Not many people get to help out with pro bono legal work before they even apply to law school. But Steffen Thomas has a skill that is incredibly valuable to the College of Law Pro Bono Initiative: the ability to speak Spanish.
In order to reach more community members, the Pro Bono Initiative occasionally recruits undergrad students to act as translators between clients and law students. When Thomas learned that he could get the service credit required for his Spanish degree through volunteering at a community pro bono legal site, he was all in.
Soon he went from just helping out at the legal sites to being truly interested in the legal work he was translating and learning about. “It kind of made me realize how much power an attorney has in a community,” he said. “You can just go sit down in some cafeteria and really make a difference in someone’s life.”
This led Thomas to apply to the College of Law, where he started his law school journey in 2017. He’s among the law graduates who are celebrating commencement this month as part of the Class of 2020. Still passionate about pro bono work, Thomas volunteered at many of the free legal sites and even earned himself a pro bono fellowship, based on his strong work ethic and commitment to pro bono work.
As a fellow, Thomas was in charge of bringing supplies to the free legal sites, getting law students to volunteer, and coordinating the local attorneys who assist the law students.
“I’ve been really impressed by the Utah legal community,” he said. “There are just so many attorneys and organizations that are dedicated to low-income outreach. It’s really encouraging and it gives me hope.” Utilizing his language skills has led Thomas to being interested in immigration law as a potential career path. He spent last summer on asylum cases at the Perretta Law Office in Salt Lake City.
Thomas said the most memorable moment of his summer internship was working on an asylum case for one young woman in particular. She and her brother had come to the U.S. from El Salvador and, while he had been granted asylum, she had been denied. Thomas spent over a month gathering evidence and collecting facts for her case in order to appeal the decision. He accompanied the family and their attorney to court in order to act as the interpreter.
“I will never forget the moment when the judge was handing down his decision,” Thomas said. “I was explaining to the family that the decision could go either way. When the judge finally granted her asylum, I was able to tell her mom right to her face that her daughter was going to be able to stay here. It was such a powerful moment and it just felt like the culmination of years of hard work.”
Spanish isn’t the only skill Thomas capitalized on in law school. An extreme sports enthusiast and avid skier, Thomas compares the adrenaline rush of his downtime activities to working in the court-room.
“It’s definitely something I bring with me to law school,” he said. “If, for example, I’m nervous to go up and cross-examine a cop or something, I just think about all those times I’ve been standing over a big cliff or some enormous jump. And I just think, if I can do that, then this is not going to be so hard.”