The Class of 2015: Year of the Volunteer

Author: Catherine Behan

Alisa Finelli, J.D. ‘15, helps spruce up a South Bend resident’s home for Rebuilding Together Volunteer Day.

When Alisa Finelli, JD ’15, learned that she had won the national Pro Bono Award from the Super Lawyers rating service, she was grateful for the recognition the prize would bring to the Volunteer Lawyer Network, whose director, Mark J. Torma, ND ’97, had nominated her for the prize.

VLN has been an incredible community partner,” Finelli said. “They serve a vital role in improving access to justice and their willingness to train and support student volunteers has given us a great opportunity to give back to the community.”

Headquartered in downtown South Bend, the Volunteer Lawyer Network Inc. facilitates the delivery of free legal assistance and representation by community lawyers to low-income individuals in six northern Indiana counties. In announcing the award, Super Lawyers recounted the effect Finelli and her classmates have had on the program:

“Realizing the need for more volunteer opportunities for students at the University of Notre Dame Law School, Alisa Finelli, a third-year law student, spent two months creating and developing a program connecting students with the Volunteer Lawyer Network (VLN) in St. Joseph County, Indiana and surrounding counties. The Volunteer Lawyer Network connects residents in Indiana with lawyers willing to volunteer their services. She spent time promoting the program to her fellow students, planning the scheduling of volunteer hours, and facilitating training sessions at the law school and at the VLN office.
“As a result of Ms. Finelli’s efforts, 17 student volunteers have been trained by the VLN to perform client intake with 20 hours per week of volunteer time being provided by law students each semester. Before this program launched, the VLN could only take about 10% of the clients requesting aid. Now, the program has increased that capacity by 50% due to Ms. Finelli’s efforts.”

Finelli and Amy Povinelli, J.D. ’15, coordinate next steps for the team working at Rebuilding Together Volunteer Day.

For her part, Finelli said she is delighted that the student partnership with VLN that she began will continue after she and the rest of the volunteers from the Class of 2015 have left South Bend.

“The VLN student volunteer program provides a truly valuable service to the community and is a great opportunity to build legal interviewing and client interaction skills,” Finelli said. “I found that speaking with real clients is also energizing and an excellent break from studying.”

VLN Director Torma was unstinting in his praise for the NDLS volunteers.

“They were always very receptive to our training in how to conduct client intake in a high-pressure environment,” he said. "And then, once they were up and running, we found they made reliably smart and conscientious decisions.

“Importantly, they also were patient and kind when dealing with our clients, many of whom are having the worst day of their lives when they first call us.”

Finelli, who served as 2014-2015 Student Bar Association vice president, said there has been an overall increase in student volunteer activity this year, an accomplishment for which she credits SBA President Amy Povinelli, JD ’15, as well as other NDLS student groups that are committed to volunteer work such as the Black Law Students Association, Hispanic Law Students Association, and Legal Voices for Children and Youth.

“The level of student volunteer efforts this year, particularly with the Volunteer Lawyer Network, has been inspiring,” said Robert Jones, associate dean for experiential programs and clinical professor of law. "Alisa has been the heart and soul of those efforts.

“She embodies the ‘Different Kind of Lawyer’ that NDLS seeks to educate.”

In addition to helping the Volunteer Lawyer Network, SBA student volunteer activities this past year have included:

  • Dinner at Dismas House. Dismas House South Bend provides housing and support services to men and women who have recently been released from prison or jail. NDLS student volunteers prepared dinners for Dismas residents and dined with them.
  • Enrichment activities at the Robinson Community Learning Center in South Bend. Robinson Community Learning Center is a community center that provides programming and mentorship to local South Bend students to develop academic and life skills. NDLS student volunteers planned and lead after-school enrichment activities with students.
  • A Thanksgiving Basket Drive that provided 90 Thanksgiving meals to local South Bend families in need. For this annual event, students helped to purchase food items, assemble the baskets, and deliver them.
  • A Christmas Giving Fundraiser that raised more the $500 to provide Christmas gifts, Christmas dinner and household items to a local family of seven.
  • An SBA-Hispanic Law Students Association sponsored Coat & Blanket Drive that collected several boxes of winter gear to provide to a local community center.
  • Rebuilding Together Volunteer Day. Rebuilding Together helps to restore and revitalize homes of local low-income, disabled and elderly residents. NDLS students and faculty helped to repaint and repair a home in South Bend.
  • Dinner Service at Hope Ministries. Hope Ministries provides meals and services to those suffering from poverty, unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse and poor mental and emotional health. NDLS student volunteers provided and served meals to Hope clients.
  • Tutoring in the Community. NDLS student volunteers tutored local children through programs at the Hesburgh Library and the Rise-Up Academy.
  • Breakfast Service at Our Lady of the Road Shelter. Our Lady of Road provides meals and laundry services to residents suffering from poverty and homelessness. NDLS volunteers helped to prepare and serve meals to the Our Lady of the Road clients.

In addition to graduating cum laude and winning several academic awards, Finelli won The David T. Link Award for outstanding service in the field of social justice; The Conrad Kellenberg Award for service toward the betterment of the Law School and local community; and the Captain William O. McLean Law School Community Citizenship Award for doing the most to contribute to the lives of students at Notre Dame Law School.

She will now be joining the Chicago office of Jenner & Block, where she plans to continue exploring pro bono opportunities. If her law school experience is any indication, she is likely to identify new ones as well.