St. John’s Law Students Spend Spring Break in (Virtual) Service to Others

In typical years, a committed group of St. John’s Law students ignore the call of sand, surf, and sofas and spend spring break advocating for underrepresented individuals and communities across the country through a volunteer service program organized and funded by the Law School.

But this has been anything but a typical year. And, as spring break approached last month, the administration was faced with a tough decision.

“When it was clear that we couldn’t have our traditional service trips due to the pandemic, and we learned that many law schools had cancelled their service programs altogether, we wanted to find a way for our students to participate in meaningful pro bono work over their spring break,” says Assistant Director of Career Development Melissa Kubit Angelides, who helped to coordinate the effort. “So, we pivoted and decided to pursue virtual service opportunities locally.”

With that aim, along with Angelides, Associate Dean for Career Development and Externships Jeanne Ardan ‘95, Professor Gina Calabrese, Professor Ann Goldweber, Director of Public Interest Programming Ashleigh Kashimawo, and Associate Dean for Law School Advancement Brian Woods teamed to connect with area legal services organizations and district attorneys’ offices. Their hard work produced 27 remote, one-week placements in a range of practice settings, including:

  • Bronx District Attorney’s Office
  • Brooklyn Defender Services
  • JASA/Legal Services for Elder Justice
  • Legal Assistance of Western New York, Inc.
  • Mobilization for Justice
  • Nassau District Attorney’s Office
  • Nassau/Suffolk Law Services Committee, Inc.
  • Queens District Attorney’s Office
  • Queens Legal Services
  • Ridgewood JOLT
  • Safe Horizons
  • The Children’s Law Center
  • The Legal Aid Society
  • The Safe Center LI
  • Western New York Law Center

Heading into the service week, students participated in a training led by Professor Renee Allen, Professor Calabrese, and Associate Dean Courtney Selby that covered client confidentiality, research and writing, the nuances of public interest practice, and other topics to prepare them for this unique pro bono work experience.

When the program got underway, the students were ready to make the most of the hands-on opportunity. “Learning that I was going to be working with the Homeowner & Consumer Rights Project at Queens Legal Services (QLS) was exciting because I didn’t know what to expect,” says Rashad Moore ’23 of his placement helping elderly and low-income Queens residents facing home foreclosures. “Getting a crash course in foreclosure law and seeing how my Civil Procedure, Contracts, Property, and other 1L classes intersect to affect the lives of real people made everything click and motivated me throughout the week,” he shares.

Moore also appreciated the guidance he received from supervising QLS attorneys as they advocated for marginalized members of the Queens community. It was a synergy facilitated by Chris Newton ’13, Deputy Director at QLS, who was one of several St. John’s Law alumni involved in this year’s spring break service program. Other members of the group were:

  • Cathy Brienza `85, Founder, Ridgewood JOLT
  • Christine Burke `93, Assistant District Attorney, Nassau County
  • Ashley Kloepfer `11, Supervising Attorney, Brooklyn Defender Services
  • Dorian Rojas `15, Supervising Attorney, Safe Horizons
  • Dianne Woodburn `00, Legal Services Supervisor, JASA/Legal Services for Elder Justice (LSEJ)

“I heard about the virtual service program from Professor Goldweber, who has been a mentor to me since I was a student in the Law School’s Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic, which she teaches with Professor Calabrese,” Woodburn says. “It seemed like a very good program so, with the approval of Attorney in Charge Donna Dougherty, JASA/LSEJ agreed to place two students.”

Under Woodburn’s supervision, the students researched the validity of a Queens Supreme Court motion made by opposing counsel in the midst of settlement negotiations. Sitting in on a Queens Family Court hearing via video, they also learned about trial readiness issues, discovery exchanges, settlement negotiations, and evidentiary matters. Later, they shadowed JASA/LSEJ attorneys as they explained the court proceedings to their client. “I had high expectations that the students would do good work and have meaningful experiences with us,” Woodburn shares. “They, and the program, absolutely met those expectations.”

Sophie Brill ’23, one of the students assigned to JASA/LSEJ, agrees that the remote service program was a big success. “I came to St. John’s Law largely because of its demonstrated commitment to public service, so it was gratifying and inspiring to work an alumna who is using her legal education to continue that work long into her career,” she says. Reflecting on her assignments—which included observing a client intake in an elder abuse case and researching and drafting possible defenses available to a client in another matter—Brill says, “I’m grateful to Dianne for giving me some real practical experience, while ensuring that I was able to work creatively and try new things. I hope to take that creative mindset into my lawyering work moving forward.”

The spring break service program also made a lasting impression on Ivan Almonte ’23, who spent the week with QLS researching whether an alteration of an endorsement on a note destroys its status as a negotiable instrument. “I enjoyed getting more experience in legal research and writing,” he shares. “But just as valuable is the perspective I gained on real-world practice, particularly how to proceed when there’s no one, clear answer to a question or issue that arises. I also learned to not be embarrassed to ask for guidance.”

Like Almonte, Moore, and Brill, the other students participating in the virtual spring break service program came away from the week feeling that it was time very well spent. “When I followed up with them, the students said that they appreciated how the Law School forged ahead and gave them this opportunity to build their knowledge and skills while working in service to others,” says Melissa Kubit Angelides. “It was wonderful to share in their enthusiasm for that vital work, and to know that this weeklong effort will inform their career path and approach to lawyering for years to come.”