The State Bar of Texas, the Texas Access to Justice Commission, the American Bar Association, and others proudly support National Pro Bono Celebration Week (October 24-30). Pro Bono week is an opportunity to educate the public about the good work the legal community does to improve the lives of vulnerable Texans and to encourage more individuals to get involved in pro bono support of the legal system. During the week, we will feature stories of pro bono volunteers.

Kevin Sheneberger is a 2L at SMU Dedman School of Law and is originally from Long Beach, California. He is currently working with other SMU Law students to launch a student organization at SMU, in partnership with the Systemic Justice Initiative at Harvard Law School and the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University Law School, focused on education, activism, and institutional collaboration to confront and transform unjust systems within the justice system, legal profession, and legal education process. Sheneberger plans on practicing criminal defense law, with a specific focus on wrongful convictions and the rights of the accused and incarcerated.

What kind of pro bono do you do and how long have you been doing it?
I had the great honor of clerking for Legal Aid of Northwest Texas this past summer, with its Community Revitalization Project, or CRP. The project engages in a range of legal work focused on empowering citizen groups in historically marginalized and underprivileged communities. Given the breadth of CRP’s efforts, I was able to participate in meaningful work touching on everything from zoning ordinances, environmental regulation, and community education to Community Reinvestment Act enforcement and Community Development Block Grants.

Why is pro bono important to you?
The opportunity to practice law is a great honor and privilege, but historically, that privilege has been inaccessible for a vast portion of the population due to significant barriers to access, influence, and equal opportunity. While great efforts have been undertaken to reverse these patterns, the legal profession still struggles to overcome its lack of diversity, or to adequately advance women and people of color. I think it is incumbent on anyone who has been granted access to such an elite and impactful field of work to carry out the responsibility such access entails with reverence and duty to those whose voices and agency have been traditionally denied.

What have you learned from doing pro bono work?
The tangible development of my legal skills and education was certainly beneficial, but the greatest lesson I learned from pro bono experience was that there are so many inspiring, powerful, intelligent, and passionate attorneys who dedicate their lives to humbling and impactful work. In law school, it’s easy to get shuffled off into a niche of legal practice, or to become overwhelmed by the pressure to compete in a professional setting; it was incredibly refreshing to encounter lawyers who have achieved great success in service to the public interest.

What would you say to a fellow student who is thinking about doing pro bono for the first time?

I would encourage them to jump into pro bono work as soon and as often as possible, and take the time to learn the experiences and histories of those involved in these efforts. Law school is a notoriously bewildering, alienating, and intense endeavor; taking the time to give back is not only beneficial to those you may serve, but critical in developing perspective, expanding your education, and maintaining your mental and emotional health.

Share one of your favorite pro bono success stories.
As a part of our work for a community organization/client, I had the chance to conduct a series of interviews in a West Dallas neighborhood that had endured decades of toxic environmental contamination. From the moment I stepped from my vehicle, I was struck by a noxious and lingering odor of rotten eggs and brimstone, caused by the excessive sulfur-dioxide emissions from factories surrounding this residential area. Within a matter of minutes, I developed a pernicious headache and stinging eyes. As I went door to door interviewing residents, the level of warmth and gratitude they showed me was deeply moving. Over the course of several visits, interviews narrowed to the collection of affidavits, and I got to know a few of the residents well. Each and every one invited me into their home, offered me water or a cool towel, and in one case, treated me to a full plate of fried pork chops, stewed beans, and Kool-Aid pickles. As I left one resident for the last time, she stopped me as I turned away. She looked seriously into my eyes, and said simply: “Don’t forget us.” I’m not sure if it was the sulfur, the particulate matter, or the gravity of the moment, but my eyes welled up with tears as I walked to my car. The legal struggle in that neighborhood is ongoing, and the outcome is still unknown, but I’ll carry that woman’s words with me for my entire career.