The free legal help that Lisa Armenta received through UR Downtown has given her a new lease on life. The Richmond woman separated from her husband eight years ago but could not afford the legal services necessary for a divorce.
“It’s time for me to move ton,” she says, explaining her plans to get a high school equivalency degree, attend college, and get a job.
Those goals would have been unattainable without the assistance of the School of Law’s no-fault divorce program based at UR Downtown. “They’ve been really good at filing the paperwork and explaining how things are going,” Armenta says.
For second-year law student Lindsay Jefferies, working with Armenta and volunteer attorneys from the law firm of Williams Mullen has reminded her why she wanted to study law in the first place—“to give back to the community.”
UR Downtown “will help get the word out to the community and really increase the utilization of the program” for no-fault divorces, as well as other services for clients referred by social service agencies and the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, Jefferies says. Her enthusiasm reflects the excitement generated by President Edward Ayers’ vision for UR Downtown.
“It gives us a presence in the city, a collaboration across schools, a partnership with other universities, and a meaningful way to contribute to Richmond by serving people in need while expanding educational opportunities for students and strengthening links to the community,” Ayers says.
Located at 626 E. Broad St., UR Downtown is home of the Richmond Families Initiative, a program run by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. The initiative helps undergraduate students examine family issues through community-based learning, which links readings, discussions, and other coursework with experiential work beyond the classroom, such as volunteering at local family service agencies. UR Downtown also houses the law school’s Jeanette S. Lipman Family Law Clinic and its Harry L. Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service.
UR Downtown is conveniently located on the bus line at 626 E. Broad St.
“The center continues the law school’s long history of community engagement and clinical learning,” says law Dean John Douglass. The new facility has created what Douglass calls “a rich opportunity for learning” in the diverse heart of Virginia’s capital city. UR Downtown has improved accessibility for clients, community partners, and members of the legal profession, Douglass notes.
The downtown center also is a magnet for UR law students and undergraduates eager to tackle some of society’s toughest problems, Jefferies adds. “There are so many law students eager to participate in pro bono programs.”
UR Downtown provides common ground for students and practitioners of family and pro bono law, as well as students, teachers, and professionals in social work and psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I love it that we’re partnering with a different university,” says Dale Margolin, director of the Family Law Clinic. VCU’s graduate students will help with client intake and assessment issues, such as divorce and custody matters, explains Tim Davey, associate dean for community engagement at VCU’s School of Social Work.
Before heading UR’s Family Law Clinic, Margolin directed a similar program at St. John’s University School of Law in New York, where she learned some of the hard realities of life for people living below the poverty line.
“Most people who aren’t poor don’t understand that being poor is a full-time job,” she says. “When legal problems arise, it’s hard to go to court without losing one’s job. It’s also hard to find social services when one lacks a car or adequate child care.” That’s why “it’s important for us to be convenient,” she says.
The center is on the main bus line and has convenient parking, notes Judy Mejia, manager of the Richmond Families Initiative (RFI). “The location of UR Downtown is critical,” she says. “As they say in real estate, ‘location, location, location.’ We are so fortunate to be right at the seat of Richmond’s government, business, and cultural arts communities.”
The RFI collaborates with community partners on children’s issues to promote healthy, stable families in the greater Richmond area. During the 2008–09 academic year, the RFI established partnerships with three non-profits that support families in the Richmond area. The partners include: St. Joseph’s Villa, a charity that works with special-needs children and their families; Voices for Virginia’s Children, a child advocacy organization; and William Byrd Community House, a charity that helps individuals and families become self-sufficient.
Six community-based learning courses at UR were connected to the RFI last year. English students became volunteer readers at William Byrd Community House, an M.B.A. student conducted organizational analysis for St. Joseph’s Villa, and sociology students performed case studies on various non-profits to help the RFI compile a library of information about local family service providers.
Crystal Thornhill, ’11, one of the volunteers at William Byrd Community House, read books to children in an after-school program there. She jumped at the chance to apply what she was learning in Dr. Elisabeth Gruner’s children’s literature course. “This gave me an opportunity to give back to the community in my own way,” says Thornhill, a psychology major. “I really love working with kids.”
The RFI also sponsored brown bag discussions, such as one commemorating the 55th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. More than 70 guests attended the event at UR Downtown. The panel included Dr. Lauranett Lee of the Virginia Historical Society, Virginia state Sen. Henry Marsh, and Jonathan Stubbs, a professor of law at UR.
The new facility provides opportunities for all the University’s academic departments, offices, and programs to connect to people in the city of Richmond. During its first few months, UR Downtown hosted more than 60 events, including two law classes that met there weekly.
The Center for Pro Bono Service at UR Downtown pairs law students with local attorneys to provide low-income families with legal services.
“Having a presence here makes it so much easier for the law students because it’s right across from the federal courthouse, it’s right on the bus route on Broad Street, and so it’s a great place for the client, the student, and the lawyer to meet,” says Benjamin Pace, L’02, a Williams Mullen attorney who chairs the Richmond Bar Association’s pro bono committee.
From top: Rich Johnson, R’73, president and CEO of The Wilton Companies, checked on progress while UR Downtown was under construction. UR Downtown features a gigantic mural commissioned in 1956 by the building’s original owner. From the left: Judy Mejia, Dale Margolin, and Tara Casey direct UR Downtown’s three primary programs.
Pace and other attorneys involved in UR Downtown praise the leadership of Tara Louise Casey, a law school faculty member who directs the pro bono center. “Tara has been an asset to the pro bono community for a very long time,” Pace says. “So when she went to work for UR … everybody in pro bono work in Richmond knew a lot of things were going to start happening.”
UR Downtown already has helped take some of the pressure off the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, which has a long waiting list of clients seeking no-fault divorces. Pace vividly recalls his first client in the no-fault divorce program: “She was working. She was supporting her family, but she had a house fire that destroyed everything.” Now she is getting her life back together.
In a no-fault situation, Casey says, “you have people who cannot move forward with their lives, who might want to remarry, who might want to leave the state, and the only reason they can’t reach those goals is their inability to afford an attorney. We can help.”
In addition to the satisfaction of assisting such clients, Pace says he enjoyed working with UR law student June Kim, L’09, who helped draft legal pleadings in the case when they met at UR Downtown. “June was able to see how I handled the client—what questions I asked, how I handled sensitive subjects. I do think that’s a benefit to the students,” he says, “just to see how a lawyer handles something as simple and routine as a no-fault divorce.”
In addition to its no-fault divorce program, the pro bono center helps clients obtain protective orders. “We’re helping victims of domestic violence prepare their cases, and we’re providing them with representation at that final protective order hearing,” Casey says. “By providing legal representation, not only are you assisting them legally, you are assisting them with empowerment.”
Another member of Williams Mullen’s pro bono team, Brendan O’Toole, L’05, was born and raised in Richmond. “So any kind of pro bono service I can do as a lawyer to give back to my community and the citizens involved in my community makes me feel very good,” he says. “To a large extent, that [is] the reason I went to law school—to help others who need help.”
When Rich Johnson, R’73, president and CEO of The Wilton Companies, heard his alma mater was looking for a downtown site, he recommended the old Franklin Federal Savings & Loan building at Broad and Seventh. Wilton has owned the property since the 1990s and was restoring it to its original 1950s appearance.
The subject came up in conversation during a dinner on campus. Johnson heard that the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement was searching for a downtown location, and he knew he had the right building. He remembers button-holing University officials and recommending his site. Ayers endorsed the concept and accelerated the project.
“It was just a natural fit,” Johnson says. “And it kind of happened as a dinner conversation.”
The Wilton Companies invested $6 million to renovate the building, including a painstaking rehabilitation of 5,000 square feet on the ground floor for UR Downtown. The center has a number of unique aesthetic and environmental touches. Its colorful mural was commissioned in 1956 by the building’s original owner, Franklin Federal Savings & Loan. German artist Hans Gassman employed a 16th century Italian technique called sgraffito, a process he called “scratching on the wall” using five layers of plaster.
UR Downtown also has received a top rating for environmental sustainability (LEED certification) from the U.S. Green Building Council. To achieve the distinction, Wilton’s team installed heavy insulation, ultra-efficient heating and cooling systems, water-saving devices, and low-energy lighting. Johnson hopes the restored bank building soon will qualify for a historical designation, as well, making it one of the few buildings in Virginia’s capital that meet historical standards as well as 21st century green criteria. Best of all, The Wilton Companies is allowing the University to occupy the space rent free.
The seeds of UR Downtown were sown in the law school’s 2005 strategic plan, which called for developing more pro bono services and hiring a pro bono program director. Douglass credits generous donations from local business executive Ted Chandler, L’77, and Richmond-based author David Baldacci for making that possible.
Next, Adrienne Volenik, a clinical professor of law and acting executive director of the National Center for Family Law, secured a grant from the Lipman Foundation to fund the Family Law Clinic. Then The Wilton Companies brought it all together in one place.
“UR Downtown is a physical marker of the University’s commitment to community engagement,” says Dr. Amy Howard, director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. (See “Vantage Point.”) “It offers limitless possibilities for connecting student learning with community needs.”
Chip Jones is a freelance writer in Richmond.
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