As a newly minted attorney, recent South Texas College of Law Houston (STCL Houston) graduate Maria Ivañez had much to celebrate at her induction into the State Bar of Texas following her graduation from law school.
But a surprise honor for her extensive volunteer efforts while a law student took her celebration to a new level.
“I was in awe hearing my name announced as the recipient of the Texas Access to Justice (ATJ) Commission’s 2016 ‘Law Student Pro Bono Award’ at the State Bar of Texas’ New Lawyer Induction Ceremony in Austin,” said Ivañez. “It is often exhausting trying to juggle school and work, and still find time to do what I love, which is volunteer – so receiving this recognition really warmed my heart.”
The annual ATJ Commission award honors a student from an accredited Texas law school who has most enhanced the delivery of quality legal services to poor Texans and underserved communities.
All students from ABA-accredited law schools in Texas are eligible for the award.
The ATJ Commission selected Ivañez from a pool of 19 finalists and granted her a $2,000 stipend in addition to the significant award.
“The ATJ Law Student Pro Bono Award recognizes law students who continuously strive to improve the lives of those less fortunate,” said Trish McAllister, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission. “Maria helped a tremendous amount of people in desperate need of legal assistance during law school. She is an impressive, compassionate person and I know, as a new attorney, she will continue to make lives better in her community.”
The Commission found that Ivañez best exemplified the following award characteristics:
- A passion for advocating for underserved populations, demonstrated by work for that population during law school and/or intent to practice law on behalf of that population after graduation;
- Substantial performance of legal pro bono service (as opposed to general public service); and
- Involvement in public service-oriented law student groups.
As a student at South Texas, she integrated service into her education by helping minorities in processing Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applications in the school’s Immigration Clinic and others seeking humanitarian visas in the Asylum and Human Trafficking Clinic, part of the Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics. She also participated in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Clinic.
Working in the Immigration Clinic was especially impactful for Ivañez, as she was an undocumented immigrant for 10 years before she filed her own papers with the United States Immigration Office to become an American citizen. As a law student volunteer, she was able to assist undocumented high school students in similar situations in becoming eligible for citizenship so they could help financially support their families.
“My desire to pursue a legal career in corporate immigration law and pro bono immigration work was strengthened by working one-one-one with indigent and underserved populations in STCL Houston’s legal clinics,” said Ivañez. “Having been in their place as a ‘Dreamer,’ I knew that my clients had faced a difficult journey just to be sitting in front of me. Because I am bilingual, I was able to break the language barrier many immigrants face, and apply knowledge gained in law school to improve the lives of my clients and their families.”
Currently, Ivañez works at an immigration law firm handling corporate and asylum casework.
“We’re delighted that the Commission has recognized Maria as the pro bono star we know her to be,” said Catherine Greene Burnett, associate dean, professor, and director of the clinical programs at South Texas College of Law Houston. “She hits all the characteristics we strive to inculcate in our students – both with her service in academic clinics and with her volunteer work. We predict she will continue this trajectory of service throughout her career.”