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UW’s Zimmerman pays it forward

The journey of 1,000 miles really does begin with a single step.

Access to justice is an enormous problem, where meeting every benchmark for success along the way, however big or small, is a cause for celebration. Each step gets closer to the larger goal.

So says Ann Zimmerman, the University of Wisconsin Law School’s pro bono director since April 2011.

Among Zimmerman’s first projects was to create the Pro Bono Society. Students perform a prescribed number of hours of law-related, volunteer service for induction, prior to graduating with pro bono honors.

Thirty-two students already have graduated with pro bono honors. Last academic year, they recorded 2,300 hours of service. Just shy of the midyear mark this year, 975 hours of service were reported.

“When you watch the students graduate and they have their purple pro bono award cord on, they get their award, and they’ve given so much to the community at the same time they were going through law school, it’s a great moment,” Zimmerman said. “But it’s also a small victory, because the real hope is that they keep going and pay it forward.”

Among the new initiatives Zimmerman spearheaded is the Veterans Law Center, in conjunction with forming a Veteran Law Society. More than 50 lawyers received training at the first session.

“The response by the community lawyers has been great, and it’s a bunch of them who have never done pro bono before,” Zimmerman said.

Another recent accomplishment was the Indian Wills Caravan Alternative Winter Break project. Students and attorneys prepared 250 wills and other estate-planning documents in just a few days for members of Native American communities.

Looking ahead, she said, “My goal is to get more students involved. I want to reach all students. So I keep trying to come up with different ideas that will appeal to different groups.”

“Ann has tirelessly explored opportunities that are a good fit with our law students,” said Marsha Mansfield, faculty advisor to UW Law’s pro bono program. “Providing these experiences helps meet the huge demand for legal services, provides law students valuable legal training, and hopefully instills in them a lifelong practice of engaging in public service as part of their legal careers.”

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