Ciara Villalona-Lockhart ’22 Pivots to Help a Community in Need This Summer


Ciara Villalona-Lockhart was devastated when she got the news that her summer fellowship had been cancelled in the wake of COVID-19. But instead of giving up on a meaningful work experience, the rising St. John’s Law 2L took action.

“I reached out to Hon. Maxine S. Broderick to thank her for her efforts in creating the Long Island Legal Diversity Fellowship that I had been awarded, and to express my desire to keep in touch,” Villalona-Lockhart says. “She asked if I wanted to participate in the Nassau County Bar Association’s (NCBA) COVID-19 Law Student Pro Bono Program, which was still in development. I jumped at the offer and shared my ideas on how to make the program successful. When it was ready to launch, Judge Broderick and NCBA Past President Martha Krisel invited me to be a Program Administrator.”

The student program that Villalona-Lockhart pivoted to lead is an initiative of the NCBA’s COVID-19 Community Task Force. The group of volunteer NCBA attorney members offers virtual legal assistance to individuals and businesses on Long Island who have been impacted by the pandemic. As the Task Force got underway, they saw a unique opportunity to partner with area law students and expand their ability to respond to community need. Along with St. John’s, Hofstra and Touro collaborated with the NCBA to design a quality summer program for their students.

“This has been a win-win-win proposition,” says Tom Blennau, who helped to develop and staff the program as Associate Director of Employer and Externship Program Outreach at St. John’s Law. “The NCBA Task Force meets a critical need in the local community, and our students want to work and be of service at this unprecedented time. Teaming with mentor attorneys to assist people caught in COVID-19’s upheaval, they gain hands-on, substantive experience that complements their legal education at St. John’s.”

Villalona-Lockhart agrees that the program is a success, and she has enjoyed bringing the student-attorney teams together. “To match each law student with a mentor, I created a survey where students shared their practice area interests and summer goals,” she says. “The mentor-mentee pairs address a range of issues, including wedding postponements and cancellations; landlord-tenant disputes over unpaid rent and eviction attempts; creditor harassment for unpaid loans; and an educator fearing return to work due to health issues. To date, the law students have volunteered 120 hours of pro bono service collectively to the Long Island community.”

In addition to Villalona-Lockhart, St. John’s Law students William Bird ‘22, Michelle Capobianco ‘21, Zachary Manasia ‘21, Adam Ratner ‘19C, ‘22L, and Abigail Ziegler ’22 participated in the NCBA’s COVID-19 Law Student Pro Bono Program.

“I never imagined that the world we’re living in, or my first year of law school, would be changed forever by an invisible threat,” says Bird. “This scary and unfortunate situation created an opportunity for law students to have an instant impact on families, businesses, and the community affected by the global pandemic. In a short period of time, I’ve built a great relationship with, and learned immensely from, my mentor attorney. Each inquiry has provided newfound knowledge and compassion that can’t be taught in a classroom.”

As she looks forward to starting her 2L year, Villalona-Lockhart is grateful for her work with the NCBA. “This summer has truly embodied the expression ‘when one door closes, another one opens,’” she shares. “Though it wasn’t the summer experience I planned for, I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve my community in some small way during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s my goal to work in Nassau County, so to interact with NCBA members so early on in my legal career is a great privilege and blessing.”