Published: May 16, 2016

A partnership that began as a real-world exercise for Legal Writing and Research classes has blossomed into a year-round pro bono project between the University of Colorado Law School and Colorado Legal Services (CLS), a nonprofit corporation that provides civil legal services to vulnerable populations throughout the state.

Professor Amy Griffin, director of legal writing and academic support, oversees the Pro Bono Research and Writing Project, which seeks to alleviate some of the pressure on CLS attorneys by offering students’ legal research and writing skills.

“Legal writing professors across the country have been exploring ways to connect social justice and legal writing, and I was intrigued by the possibility,” Griffin said. “The inspiration for this particular project came from Associate Director and Head of Public Services Robert Linz, who collaborated with CLS in his legal research courses and used CLS questions as assignments for his students. We took that idea outside of the classroom context to create many more opportunities for students to help CLS attorneys.”

Colorado faces a serious shortage of civil legal representation for the indigent. CLS is the primary provider of civil legal aid in Colorado, but, with just 47 attorneys, it is not equipped to handle the 880,000 people in the state who are eligible for CLS services. 

That’s where the project comes in. Griffin coordinates with CLS staff attorney Sarah Lipka (’07) and Gail Lorenz, administrator of volunteer services, to assign research projects to students based on the needs of CLS attorneys. Students can also volunteer for specific projects that meet their interests.

During the spring 2016 semester, Zach Huey (’18) put his passion for public interest law into practice by writing a research memo for a CLS staff attorney about the Colorado Old Age Pension (OAP).

“CLS was a great chance to apply myself in a real-world application of the skills I have been developing in the classroom. Also knowing that my research and writing is helping a real person is a great reward in and of itself. A law degree is giving me the tools to make a difference, and the CLS project was my first opportunity to apply them,” Huey said.

Not only are students improving their writing and research skills while providing valuable legal assistance to those who need it most, but many walk away from the experience with a writing sample and research experience to reference during interviews.

“It’s a win-win. When our attorneys are able to help people more efficiently, then they can take on more cases. Having this kind of assistance from law students opens up more opportunities for the attorneys and clients. On the other hand, it’s a good experience for law students and something that they can volunteer for when it fits their schedule. All in all, our clients get better service, our attorneys are able to enhance their work, and law students are happy too,” Lorenz said.

Each semester, Lorenz and a CLS supervising attorney present an informational session at the law school to legal writing classes and interested volunteers. First-year students can volunteer for this project beginning in the spring semester. Second- and third-year students can volunteer at any point. If you are interested, please contact Professor Amy Griffin at

Learn about other faculty-led public service projects at Colorado Law here.

Spotlight on spring 2016 volunteers

Students discuss their research and writing assignment during spring 2016 and why it was valuable for them.

Brittany Ryan (’18)

Ryan assisted with a complex divorce settlement by researching the question of who could claim the mortgage interest and property tax deductions on a house where both names are on the deed, only one name is on the mortgage, and one party would be paying the mortgage, interest, and taxes for the next two years. The memo she wrote was for a mediation.

“I participated in the project because I thought it would be helpful to have a ‘real world’ research and writing experience before my summer job, besides taking legal research and writing,” Ryan said. “The experience was very valuable for me. While I was nervous when I started, it was great research experience, and it was very helpful to reference during my interviews. Also, I wasn't out on my own, my legal research teacher, Nick Harrell, and Professor Griffin helped me along during the process and gave great feedback. “

Zach Huey (’18)

Huey wrote a research memo for a staff attorney at CLS about the Colorado Old Age Pension (OAP) covering under what circumstances a non-citizen is eligible for the abandonment exception. His research included a review of non-citizen eligibility for OAP, what requirements the non-citizen must meet to qualify as abandoned under the OAP, and what qualifies “abandoned” for the non-citizen seeking benefits. 

“Volunteering is important to me, and I wanted real-world experience. CLS for me was a great chance to apply myself in a real-world application of the skills I have been developing in the classroom,” Huey said.

Shannon O’Keefe (’18)

O’Keefe’s project involved a unique blend of federal and state law. She researched the effect of a prior undissolved marriage on a putative spouse's ability to claim a portion of her husband's railroad retirement annuity.

“I decided to participate in the Pro Bono Research and Writing project because I wanted to improve my legal writing skills and further prepare myself for my summer internship,” O’Keefe said. “Additionally, I wanted to help the attorneys at CLS in any way that I could—I know they do a lot of work all over Colorado, and it can be really tough to do all of the research when they've got so many projects to manage.

This experience has been extremely valuable to me because I got to do real-life research for a practicing attorney working for a real client who needed legal assistance. It was a nice step up from the hypothetical issues we deal with in legal writing. I also found interacting with a supervising attorney to be very valuable. It was a great opportunity to work on my professionalism skills.”

PICTURED: Professor Amy Griffin and Karthik Venkatraj ('17)