Pro Bono Stars: Denver Law's high achievers

Editor’s note: While American Bar Association rules state that all lawyers have a professional responsibility to provide pro bono services, there is no such mandatory rule for law students. Still, law students provide far more hours than the average attorney.

The Class of 2019 performed more than 4.38 million hours of legal services, an average of around 221 hours per student. That totals more than $111.5 million in free legal services.

In celebration of these efforts, we profile students who’ve gone above and beyond. At the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, two 3Ls are being spotlighted for the countless hours they’ve spent and continue to devote to pro bono efforts, which well exceed the school’s 50-hour graduation requirement.

 

By Sherry Karabin 

As a teenager in Pueblo, Colo., Erika Sisneros Kelley didn’t know any lawyers, but she did see how poverty affected much of the Latino population where she lived.

Initially planning on being a doctor, she majored in integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. But after working in the emergency room of a local hospital she changed directions, getting a master’s in public health and taking a position as program assistant with the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment in Denver.

There, she met an attorney who encouraged her to go to law school.

“During my time in the emergency room, I kept seeing patients getting treated and returning with the same issues,” Kelley said. “I knew I wanted to make a difference, but I hadn’t thought about the law and legal profession as an avenue for me to make systemic change for marginalized populations.”

When she arrived on the campus of the Sturm College of Law — transferring from DePaul University College of Law in Chicago as a 2L — she already had a history of volunteer work at legal aid clinics.

Since then, she’s been involved in outreach efforts for the school’s diversity pipeline initiative, volunteered with the Denver Urban Debate League and served as a law student mentor as a part of the law school pipeline program, LAW SCHOOL…Yes We Can, which pairs high achieving college freshmen from diverse backgrounds with mentors from the legal profession for four years while they complete their undergraduate degrees.

Since August 2020, Kelley has been an extern at Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, where she assists staff attorneys in advocating for children and youth in the organization’s four service areas: education, caregiver advocacy, domestic violence prevention and advocacy for young adults.

“I have researched federal consent decree compliance by state school districts, drafted petitions for guardianship and adoption proceedings, served as Guardian Ad Litem co-counsel in the best interests of the child, and drafted expungement petitions to clear the records of youth that were previously criminal justice involved.”

During an average month, Kelley spends about 40 to 45 hours engaging in pro bono-based activities.

When she graduates in May, she will be moving to New York City, where she will begin a job as the Marvin M. Karpatkin Legal Fellow in the ACLU National Office’s Racial Justice program.

“While I can’t say exactly where I will be living or what I’ll be doing in the future, my plan is to work in a capacity that enables me to empower underserved communities and address the systemic inequities in the law that affect communities of color,” Kelley said.

Carly Hamilton’s path to the legal profession wasn’t a direct one either. A native of Denver, Hamilton became interested in the law about a year after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

At the time, she was a bilingual parent support specialist for the Austin Independent School District in Texas.

“Many of the students were high risk and some even faced truancy charges,” said Hamilton, a 3L. “I was watching the school-to-prison pipeline at work. I saw how burdensome their legal troubles were on top of everything else they were facing. Many came from low-income, undocumented families who worked really hard to make ends meet.”

Two years later while working for a nonprofit pretrial services organization in Milwaukee, Hamilton decided to apply to law school.

“I was interviewing incarcerated people and realized that, in many cases, I was the first person within the system who treated them with any dignity,” she said. “I thought the best way for me to change the status quo of the criminal punishment system was to tell their stories in the courtroom.”

During her time at Denver Sturm College of Law, she’s served as a law clerk for the Texas Civil Rights Project and as an extern in several public defender offices, including the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office. In the fall she will start working in the office full time as a public defender.

Hamilton estimates she has devoted over 1,200 hours to pro bono work during her law school career, including 90 hours during her 3L year. The number doesn’t include her time in the school’s Criminal Defense Clinic, where she was a student attorney during the spring and fall semesters of 2020.

“I plan to spend my legal career serving the most marginalized people in my community,” Hamilton said. “Without my grandmother’s financial support and my scholarships, I would not have had the financial flexibility to do unpaid work. I also lived with my parents for the first two years of law school, and not everyone has that option.

“Due to the financial burden of law school, many students simply don’t have the choice to do unpaid work. I am in a position of privilege to have been able to put in as many hours of pro bono work as I have.” 

“Both Erika and Carly are incredibly committed to giving back,” said Alexi Freeman, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion and director of social justice initiatives. “Carly is passionate about criminal defense work, while Erika has focused on the civil side.

“They are both fiercely intelligent women of color with so much skill and desire to contribute to their communities. I have no doubt both of these students will meaningfully engage in social justice work over the long haul of their careers.” 

(Pictured: Erika Sisneros Kelley)

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