In recognition of National Pro Bono Week (October 23–29), the UT Law Pro Bono Program celebrates the pro bono efforts of members of the Law School community.
Recently the Pro Bono Program spoke with Professor Jordan Steiker about his work representing clients in capital cases.
After clerking for United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Steiker joined the Law School faculty in 1990. In his over twenty years of teaching, Steiker has worked on a range of capital cases, with various levels of involvement. While in some cases he undertakes direct representation of clients in both federal and state court, in others he provides advice and support to lawyers defending clients in capital cases. He also serves on the Board of the Texas Defender Service, an organization that seeks to establish a fair and just criminal justice system by improving the quality of representation given to defendants facing the death penalty.
Steiker finds his death penalty work rewarding both personally and professionally. Through his pro bono work, Steiker has had the opportunity to work on several cases before the United States Supreme Court, including one case, Smith v. Texas, that was twice litigated in that court. “After a very long process, my client’s death sentence was reversed and he ultimately received a lesser sentence of imprisonment on remand,” Steiker said.
“It’s very rewarding to teach and work with students. It’s equally rewarding to use my legal training for the betterment of a community and in connection with so many other talented and committed lawyers,” Steiker said. “Pro bono work, in my experience, gives the opportunity to collaborate and connect with people who are uncommonly committed to making our society stronger and more just.”
“There’s something particularly motivating about working on behalf of people who don’t have anywhere else to turn. It’s an awesome responsibility,” Steiker said. Although the motivation began in law school, when Steiker worked for a prison legal assistance project and a landlord-tenant organization, Steiker said it’s a feeling that he’s never lost in his career. “I particularly enjoy cases where the stakes are very high and where every bit of my intellectual and professional energy is required. And the fact that I’m doing the work without compensation makes the experience all the more valuable.”
“The people I know who are most happy in the legal profession are people who have a wide range of connections and commitments, and pro bono work is one way of expanding the horizons of clients and collaborators while giving you the feeling that you’re making a worthwhile contribution in your regular work.” For this reason, Steiker believes that pro bono work should be more than a one-time contribution; it should be a lifelong professional aspiration. Steiker is proud to see former students doing pro bono work because he thinks their lives and careers are truly enhanced by the experience of sharing their talents in a way that has a real impact on the lives of individuals who need help.
“There will never be a shortage of people who can benefit from the help of lawyers. I truly believe that pro bono work is a professional obligation. But ‘obligation’ makes pro bono sound like something that has to be done despite its personal costs; it turns out that the experience of doing professional work on behalf of people with nowhere else to turn will be the most rewarding part of most people’s legal careers,” Steiker said. “I’m as grateful for my clients as they are grateful for my help.”
Contact: Tina Fernandez, Director, Pro Bono Program, William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, 512-232-6170, firstname.lastname@example.org