By Lisa Jacob
More than 20 years after UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law opened its doors, one of its core missions remains unchanged: Serve the community. And as hundreds of thousands of Southern Nevadans face increased economic hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boyd Law School students are heeding the call to serve like never before.
This year, a record number of students—more than 50—have volunteered to participate in Partners in Pro Bono, a collaboration between UNLV and the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada (LACSN) Pro Bono Project. The program pairs students with attorneys to represent low-income individuals and families who face critical legal issues but cannot afford representation.
Christine Smith, the school’s associate dean for public service, compliance and administration, established Boyd’s partnership with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada when the law school was founded in 1998. The Partners in Pro Bono program started two years later with a two-pronged objective: fill a community need and provide students with the kind of practical, day-to-day, real-world experience they cannot learn in a classroom. But that real-world experience is much more than learning how to draft motions and summary judgments.
“They learn about access to justice, and that there is a huge population in Nevada that needs that access and isn’t able to get it,” Smith says. “The success of this program, among several other initiatives, validates our decision to include community service among our founding principles. That includes requiring all students to do pro bono work.”
Cases include bankruptcy, consumer fraud, landlord-tenant disputes, divorce, and immigration. By far the largest need is family law and cases of abuse or neglect. Initially designed to span one semester, the pairings were lengthened to a year, giving students the opportunity to see cases through to a conclusion and possibly take on a second case. Along the way, those students gain valuable early-career experience, as well as an appreciation for how pro bono work tangibly (and positively) impacts the community.
Preparing to start her second case in the program, 3L Boyd student Alisa A. McAffee can attest to the benefits of participating in Partners in Pro Bono.
“Last year, I handled everything from setting up the initial client interview to writing legal documents to arguing on behalf of my client at my first hearing,” McAffee-Elder says about the Nevada Gaming Control Board appeals case that enabled her client to continue working in the gaming industry. “My mentor guided me through each step and helped me learn what to look out for and how to be effective. This hands-on approach is one of the most practical and rewarding experiences I have had in law school.”
McAffee was paired with attorney Dayvid Figler, whose guidance she says was crucial to understanding “so many things beyond the law.”
Figler is a nationally recognized expert on problem gambling, a former municipal court judge, and a prolific criminal defense attorney. He also has steadily contributed to the law school’s programming since its inception through a range of activities, including presenting guest lectures, leading panels on topics such as the recent Nevada Supreme Court criminal settlement rules panel, advising the Pop-Up Protest Clinic, and providing internships and employment with his firm.
“He helped me understand what the adjudicator would be looking for, how to craft my argument, what facts would be helpful to point out and why, and how to prepare my client regarding the process,” McAffee says. “After the case concluded, he also shared with me things that he learned during the project. This sort of one-on-one interaction with a bar-appointed attorney is so helpful because it gives students knowledge and confidence about entering the legal profession.”
Noah Malgeri, director of the Legal Aid Center’s Pro Bono Project, estimates 750,000 Southern Nevada residents qualify for free legal services. Working in tandem with Smith, he pairs students with attorneys who have volunteered to take on pro bono cases through the Legal Aid Center. Although most cases lack the kind of excitement reflected in TV courtroom dramas, the students recognize the importance of their work and its real-life implications.
“These aren’t necessarily glamorous situations, and the work that it leads to is not necessarily lucrative,” Malgeri says. “But they want to do it, they have a passion for it. These kids have a real passion for justice.”
That passion was particularly evident in the record number of students who committed to the program this past year during the community’s greatest hour of need. To Malgeri, that simply affirms the Boyd School of Law’s commitment to admit not only the brightest students, but those whose compassion is as impressive as their intellect.
“The UNLV Boyd School of Law really does attract some of the finest attorneys-in-training in the country in terms of the quality of their character—they come for the right reason,” he says. “The fact so many students want to get involved to help people in our community, our neighbors who can’t afford an attorney, is really amazing. It speaks volumes about the character and the maturity of the student body at Boyd.”
Which is precisely why Figler encourages his colleagues to jump on board as Partners in Pro Bono mentors.
“I'd encourage any lawyers in the community to really look into the program, even if the real-life case scenarios are outside their normal practice areas,” Figler says. “With the combined energy and collective brainpower of the lawyer and student, and the support of the Legal Aid Center behind you, there’s very little that is inaccessible while the need in the community has never been greater.
“This is a wonderfully thoughtful program designed to funnel the best we have to offer to those who need it the most. I encourage every lawyer to take a chance.”
To volunteer to take a pro bono case and mentor a Boyd student, contact Cincy Morales Kerben at 702-386-1413 or CKerben@LACSN.org.