Law School Connects with Communities
by Suzanna Engman
Etymology: Latin pro bono publico for the public good
Definition: Legal work donated for the public good
A student from Petra Zenón de Fabery vocational school listens to a Pro Bono Program presentation at UPR-RP’s School of Law.
13 Pro bono programs
Community Assessment in Environmental Law
Urban, Community, and Business Center (CAUCE by its Spanish acronym)
National Organization for Animal Rights (ONDA by its Spanish Acronym)
Human Rights for People (GLBTT)
Caño Martín Peña Network
Public School Student Network
Equality in Sexual and Reproductive Health Laws
Radio Program: Just Cause
Orientation and Services for Immigrants (SOJ by its Spanish acronym)
La Perla Neighborhood
Regional Academic Medical Centers
A man working at a day care center is fired after his boss finds out he is gay, and he wants to know if he can file a discrimination claim. A community needs to be directed to the proper agency for help when they find out their water is contaminated and their air is polluted. An immigrant with a work visa is asked by his employer to be tested for HIV. Does he have the right to refuse? These legal questions and hundreds more are being answered for Puerto Rican communities across the island through the Pro Bono Program of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus’s School of Law.
The entire program is coordinated by Professor Érika Fontánez-Torres, who also leads the Community Consulting on Environmental Law, Caño Martin Peña Network and ONDA Program pro bono areas. “The program’s objective is to contribute to the education of socially committed professionals who serve a large segment of the population that do not have legal representation or access to legal knowledge. By participating in this program, students have the opportunity to take a critical look at those Puerto Rican experiences in which law becomes necessary and thus to develop a better understanding of the country’s social and legal reality, “ she says.
Associate Dean of the School of Law Vivian Neptune also leads a section of the Pro Bono Program in her area of expertise, labor law. She is quick to point out that it is the students who came up with ways to disseminate information to the community after becoming familiar with the labor, employment, and discrimination laws of the United States and Puerto Rico. They created seven brochures and arranged to present their material to the public in a series of workshops. The first activity was at the Asociación Mayagüezana de Personas con Impedimentos (AMPI by its Spanish acronym) in November. “Eleven students and I went there in three cars and they had the opportunity to give a workshop to a room full of people. And that was a transformative experience, to be face to face with people who need advice. Pro bono also gives the students the opportunity to specialize in a topic—it’s service and learning at the same time.”
While the Pro Bono Program is voluntary, law students are required to work in one of 13 law clinics, and UPR-RP’s School of law as 8th out of 180 American-Bar Association accredited law schools for the amount of practical clinical experience students complete. “Those clinics provide free services to the community. It is compulsory to have clinical experience before you graduate—three credits for one semester. These clinics provide the services to people who qualify to need the services,” says Neptune.
“Pro bono is a change of culture to make priorities with what you want to do with your career. After students graduate, we hope that they will incorporate the pro bono element into their private practice or public service. That is our long term purpose—that our alumni make pro bono a part of their career.”