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"The Need Is Overwhelming": One Student's Example Of Commitment To Providing Volunteer Legal Services

April 18, 2000 -- 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 work," or volunteer legal service, says Jason Zuckerman, a 2000 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law who has spearheaded a new program there that formally encourages all students to regularly perform pro bono 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 be working long hours to do that. But he passionately intends to keep offering volunteer services on his own when he goes to work for a Washington, D.C. firm, Shaw Pittman. In fact, he chose a firm with a strong commitment to pro bono, which comes from the Latin "for the public good."

At the U.Va. law school he is praised for setting a phenomenal example of providing volunteer legal aid to those who are least able to find help.

As litigation director of the Pro Bono Criminal Assistance Project (P-CAP) he has worked tirelessly to assist prisoners in their appeals and to investigate claims of violations of prisoners' rights. The well-known program is the largest pro bono project at the law school, with about 50 students actively involved, and 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. I've been shocked and outraged by some of the violations we've heard about in Virginia," including excessive use of force against inmates and denial of necessary medical treatment.

After receiving numerous letters to P-CAP, Zuckerman and another student recently visited inmates at the state's Red Onion "super-max" prison in Southwest Virginia and have contacted the U.S. Justice Department asking it to investigate constitutional and human rights violations described to them.

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

"We're almost the only place prisoners can write to in Virginia," he adds. "They have no where else to turn. We want to show that they have a voice."

In addition to working with prisoners, Zuckerman has 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 there 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 conducting interviews and successfully appealing the case.

All along, Zuckerman has tried to encourage 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. They are urged to complete at least 75 hours of pro bono service during their three years of study, or about one hour per week of classes. The law school's Public Service Center provides a data base of service projects.

Zuckerman was the major inspiration behind development of the program. "His advocacy with the dean and curriculum committee was critical to passage of the program," says Kimberly Carpenter Emery, assistant dean for public service.

Zuckerman persuades with a simple argument for pro bono. "It provides excellent experience. And the need is just overwhelming."

Jason Zuckerman can be reached at (804) 979-9022 or jmz5b@virginia.edu.

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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