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The pro bono projects address employment, housing, and income in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Max Mester

Several Penn Law student groups have collaborated with local legal aid advocates on pro bono projects to help provide relief to communities who have suffered immensely from the COVID-19 pandemic.

These student groups operate within the Toll Public Interest Center, Penn Law's public service hub, and have adapted previous projects to the virtual environment in addition to creating new ones specifically for COVID-19 relief. 

All Penn Law students are required to complete 70 hours of law-related pro bono work supervised by an attorney in order to graduate. Pro bono work is unpaid public service within the legal field.

The pro bono projects aim to alleviate some of the hardships in employment, housing, and income that the pandemic has exacerbated.

Penn Housing Rights Project

The Penn Housing Rights Project has existed at Penn Law for several years, but has become even more essential during the pandemic. The project defends low-income tenants facing eviction in Philadelphia, both through direct representation as well as tenant support hotline. 

Third-year law students and PHRP volunteers Madison Gray and Samuel Whillans work with law firms to expand their capacity to defend unrepresented tenants. Gray and Whillans both began working with PHRP in their first year at Penn Law, and are now board members. 

In response to the housing crisis precipitated by COVID-19, Philadelphia has issued an eviction moratorium for limited time periods that continue to be extended on an ad hoc basis. The constant changes to Philadelphia’s response has been a challenge for attorneys, according to Whillans. 

Because Philadelphia's housing court has not fully transitioned to a virtual platform, many pro bono attorneys are not comfortable appearing in court due to safety concerns. The attorneys’ uneasiness has exacerbated the problem of tenants facing eviction, and many tenants have to defend themselves in court. 

“When the tenant goes unrepresented, it’s a really unfair battle, and it results in a judgment against them even when they might have valid legal claims against the eviction,” Gray said.

Gray and Whillans hope to bridge the gap between their defense work and advocacy for safe, affordable housing. This would involve advocating for city council bills for low-income tenants, and working with tenant unions and lawyers participating in tenant-led activism. 

“One goal that Sam and I both share is to connect the project's micro-level eviction work to some more macro-level housing justice movement work,” Gray said. 

Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund

The Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund is a non-profit organization that provides forgivable loans to Pennsylvania-based small businesses that have suffered financially as a result of COVID-19. Second-year law student Angela Wu has been with the fund since May, and currently works as a coordinator for the application review process.

Wu said that law students are responsible for sifting through applications to find potential loan recipients. The Fund has provided over 600 hundred struggling small businesses with over $2.5 million in loans, and they hope to double this impact by December.  

Wu was motivated to join the Fund because she said she felt helpless as a student in the wake of the pandemic. She plans to continue working at the Fund in the future, and added that the organization's support of Philadelphia businesses made the project very personal.

“A lot of small businesses that us law students frequented when we were still in Philly, those are the kinds of businesses that we’re able to give back to and help right now when they need it,” she said. 

Philadelphia Legal Assistance

Third-year law student Emily Deliz has been working with Philadelphia Legal Assistance for two and a half years. PLA deals with family law by providing low-income clients with advice to prepare them for their court hearings on cases related to custody or domestic violence. 

Deliz said that PLA’s model previously revolved around in-person work, and the shift to a virtual platform has been a challenge. 

“We have a lot of clients who are survivors of domestic violence,” Deliz said. “Those are really difficult situations to navigate over the phone. There might be a level of distrust talking to someone over the phone versus in a small office.”

After initially working in a client-facing role, Deliz currently holds a supervisory position, where she helps new advocates come up with advice to give to their clients. PLA’s goal to increase the accessibility of legal services is particularly meaningful to Deliz, and is why she has worked with the project for so long. 

“I really believe in [the project’s] underlying mission, which is to give legal advice to people for whom it otherwise isn’t available,” Deliz said. “I don’t think that money should be the difference.”