Vanderbilt Law Students Work for Three Legal Advocacy Organizations over 2023 Pro Bono Spring Break

Ten Vanderbilt Law students worked for three legal nonprofit organizations to support their missions of providing vital legal services to indigent and low-income clients over Spring Break 2023.

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services

Emma Harrison ’24 led a team that included Tasia Harris ’23, Nicholas Summers ’25, and Lauryn Wedgeworth ’25 to Oxford, Mississippi, where they worked for North Mississippi Rural Legal Services under the supervision of attorney Al Cutturini.

Team members worked NMRLS’s Elder Law Project on end-of-life documents, including wills, healthcare directives and powers of attorney. “I worked on a divorce case. Nicholas and Lauryn worked on an adverse possession property case, and Tasia worked on a will dispute. None of us had worked in these areas of law, and it was exciting to learn more about them outside the classroom, and we all really enjoyed the work. To get to the clients, we had to travel, so it was great to see the accessibility of legal services to elderly people in rural Mississippi,” Harrison said.

Cutturini had high praise for the students. “These students have done Vandy proud. They came to work, and they absolutely blew me away,” he said. “I was impressed with their skills and their work ethic, and I cannot express how thankful and honored I am that they chose to spend their Spring Break at NMRLS.”

Tennessee Innocence Project

William McGoughran ’25 worked at the Tennessee Innocence Project, which represents clients who have been convicted of crimes in claims of innocence and wrongful conviction, under the supervision of Executive Director Jessica Van Dyke and Deputy Director Jason Gichner ’02.

“The experience was invaluable,” McGoughran said. “”I was able to read through trial documents and see how lawyers interact with their client, opposing counsel and the judge throughout a normal trial, the importance of evidence, and how counsel can use testimony to paint a picture of the alleged events to a jury,” McGoughran said. “This was my first opportunity to use the knowledge I’ve learned during my first year of law school to make an impact on others.”

Free Hearts

Chris Cao ’25 led a team that that included Sean Geercken ’23, Hongyu Li LLM’23, and Brittany Williams ’25 working under supervising attorney Keeda Haynes on Free the Vote, a project addressing what Haynes describes as “one of the most convoluted laws of any state” for reinstating voters who have been disenfranchised due to criminal involvement.

“We attended legislative meetings in which revisions to current voting laws were proposed, watched sessions of Metro Nashville General Sessions Court to better understand criminal procedures, watched a Tennessee Supreme Court case challenging the felony disenfranchisement law in Tennessee, and contacts people who need their voting rights restored to gather information so we could draft motions asking the court to restore their voting rights,” Cao said. “We learned about current voting rights laws in Tennessee and the very complicated procedure required to restore voting rights of people convicted of felonies. We also learned about general sessions and criminal court proceedings in Tennessee.”

Vanderbilt’s Pro Bono Spring Break Program was launched by Darrius Woods ’17 to enable students to gain meaningful legal experience and boot-on-the-ground exposure to public interest work in a variety of settings. In past years, students have worked at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Johnson City, Tennessee; the Tennessee Justice Center in Nashville; Just City in Memphis; and at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Ocilla, Georgia, where they met with immigrant detainees, and other legal nonprofits in the Southeast.