It provides excellent experience. And the need is just overwhelming."


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