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The Pro Bono Initiative at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law provides free legal help with a broad range of topics—and also has a new program assisting incarcerated Utahns at the Utah State Correctional Facility with civil law problems. Caisa Royer, program director, talks with host Chris Nelson about how the program works and the learning opportunities it provides for law students.

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Chris Nelson: The Pro Bono Initiative at the S.J. Quinney College of Law meets all three aspirations in President Taylor Randall's vision for the University of Utah. Inspire, innovate, serve.

My guest today is Caisa Royer, director of the Pro Bono Initiative. I'm excited to talk with Caisa about the free legal work our law students are doing and their newest outreach effort at the Utah State Correctional Facility. Welcome to U Rising, Caisa!

Caisa Royer: Thank you so much for having me.

Chris Nelson: So, let's start with talking about yourself a little bit. How did you get this job? How long have you been here? Talk about your experience at the University of Utah.

Caisa Royer: Yeah. I came to the University of Utah in October of 2019, so right before the pandemic. I came here to work with Dr. Erin Castro and the Utah Prison Education Project. I had worked in prison education when I was in graduate school and it really altered my perception of how I wanted to do work and what kind of work I wanted to do. And so the opportunity landed in my lap to come out to Utah and do that work in a really innovative and exciting space.

But I worked with Erin at the Utah State Prison, at the time which was in Draper, for about two years, and my contract was ending and I wanted to stay in Salt Lake because I loved it. And the thing that I really missed was doing legal work. My background is in both psychology and law and I missed the law side. And so, I somehow found myself at the law school, working for the Pro Bono Initiative and it's just the best job. Couldn't ask for more.

Chris Nelson: Excellent. So, you talk about graduate school. Are you an attorney by training or what are your graduate degrees in?

Caisa Royer: Great question. I'm interdisciplinary in all the best ways. I have both a Ph.D. in psychology and a J.D. So, I've never practiced as an attorney, but I find myself very wrapped up in that world.

Chris Nelson: Well, Ph.D. and J.D., that is some hardcore higher education right there.

Caisa Royer: Yeah, I don't recommend it to anyone!

Chris Nelson: Okay, so, we know about you. Let's talk about the initiative itself, its main purpose, history of it, and then we'll get into the nitty gritty details.

Caisa Royer: Yeah, so my understanding is that the Pro Bono Initiative, or we fondly call it PBI, so you'll probably hear me call it PBI in this conversation. But the Pro Bono Initiative has been in existence since the year 2000. Lived a couple of different lives since then. But the S.J. Quinney College of Law has always really valued giving back to the community. And so it was important even 20 years ago, 25 years ago, for there to be an opportunity for students to do volunteer work.

And so, the Pro Bono Initiative is a little different than other opportunities that law students have because it's not paid. There's no monetary compensation, there is no academic credit, it’s completely volunteer run. So, our main purpose is to give both legal professionals and students an opportunity to provide free legal services in the community. And one of the goals is to create a lifelong commitment to doing that pro bono work in students while they're still in school, because this is the time where they're creating habits, creating the kind of attorney that they want to be. So, it's a great time to kind of get in and corrupt them a little bit in giving free legal advice.

Chris Nelson: So, the students work or they staff the sessions with supervising practicing attorneys and those attorneys are volunteering just from their practices as well?

Caisa Royer: Yeah, correct. We have over a 100 practicing attorneys or licensed paralegal professionals who volunteer with us as well. So, their responsibility is to supervise the students. But I always say that the students do the majority of the work. They're the ones who are meeting with clients, they're the ones who are diagnosing issues, giving advice, but all of that advice is run through an attorney before it's provided to the client.

Chris Nelson: I like the idea of them doing that, the idea of volunteerism during the education process. I'm curious if you hear from alumni or those practicing attorneys what their feedback is.

Caisa Royer: Yeah, I think, I mean I hope the goal is that it does create that lifelong dream, and we have so many students who are now practicing attorneys who come back and volunteer with us. I would say probably half of our attorneys are SJQ alums who loved doing this work while they were students and can't quite give it up. And that's so fun because we get to see them even after they graduate.

Chris Nelson: So, in looking at the website, there's different areas. You've got a focus on debtors’ law, family law, expungement, justice law, immigration law, rainbow law, which seems specific to LGBTQIA+ issues, street law, veterans’ legal sites. So, walk us through one of those programs. If I'm a community member, I'm needing some legal advice, walk me through what that process would look like in any of those areas, whichever you choose.

Caisa Royer: Yeah,they all kind of follow the same basic framework. So, we run 13, we call them brief legal advice sites, per month. They mostly run in the evenings. And so, if you're a community member and you have a specific legal need, you can look up either on our website or you could email or call us and try to figure out what the best of those programs would be for you.

We do not have appointments for most of those programs, so you can just walk on in. We rarely have to turn anyone away. We will stay and try to serve everyone we can. So, all you need to do is figure out when and where to go. Come on by and you'll get a free session with students for 30 minutes. And the goal here really is to ask whatever questions you have. So often, people go through legal proceedings on their own. They do not have the support of an attorney, they don't have family members or friends who are knowledgeable about the process. And so it's just so helpful to just be able to sit down with somebody and ask whatever questions you have. We can help you fill out forms. If you need a demand letter, we can help draft a demand letter for you. Whatever we can do in that 30 minutes is our goal. And that's really client led so whatever the client is looking for is what we try to help.

Chris Nelson: That makes sense because law can be so complicated in the process, and it's almost like an orientation to whatever your issue is. Do you find that you're referring a lot of potential clients back out to those lawyers or do most people get their issues solved in that or their questions answered, I guess.

Caisa Royer: That's a good question. It really depends. The reality of the situation is that in Utah and, you know, throughout the United States, honestly, most people proceed through most legal processes on their own. They do not have an attorney to support them. So, what we try to do is help folks get to the next stage of their legal process during our consultations. We try to refer people to other legal aid organizations like Utah Legal Services or Salt Lake Legal Aid or other places like that where they can get direct representation and we'll occasionally refer people to attorneys that they would have to hire. But we really try not to make the solution spending money.

Chris Nelson: This is obviously for the broader community, but, you know, I know most of our listeners are probably University of Utah affiliated, so this would be open to students, faculty, staff who are facing an issue as well as any range of persons from the broader community?

Caisa Royer: Yes, exactly. Yeah, we love when we have people from the University of Utah come on by. But it's also not exclusive to that community either. It's for anybody who has a legal issue arising in the state of Utah.

Chris Nelson: You may have said this, but there's both Zoom sessions and in-person sessions at a variety of different locations.

Caisa Royer: Yes, correct. Yeah, we're spread out across the Salt Lake Valley. We have a program in West Valley. We have a program in Kearns. We have several downtown. We have a couple at the University of Utah itself and we try, when we can, to provide online options as well.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, I was reading through the list of law areas and street law caught my attention. It looks like it's related to housing issues, consumer small claims. Do you mind talking about that? What are the typical issues you would see in a street law conversation?

Caisa Royer: Yeah. Street law is a little bit of a misnomer. It's called street law because it used to literally be on the streets. It was designed to help folks who are currently unhoused with the sorts of legal issues that they were facing, which tends to be, like you said, housing or debt or employment issues. We no longer hold it on the streets, we hold it like we would hold any other site inside of a different community building, but we still deal with the same issues. So housing, employment, debt, small claims, contracts, questions. It's sort of our catchall site, and I think it's probably the best site that we offer. It's really accessible for the law students. Anyone who comes in, we try our best to help with whatever issue they have. So, it's sort of our catchall.

Chris Nelson: Excellent. So outside of street law, what are the other top legal problems your team addresses? I'm not sure it's a very broad range, but maybe just give us a taste of those other big ones that you see a lot of.

Caisa Royer: Yeah. The other ones that are very busy are family law. We help with a lot of divorce, child custody, child support issues. Like you said, we have a really active rainbow law program that deals with issues facing LGBTQIA+ folks. A lot of that is name and gender marker questions. We have a program at the Veterans Affairs Office that deals with issues facing veterans and their loved ones, which ranges from housing to criminal to family law. And then probably our busiest site is our immigration program. There's a lot of immigrants in Utah and Salt Lake who have questions about what the process looks like. We hold a program out in West Valley that faces those issues.

Chris Nelson: And of course we can't do this by ourselves. Your team works with a lot of community organizations. Which organizations are you working with? Maybe a little bit of love for those groups who partner with us.

Caisa Royer: Oh my goodness, I couldn't list them all. I know I'll forget people! My favorite way to run a site is if we have a community partner who has a community with an identified legal need, and they already have the space and they have the clientele already made for us. That's my favorite thing. So, we have a lot of community partners because it just makes things easier for us and I love working with folks. We work with Salt Lake Community College's West Valley Dream Center. We work with Utah Legal Services and Salt Lake Legal Aid. We work with The Road Home. We have a program at the Gail Miller Resource Center. We just started a new program at the Volunteers of America's Youth Resource Center that focuses on the needs of unhoused youth. We partner with the LGBT Resource Center on campus, the VA. I mean, I just could keep going. I love our community partners so much.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, I love that. As listeners know, we talk a lot about the university's mission and goal of unsurpassed societal impact and this feels like a perfect example of that and what I love about it, it is not only the university with this impact, but it's amplifying what these partner organizations are already doing and maybe supporting them or they're supporting us or we're all supporting each other. That's great.

I do want to ask about the new legal site at the Utah State Correctional Facility. I know the university's got a long relationship, and you kind of touched on this in your introduction a little bit, but specific to this program, talk about what this program looks like in that world right now.

Caisa Royer: So we just launched last October a new program at the Utah State Correctional Facility where we provide the same services we're providing outside of the prison to folks who're currently incarcerated. We focus on civil legal needs, which I think is surprising to people because when they think of people who are incarcerated, they think of criminal problems. And the reality is that folks who are incarcerated also deal with debt and divorce and immigration issues and all of these things that we're all struggling with, but because of their circumstances, it's so hard to access legal services. So, it was kind of a lifelong dream of mine to be out there and providing this service. We worked really hard to develop a relationship with the Department of Corrections and create a program that serves their needs, also meets the needs of the folks that are incarcerated there and meets the needs of our law students.

We go out in person two times per month to meet with the clients there. We run that program with both the men's general population facility, the women's general population facility, and at the mental health and geriatric facilities. The people who are incarcerated who have legal issues have an intake form that they fill out. We go through and determine what clients meet the services that we can provide. We clear them for a session. We go in a little rag-tag team of law students and meet with those clients, usually in the chapel. So, it's a big open space. We all just kind of hang out for an hour and go through the different legal issues that the clients have. Usually those sessions are about 10 people with a handful of volunteers assisting them. And then we also have an online program that runs once per month where we pair clients directly with attorneys who are assisted by a couple of law students. And that's just really for clients with more complex legal issues that need more than just forms or basic information, who really need the advice of an attorney.

Chris Nelson: Is this unique nationally, other schools doing this with their correctional systems that you're aware of?

Caisa Royer: I don't know of anything. The Pro Bono Initiative in general is really unique. There are a lot of law schools that provide pro bono services. I have never heard of one that's as robust as ours is here. It's genuinely just an incredible program that was created here. And so in the same way, there are lots of law schools that are in prisons and doing good work in prisons. I don't know of any that are providing this type of service outside of a clinical setting. They might have a clinic that helps, you know, 10 clients per semester. Because of our brief legal advice model, we've already spoken with over 400 people since October.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. Well, you raised an interesting question, which I would've never thought of, the civil issues that the incarcerated Utahns are seeking help with because the criminal side, they probably already have either public defenders or attorneys, but probably no support of the civil. Kind of remind our audience what those issues would be because I assume, like you were mentioning, it is everything from probably stuff they left behind before they were incarcerated. Any additional examples on that?

Caisa Royer: I mean, it's just wild the kinds of questions we get. I have worked with incarcerated populations for over a decade, and I am still surprised by the questions we get. The common ones are bankruptcy or I have this debt that's accruing interest. How do I pause that? Or how do I deal with my student-loan debt or those sorts of money issues. We have a lot of questions about wills or probate. So, folks that are concerned about what will happen to their belongings when they pass on. We have a lot of questions about divorce and custody and child visitation. That's really prominent on a lot of people's minds at the prison. They want to have relationships with their children and are stopped because of various processes from having that relationship.

And then we just get fun questions. For the first time in my life, I helped someone fill out a tax form that was, like, a paper form. I've never done that before, but that's what they have to do there. And I was no help because I use TurboTax and have never looked at a form like that. So, I mean, it's tax questions. We have one gentleman who's trying to open a Jamaican food truck when he gets out, and so he had questions about the policies and how do you apply for a food handler's permit and questions like that. So, it's across the board, just all sorts of stuff.

Chris Nelson: So, you mentioned this work is kind of the culmination of an interest you've had through your whole life. Where does that come from? What's the origin story for you?

Caisa Royer: When I was in graduate school, I started working in prison education. Cornell has a pretty robust prison education project where they provide college level courses at a couple of prisons in Upstate New York. And so while I was a graduate student at Cornell, I got involved in that and I also interned at Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. New York has a pretty progressive relationship with the legal needs of people who are incarcerated. That resulted from a couple of riots that happened in New York in the last many decades. And I just really, really love working in prisons. There's something about being confronted by other people that I really like. You're all stuck together in this space and you have to learn how to deal with each other. And as a psychologist, that's a space that I find really interesting, in the same way that I like DMVs and I like the airport, those are spaces where you're just confronted with humanity.

And the reality is that people who are incarcerated are not often the people that we think about providing with humanitarian assistance like legal needs. There are lots of robust legal aid programs in Utah, and yet people who are incarcerated really have no access to legal services at all. So, if you're trying to do good, there's a lot of people who are incarcerated who need that work. Until recently, they did not have access to a legal library, so they couldn't access books or resources. They don't have access to the courts in a really meaningful way because they can't take themselves there. They can't just Google questions or Google how to find an attorney or hire an attorney. So, I love being in that space and it's a space that really needs help.

Chris Nelson: Well, thank you for that work. So, you talked about lack of access to Google. If you could talk about that and also what hurdles did you have to overcome to get this program going in the correctional system?

Caisa Royer: Yeah, so prisons are still really far behind in terms of access to technology. Many people who are incarcerated have never held a cell phone. They've been incarcerated since before the internet was as active as it is now. And even more than that, access to computers, access to just the open internet, is almost never an occurrence inside of, at least, Utah prisons. They do have access to some technology. With the rollout of the new prison, which opened two years ago now, half of the people have access to tablet computers, which have a really limited scope, so they can use it to do classwork, they can access religious services on it, but they still can't look at YouTube or go on TikTok or, again, Google ‘what attorney is the best family law attorney in Utah.’

So, they still have those limitations. And, of course, those are largely security concerns, which is why those limitations exist. But it doesn't necessarily prepare folks to reenter society on the other end of their sentence. In terms of the hurdles that we had to jump, a lot of it was building trust with the Department of Corrections about the type of work that we are doing. There were a lot of concerns about what access to legal information would mean, if it would increase the burden on the Department of Corrections to provide transportation to court, if it would result in lots of questions from the people who are incarcerated and questions that maybe the Department of Corrections wasn't prepared to answer. So, we do have some strict restrictions on us.

Everyone who goes into the prison has to undergo a volunteer training that's offered by the prison. We also have restrictions in terms of the types of legal issues that we can help folks with. So, we do help with civil legal needs. We are currently not cleared to help with issues involving the prison, so grievances against the prison or concerns about the Board of Pardons or parole. We're also not able to help with issues arising from a criminal matter, so we can't help someone with their criminal appeal or we can't help someone who's having an ADA, or an American Disability Act, claim against the prison.

Chris Nelson: So, with that in mind, is that an area you would see us getting into or to see your program getting into? Are you optimistic or is that something that's probably just too much of a barrier with the Department of Corrections?

Caisa Royer: I'm very optimistic. I think it's a trust building exercise as it should be. Part of the goal of this, I kind of see it as a pilot program where we establish a relationship with the Department of Corrections, show that we're not there doing anything nefarious. We really are just there to help with legal needs. The Department of Corrections is aware that there are gaps in access to legal information and that there shouldn't be a barrier to those things. And so, I think once we've established trust in that relationship, we should be able to do more things there. That's the goal.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. I assume that you get calls from other law schools and you go to conferences. Are there lessons learned that when you're talking about this program, that if another law school's looking to maybe do what we're doing and maybe they're not, but if you got that question, what would be the lessons learned that you'd advise on?

Caisa Royer: My advice would not be to build the boat while you're sailing it, which is what we did. We knew we wanted to do it. I mean, like I said, we spent two years trying to propose this to the Department of Corrections, and they worked with us very closely. And the people that we worked with were great and had lots of feedback and lots of good information, but we did not know what we were doing the first time we went in. We did not know what legal issues we'd be confronted with. And part of that is because we didn't have access to the population we were trying to work with and so we didn't know what to expect. Well, I'll say one more barrier that we had as well. We can't give physical pieces of paper to our clients when we're at the prison, which means that we go in and do intakes and then have to mail them information later.

And so that was a huge learning curve. So, any law school that wants to get involved with this, I'd really push to be able to hand paper live to your clients. I thought it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but it's just been a huge barrier to our clients, to our students. It's so fresh in your mind when you're meeting with somebody exactly what they need, how you can make notes on the paper and things. If you have to send everything to them a couple of weeks later, it's so hard to remember what you wanted to tell them.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. Alright, my last question I want to bring back to the students. So, talk about that student experience, how many students do we have participating in the work? What is their response? And just any insights you've gained from watching our students participate this work?

Caisa Royer: We are so lucky. The student body at S.J. Quinney is so invested in public interest work and just eat up any opportunity to do good work in the community. By the time of graduation, over half of our student body has participated with PBI, or the Pro Bono Initiative, in some respect. We have some students that volunteer once a week with us. We have some students that volunteer a couple of times a semester, but everyone is so enthusiastic and so invested in the client aspect of it.

With the prison work, in particular, we have a really healthy cohort of about 10 people who go out regularly. It's a much more niche work than some of our other work and you have to go through some hurdles of getting volunteer trained and driving 30 minutes out to the prison. But the students that do it have only said great things about it. I'll just say, this is a little biased on my end, but those clients are the best clients we have. They're so respectful, they're so funny. They're so grateful that we're there, just they're so enthusiastic and that the students have a great experience working with them.

Chris Nelson: And maybe I missed this, open to first, second- and third-year law students? You have to be a third year? Who's the applicant pool?

Caisa Royer: We have a restriction on first-year students, so they can start volunteering in the second semester of their first year. And then all 2Ls, 3Ls are allowed to participate whenever they want. We also have openings for undergraduate students who want to just come and shadow. So, if there are undergraduates who are interested in participating in law school or just want to know if they're even interested in that work, they're welcome to come and shadow.

Chris Nelson: Best way to get more information, I assume, is and then look for information on the Pro Bono Initiative.

Caisa Royer: Yes, absolutely. You can also just Google it, ‘Pro Bono Initiative University of Utah.’ That's sometimes the fastest way to get there.

Chris Nelson: And also the email address I've got is

Caisa Royer: Yes. Please email us.

Chris Nelson: Caisa Royer is the director of the Pro Bono Initiative at the S.J. Quinney College of Law here at the University of Utah. Caisa, thanks for being my guest.

Caisa Royer: Thank you so much for having me. This was fun.

Chris Nelson: That's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson. I'm Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.