Since moving to Philadelphia to work at the University of Pennsylvania’s Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC), Sarah Egoville has championed the importance of a strong pro bono culture: “Philadelphia is a bigger city than many people realize, and the need for legal services is equally expansive,” she says.
That’s no overstatement, especially when it comes to divorce, Sarah’s area of specialty. In a multi-year study of VIP divorce cases, Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab found that for Philadelphians seeking a divorce who did not have resources to hire an attorney, 85% were not able to receive free legal assistance and, thus, at risk of being “trapped in marriage.” By contrast, people who received representation from VIP volunteers like Sarah were 87% more likely to achieve a divorce – a dramatic and life-changing difference.
While Sarah followed an unorthodox path to the legal profession, she has always focused on service to those in need. After earning a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Loyola University in Maryland, she spent a year working on the inpatient unit of a psychiatric hospital. The skills and interests she developed there had continued relevance once she earned her J.D. from Widener University and worked as an assistant public defender in Chester County’s mental health Treatment Courts.
Since joining TPIC as a staff attorney in 2016, Sarah has helped oversee pro bono programs for the law school’s 900-plus students. The relationship she forged early on with VIP is a crucial component of her work. “I went to one of VIP’s CLE trainings on simple divorce and realized the wonderful support VIP offers volunteer attorneys,” she says. “I found it was a great opportunity for our students.”
Since then, Sarah and her students have represented eleven VIP clients in simple divorce cases and one in a name change case. Not surprisingly, the work has a range of benefits for her students: “They draft documents and conduct legal research, and I always build in face-to-face interviews with clients so they understand pro bono doesn’t happen in a vacuum – these are life-changing matters,” she says.
Through her work on VIP divorce cases, Sarah hopes not only to address the staggering need for legal services in the city, but also to foster a sense of responsibility in tomorrow’s attorneys.
“Lawyers are afforded a special skill set nobody else has, so we have a duty to give back. I try to show my students that pro bono is a rewarding experience on every account.”
Sarah’s partnership with VIP is more than just a teaching tool. Far from it: “My VIP clients have been wonderful; they’re some of the nicest, most responsive clients I’ve had,” she says. Plus, she explains, VIP itself plays a role in her positive pro bono experience. “Kudos to the VIP team. The resources are phenomenal, and [Staff Attorney] Todd Nothstein answers my questions immediately,” she says.
Sarah’s hope for her students and fellow attorneys is that they will help balance the scales of justice in a city where divorce is out of reach for many residents. Partnering with VIP is an easy way to do so. “Don’t be afraid to take a new type of case, because the staff and resources are wonderful; jump in!”