By Phil Stempin, UM News Service
MISSOULA – University of Montana students Gillian Ellison and Alex Clark forged a passion for helping underserved communities well before starting law school. Their experiences working at the Montana Legal Services Association inspired them to become lawyers, and in recognition of their dedication to improving access to justice, the Montana Justice Foundation recently invited Ellison and Clark to serve on its board.
“I began my professional journey at the Montana Legal Services Association as a domestic violence legal assistant,” said Ellison, a first-year law student at UM’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law. “This is where my dedication to justice and community service flourished.”
The Blewett School of Law has a strong culture of service. Last year, UM law students provided 4,543 hours of pro-bono service volunteering with various legal organizations. As part of the law school’s pro-bono program, students partner with attorneys to provide free legal advice to those not able to access legal services.
”Pro-bono service is a core value we instill at Montana’s law school,” said Elaine Gagliardi, dean of the law school. “Students are able to learn by doing and carry this idea of service with them into their future careers as attorneys.”
The Montana Legal Services Association is a private, nonprofit law firm whose mission is to provide non-criminal legal information, advice and representation to thousands of low-income Montanans. MLSA relies on a network of community organizations, service providers, government agencies, foundations, courts, universities and tribes to provide civil legal services to all 56 counties and seven reservations across the state.
“We are very proud of both Gillian and Alex and what they have accomplished, both when they were employees of the Montana Legal Services Association and now that they have moved on to law school,” said Alison Paul, executive director of the MLSA.
MLSA relies on donations and volunteers to further their work in providing civil legal aid to Montanans. Larger philanthropic organizations, like the Montana Justice Foundation, are essential in helping with monetary support and guidance.
“We are the largest private funder of legal aid in Montana,” said Alissa Chambers, executive director of the Montana Justice Foundation. “We fund over 18 nonprofit legal providers in the state.”
“I suggested them for the MJF board due to their dedication to serving the public good,” Paul added.
Ellison’s and Clark’s work volunteering with MLSA, and Paul’s recommendation, caught the attention of Chambers. She invited them to serve on the MJF board, adding new perspectives to their group of seasoned attorneys.
“They offer different strategies and viewpoints, ultimately helping us better serve the organizations that help Montanans,” said Chambers. “Their experience from working within these volunteer organizations helps us understand the needs of groups like MLSA.”
“After working in the trenches of civil legal aid for eight years, I am ecstatic to join the board of Montana Justice Foundation,” said Clark. “It is an honor to serve alongside accomplished attorneys while still in law school.”
Both Ellison and Clark are excited to get legal experience they can take with them into their careers.
“I have witnessed firsthand the critical need and profound impact of addressing the justice gap affecting low- to moderate-income individuals and rural communities in Montana,” Ellison said of pro-bono work. “My experience has highlighted how legal education can amplifyone’s ability to influence societal structures and foster meaningful social change.”
Contact: Phil Stempin, director of events, marketing and communications, UM Alexander Blewett III School of Law, 406-243-6509, email@example.com.