Making the World a Better Place: Chicago-Kent Hosts 2024 Public Interest Awards

  • By Kayla Molander

“I’m really grateful to have landed here where we have a really big, robust public interest community,” says Jacob Marshall ’24. “I really have no idea where I would be right now without that. I’m looking forward to working with everyone in this room to keep using the law to make the world a better place.”

Marshall is the winner of the 2024 Vivien C. Gross Pro Bono and Public Interest Leadership Award, which recognizes a graduating law student who has made outstanding contributions to public interest law through pro bono work and leadership. It is named in memory of Vivien Gross, a member of Chicago-Kent College of Law faculty and supporter of public interest legal studies for more than 40 years.

Marshall accepted his award at the 2024 Public Interest Awards ceremony that was held on April 16, 2024, at Conviser Law Center. He is one of dozens of students who were recognized for their contributions to the field of public interest law.

Public interest law has long been a major part of the culture at Chicago-Kent, and student interest in the field has exploded since the Public Interest Center officially opened in 2023 as an expansion of the Public Interest Resource Center, which had supported students’ interest in the field for decades.

Michelle Vodenik, director of the Public Interest Center, opened the awards by sharing that in the 2023–24 academic year student volunteer hours increased by 83 percent from the previous year and that the number of students volunteering had doubled. Of the students who began their studies in fall 2023, 74.4 percent signed the pro bono pledge, a commitment to undertake 50 hours of community service during their time in law school.

“We want to make access to justice a reality, for the millions of people who cannot afford a lawyer,” Vodenik said during the ceremony. “While we cannot do it all, it really does start with us. Our collective efforts make a huge impact.”

In the 2024 graduating class, nine students earned Public Interest Certificates, an added credential for the college’s J.D. graduates that includes, among other things, a community service requirement.

An additional 35 students received the Certificate of Service for completing at least 50 hours of community service during their time in law school. The Dean’s Distinguished Public Service Award for at least 250 hours of service was awarded to six students: Alexandra Fryer ’25, Berenice Martinez ’24, Amanda Miller ’24, Joseph Strom ’25, Katherine Withers ’24, and Dulcie Xue ’25.

This year a new award category was created for students who go even further in their dedication to public interest law while at Chicago-Kent.

The Dean’s Exemplary Public Service Award was presented to nine students who completed more than 400 hours of community service: Alexis Endres ’24, Corey Hamilton-Buis ’25, Isaac Harnden ’24, Christopher Lazare ’25, Margaret Miles ’25, Blythe Pabon ’24, Alisha Panthier ’24, Jonathan Potter ’24, and Emile Boghos ’24.

Boghos completed a staggering 812 hours of service, largely with the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. He was also awarded the Pro Bono Leader Award.

While many students were honored during the ceremony, several received special callouts.

Kylie Gava ’26 and Nicolette Gordillo-LaRiviere ’26 were the 2024 recipients of the Justice John Paul Stevens Public Interest Fellowship. It is awarded annually to two outstanding law students who have obtained unpaid summer positions at public interest organizations.

Alisha Panthier ’24 was honored for receiving an Equal Justice Works’ Regional Public Interest Award for the Midwest, while Berenice Martinez ’24 was recognized for being on the board of non-profit Latinos Progresando, and Haya Muhammad ’24 was honored for starting and leading her own non-profit, KxP Campaigns.

Verónica Cortez ’13 was honored with the 2024 Honorable Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Public Interest Law Award, which recognizes an alumnus/alumna who makes a significant impact in the field of public interest law. Cortez is the associate director of policy for the Erikson Institute, in addition to serving on the Board of Directors at Alternatives, Erie Neighborhood House, and the Albert Pick Jr. Fund.

The Ronald W. Staudt Public Interest Partner Award recognizes organizations that make outstanding contributions to public interest law while providing opportunities for Chicago-Kent students to gain meaningful experience in public interest practice. This year’s honoree was Chicago Volunteer Legal Services.

Executive Director Margaret Benson accepted the award on behalf of the organization.

“We love working with students. They are enthusiastic, they are engaged, they want to help people,” Benson said at the ceremony. “I love being a lawyer, most people who work with us do, but pro bono is way more fun. Working is work, it’s a job. But pro bono is super cool. The more you can do it, when you are a full-time lawyer, I think the better off you will be, and the more likely you are going to have a happy work life.”

Photo: Michelle Vodenik, Jacob Marshall, and Public Interest Certificate program director Carolyn Shapiro [provided]

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