"I wanted to use my legal skills to raise the voice of people who are typically unheard."
Earlier in October, Bart Sheard, JD ’15, spent 15 hours, round trip, traveling to USP Lee, a US penitentiary, in Pennington Gap, Virginia. He was meeting with his client, a DC resident before his conviction, to discuss a grant of parole.
He’ll make this trip several times, providing desperately needed legal advice to his client, but he won’t be charging for his time. Instead, Mr. Sheard is donating his legal expertise through pro bono work.
Because residents convicted of felony offenses under the DC code can be sent all over the country to serve out their sentences, it is very difficult for them to obtain representation. Two-third of DC prisoners serve their sentences outside of the region, which is why this kind of pro bono case is so important, Mr. Sheard said.
His client was originally arrested in 1993 and is serving a minimum sentence of 25 years. Mr. Sheard is working on his client's first bid for a grant of parole.
“I really think that representing clients in grant of parole cases is important because it’s a convoluted process,” Mr. Sheard said. “Putting that aside, from a personal perspective, I think that everyone wants to know they have someone in their corner and that someone is listening to them.”
Mr. Sheard currently works for Sherman Dunn, a boutique firm that represents labor unions exclusively. When he was hired, Mr. Sheard expressed how important pro bono work was to him.
“They wanted to give me an opportunity to continue that work, and they very much supported it,” Mr. Sheard said.
This is not Mr. Sheard’s first experience working parole cases like this, though. He worked on his first parole case through the Prisoner & Reentry Clinic at GW Law.
The Prisoner & Reentry Clinic represents prisoners and individuals facing legal barriers as a result of their criminal records. The clinic’s cases sit at the intersection of the civil and criminal justice systems and tackle issues related to mass incarceration, prisoner reentry, and the collateral consequences of criminal convictions.
Mr. Sheard said he became interested in participating in a clinic when he realized he could make a real-world impact.
“As much as I loved taking classes and learning the academic side of the law, I really wanted to use the skills I was learning and apply them in a way that could improve someone’s life and speak for those who oftentimes go unspoken for or unsupported," he said. "I wanted to use my legal skills to raise the voice of people who are typically unheard.”
Mr. Sheard and Courtney Francik, JD '15, who was then a GW Law student, worked on a grant of parole case with Associate Professor of Clinical Law and Clinic Director Jessica K. Steinberg.
The team got access to their client’s records, official reports of his offense and sentencing, progress reports filed during his time in prison, and spent time preparing their client for his hearing before the US Parole Commission.
Unfortunately, their client in the clinic case was not granted parole. The decision was disappointing and very emotional, Mr. Sheard said.
“We really got to know him, and he became someone that we really cared about. I don’t think I was prepared to understand how emotional it would be,” he said. “When the case is over and your client isn’t granted parole, you leave and say goodbye and go back to your life, but this person that you met and know remains there and has to wait for their next hearing.”
In this case, that next hearing was five years away. But recently, Professor Steinberg reached out to Mr. Sheard with some exciting news. Their client in the Prisoner & Reentry Clinic had been granted parole after a second bid and will soon be released.
“What was especially gratifying, as a clinics professor, was that the first thing the client said when he emailed me about his release was that I had to tell Bart and Courtney. He expressed how thankful he was for everything they did for him,” Professor Steinberg said. “He really saw them as his attorneys. He was thanking me, but more than that he was wanting to get a message to them to convey his incredible gratitude. And that’s how it should be. The client should really see the students as their champions and their advocates, and this client absolutely did."
Mr. Sheard suggests students take on clinic work and plan to handle pro bono cases not just for the practical experience, but for the chance to impact someone’s life.
“Students might think pro bono work or clinic work is kind of like volunteering for volunteering's sake, but I would refute that,” Mr. Sheard said. “I would say that pro bono work is the best of both worlds because you’re learning to hone your skills as a new or soon-to-be attorney while simultaneously making an impact that is very real.”
Professor Steinberg said the fact that Mr. Sheard has pursued this type of pro bono work is a testament to his character and integrity.
“It’s a tremendous thing when a former student is out in the world and doing the demanding work of practicing as a lawyer, and yet has that spark of commitment to pro bono work,” Professor Steinberg said. “He understands that it’s part of the professional obligation, and the fact that he’s doing it in the sphere that he did as a clinic student, I think is just especially meaningful.”
Mr. Sheard said working in the Prisoner & Reentry Clinic and with Professor Steinberg had a significant impact on him as a student.
“It was one of the best experiences I had in law school,” he said. “Professor Steinberg walked us through the importance of this work and how it is part of larger systemic issues that citizens can face when they’re incarcerated. She helped with my writing, research, and ability to present a case and was an indispensable part of my education.”
To learn more about the Prisoner & Reentry Clinic at GW Law visit law.gwu.edu/prisoner-reentry-clinic.