The University of Pennsylvania Law School has awarded its Cohen Public Interest Fellowship for 2009-2010 to Victoria Messina L’05. The fellowship will support Messina’s work at Penn’s Toll Public Interest Center, where she will develop and supervise student-run pro bono projects.
“As our Cohen Fellow, Tory will help ensure that students don’t just do pro bono work, but also step back to reflect on their experiences,” explains Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, assistant dean and executive director of public interest at Penn Law. “We want to make sure that students embrace the educational value of their pro bono experience.”
Penn Law requires students to complete at least 70 hours of pro bono work to graduate as one way of instilling an ethic of professional responsibility and providing students with hands-on opportunities for professional development. Finkelstein compares leading a pro bono project to running a “mini non-profit,” because students must learn to budget, plan strategically and train and supervise staff – all while focusing on what’s best for their clients. “Being a student leader imparts a valuable skill-set, no matter what the individual’s career trajectory,” she says.
Most pro bono hours are spent working in placements arranged by the Law School. But a proliferation of student-led pro bono projects – there are now 16 – resulted in the need for a practicing attorney to mentor the student-leaders and guide the projects. The projects range from environmental law to international human rights, and from broad-based policy development to direct representation of indigent clients.
“I’m excited to help students have meaningful pro bono experiences,” says Messina. “This is one of the best ways to foster a lifelong commitment to public service work."
Messina’s background demonstrates that students can integrate public service into whatever career paths they choose. After graduating from Penn Law, Messina worked as an associate at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where she augmented her private practice with significant pro bono asylum and anti-death penalty advocacy. She subsequently shifted to full-time public interest work as a program coordinator at Pro Bono Net, a non-profit organization that applies technology to increase access to justice for underserved populations.
“Tory’s fluency in the languages and cultures of both private-practice pro bono and public interest law is vital to her role as a Cohen Fellow,” says Finkelstein, noting that Messina will mentor students who plan public interest careers as well as those interested in private practice or non-traditional legal careers. “Tory’s approach to working with students – to offer guidance through expertise, rather than a heavy hand – creates the delicate balance of support and autonomy that our students need to grow professionally.”
Messina says she was hooked on public service during her first year at Penn, when she worked in the school’s Immigration Clinic (now the Immigrant Rights Project), representing an Iraqi refugee who had been placed in deportation proceedings based on an alleged criminal act.
“My client had escaped Saddam Hussein’s regime, only to be imprisoned in the U.S.,” explains Messina. “When we took his case, he literally had nowhere else to turn. Our client was eventually freed and back on the road to citizenship. The experience was both humbling and inspiring.”
Messina also knew from her work before law school – teaching English as a Second Language to adults in the U.S. and teaching in the French public schools – that she found it highly rewarding to develop personal connections and help empower other people. “There’s no greater feeling than helping people achieve their goals,” she says.
As a Cohen Fellow, Messina will have the opportunity to empower a new set of clients – law students. She says she’s been impressed so far by the students, who she describes as “active, thoughtful, and deeply reflective on their pro bono experience.”
The Cohen Public Interest Fellowship is made possible by a gift from David and Rhonda Cohen, who attended Penn Law together in the late 1970s. David is Executive Vice President of Comcast Corporation. Rhonda was formerly a partner at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll.