The Class of 2020 logged a record high of 12,324 pro bono hours over the course of their Law School careers—and 887 belong to Faith Laken, ’20, who volunteered with 15 different organizations. Seventy-four graduating students completed the Pro Bono Pledge by engaging in 50 or more hours of volunteer legal work over three years, and 17 of those garnered the additional distinction of Pro Bono Honors for working 250 or more hours. Laken earned top honors for public interest work, taking home this year’s Pro Bono Award of Excellence for logging the most hours in her class, as well as the James C. Hormel Public Service Award for outstanding commitment to public service.
“It is clear that these students have a real hunger for experiential learning, as well as a strong desire to give back to the community in any way they can,” Pro Bono and Public Interest Coordinator Chelsea Dobleman said. “This became even more evident when the coronavirus hit. At the same time students were making the transition to remote learning and dealing with obstacles of their own, they were asking how they could help others who were impacted by the virus. It has been incredible to see so many students working hard to make a difference during such an unprecedented time.”
Each spring, the Law School honors the graduating students who completed the Pro Bono Pledge (these students are listed at the end of this article) and presents a handful of special awards from the Public Interest Law Society at a special Spring Recognition Luncheon. This year, in light of the pandemic, these students will instead be honored at an online Graduating Students Awards Celebration, the virtual hooding ceremony next month, and their pro bono service will also be acknowledged with individual transcript notations.
“At more than 12,000 hours served, the Class of 2020 has set a new and very high bar for pro bono service—one that future graduating classes will strive to match,” said Senior Director of Public Interest Law and Policy Susan Curry, who launched the Pro Bono Pledge a decade ago. “From their very first days in law school at Orientation, when they collectively joined voluntary pro bono trainings, to their very last days as 3Ls, when they stepped up to serve people with legal needs stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and its legal and economic implications, the Class of 2020 has distinguished itself as a class of public servants.”
In addition to Laken’s two awards, Jacob Hamburger, ‘21, won the 2L Public Service Award. The Impact Initiative Student Organization, which launched this year, won the Student Organization Pro Bono Award.
Laken, who won the 2L Public Service Award in 2019, came to the Law School to pursue public interest work, and made it a priority from the very beginning. Over the last three years, Laken has written letters responding to legal questions from incarcerated people with the National Lawyers Guild, worked with the International Human Rights Clinic to research access to the internet and the right to education in South Africa, helped women and children in the Maria Shelter navigate eviction and other housing issues, addressed pollution violations with the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, and much more.
“Faith’s dedication to public service is truly inspiring,” Dobleman said. “She has volunteered with more than a dozen nonprofits, government agencies, and legal clinics, while simultaneously serving as a leader in the Law School community through her positions in various student organizations. She came to law school to pursue a career in public service, and that commitment has been evident since the beginning of her law school career. Not only is she committed to serving others, but she is also passionate about getting others involved in pro bono.”
Hamburger worked as a political journalist covering political reactions to migrants and refugees in the United States and Europe before coming to the Law School. He aims to become a “crimmigration” advocate, working at the intersection of immigration and criminal defense. In the summer of 2019, Hamburger assisted with Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s efforts to scale down the system of mass incarceration, and also helped immigrant clients gain asylum and avoid deportation at Beyond Legal Aid in Chicago. He spent his 2019 spring break in Tijuana, Mexico, where he and two other students assisted migrants seeking asylum in the US, and more recently, Hamburger joined the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, where he has helped create defense strategies for immigrants charged with illegal reentry.
The Impact Initiative Student Organization formed with the intent to foster and build meaningful relationships between the Law School and the South Side of Chicago through volunteering and service. Their inaugural event, the Impact Initiative Community Dinner, brought together nearly 200 members of the Law School and surrounding South Side communities. Since then, students in the Impact Initiative have volunteered at local community gardens and elementary schools and have worked with leaders in The Faith Community of St. Sabina on developing a new legal aid clinic, among other activities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have engaged in remote pro bono opportunities, serving as community navigators with Illinois Legal Aid Online, and giving Know Your Rights presentations about the rights of citizens stopped by police.
For Laken, doing pro bono work was an obvious choice that offered a grounding perspective and consistently reminded her why she came to the Law School in the first place.
“Pro bono work puts what we are learning in the classroom in perspective and brings you back down to earth,” Laken said. “The law school environment is one where it’s easy to get wrapped up in academics and individual concerns. Being able to help someone going through one of the most challenging moments of their life and hopefully easing that process in some way keeps those concerns in perspective and makes you all the more passionate.”
Laken has served on the Pro Bono Board for three years, and in that role has prioritized instilling a pro bono mindset in her fellow classmates. In addition to finding new and diverse volunteer opportunities and advertising them, she has especially appreciated writing stories for the Pro Bono Volunteer of the Month series.
“I’ve really enjoyed learning about what drives [my classmates] to do certain work, what they actually did, and how it impacted them,” Laken said, “That was one of the things that I probably enjoyed the most about pro bono work at the Law School.”
Volunteering with so many different organizations and agencies, Laken had the chance to work in a variety of legal environments, from administrative law to tribal law to criminal law to environmental law, and more. At the same time, Laken’s pro bono work has also provided crucial insight about which types of legal work might fit her interests and personality.
“One thing that I've learned [doing pro bono work] is that direct client work in these settings can be really taxing. I think especially for people with certain personalities or past experiences, it can take a heavy emotional toll. So as much as I think that is one of the most important things a lawyer can do with their career, I've realized it isn't the way that I can give back, at least not for a full time job. That was very useful to learn—but,” she emphasized, and as her own experiences demonstrate, “there are endless ways to help, and there’s something that suits everyone out there.”
She has also worked to increase programming around vicarious trauma and mental health services to support students in public interest.
After graduation, Laken will clerk in San Francisco for two years, and she plans to continue her pro bono work by getting involved with local organizations.
All students, she said, should take the Pro Bono Pledge.
“I think everyone should see it as an opportunity to give back and learn a ton,” Laken said. “It's great for professional development, it's great for the community, and it's great for your soul.”
Students who earned Pro Bono Honors
Katie Rose Lamb
Students who completed the Pro Bono Pledge