Fowler School of Law 2L student Laura Evans has been named by the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) to their 2022 Pro Bono Honor Roll, a sterling accolade for any aspirant lawyer. Evans is being recognized for her strong leadership and pro-bono efforts with the Ukrainian Mothers and Children Transport project (UMACT), an effort she has been a part of since its inception and one that has her working closely with founder and renowned mentor Professor Michael Bazyler.
From the outset, the UMACT project was held together by the goodwill, dogged determination to make a difference, and hard work of its volunteer participants. In Evan’s case, her involvement started with a conversation with Professor Bazyler–a short one–at the end of a civil procedure lecture where he confessed his dismay at the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine to his (then) 1L class, “If you want to help, send me an email,” was all he said to her. With more questions than answers to begin with, they pooled their resources to tackle the thorny territories of wartime refugees and the Byzantine bureaucracy of contemporary US immigration policy.
There is this idea that you can’t help until you’ve passed the bar, but you can help people, you can do something.
Evans describes the early days of the project as a constantly shifting landscape where she took on the role of, as she has it, “an air traffic controller,” pointing refugees towards UMACT volunteers and volunteers towards resources, while constantly corralling the efforts of some forty volunteers scattered across the US and parts of Europe via Zoom. Evans describes the air-traffic controller “hot seat” in the UMACT collaboration as a unique challenge for her, where the backgrounds of the volunteers transcended traditional state and college boundaries, and this diverse skillset was met with an equally diverse set of requests for assistance, where no two cases were ever the same, and challenges proliferated in real time as asylum seekers scrambled for a toe-hold on safer shores.
“There are real-time challenges you have to mitigate that you cannot plan for,” Evans explains in her modest, matter-of-fact manner, “this is real; I mean, these are people’s lives.” Despite the difficulties inherent in directing traffic on a project like UMACT the benefits of bringing together committed individuals and their support networks, and leveraging them for the greater good has brought exponential expansion and efficacy to the project. It seems to be part of Evans’ raison d’être, her consistent drive to work in a capacity that brings real humanitarian change to the world, in real-time, rather than climbing the corporate ladder, “I never wanted to work at a Google, or a Facebook,” she adds, eschewing the trappings of a corporate life she is clearly not destined for. Her leadership style is collaborative, supportive, and transparent–all great prerequisites for projects where you are literally laying your next bit of track in front of the speeding train as it moves down the line.
“I lead by letting the people who are doing the most work tell me what they need.” More than a platitude, Evans’ inclusiveness seems to have brought benefit and cohesion to the project. For one thing, compassion fatigue is a genuine risk on a project like this, she explains. The emotional drain of being invested in clients who are literally facing a life-or-death challenge in their lives is not easy to manage, or to carry on a day-to-day basis. It is difficult to compartmentalize the details of clients’ lives as you learn about each case, and yes, you do cry but, “in a good way,” she adds, “when you finally get the immigration authorization.”
It’s a leap of faith when you lead the way I do–no one has to listen to me–this isn’t a bricks-and-mortar law firm with a hierarchy of partners and associates; it is held together by gravitas, and faith, and the belief in each other, and a strong desire to see each other succeed at this.
Evans’ challenge has been two-fold because she is still a 2L student at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law–as yet unable to assist in a focused, or “barred” legal capacity, an idea Evans does not completely subscribe to; “There is this idea that you can’t help until you’ve passed the bar, but you can help people, you can do something.”
The first obstacle for Evans has been to understand what she can do as a 2L student who simply wanted to help. It is advantageous then that she recently completed her MBA at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, where she focused on learning about leadership before taking on the challenge of a law degree. At Pepperdine, Evans deliberately sought out leadership classes, in order to learn the sorts of skills that allow her to build the airplane UMACT needs while Michael Bayzler and her are busy flying it. “I couldn’t help as a lawyer,” she adds, “but to see my experience and education paying dividends is really gratifying, especially with the success of a humanitarian project like UMACT.”
Modest almost to a fault, Laura Evans confesses that her leadership style isn’t always an easy win for her, “It’s a leap of faith when you lead the way I do–no one has to listen to me–this isn’t a bricks-and-mortar law firm with a hierarchy of partners and associates; it is held together by gravitas, and faith, and the belief in each other, and a strong desire to see each other succeed at this.” This seems to have been just the ticket for a leader and facilitator helping Ukrainian refugees navigate an intricate and complex bureaucracy, where even the lawyers who practice in this specialized area have moments of doubt, and also see their fair share of defeats. In some ways, it seems, Evans has also found an interesting “cure” for the terrible sense of helplessness she experienced in the face of this ongoing crisis in Ukraine. “Sure, it hurts,” she offers, “but the helping is the thing that helps with that. You can’t save everybody, but you can save somebody. We’re just helping to get Ukrainian families to safety, one family at a time.”
Talking with Evans about UMACT, the indomitable Michael Bazyler, and how they are holding this project together with earned skills, knowledge and just a smidgen of luck is an exercise in the restoration of hope. It’s Evans’ blind faith in the goodness of the project and the benefit of the volunteer attorneys she and Bazyler work with that remains an enduring testament to the remarkable caliber of kindness that seems to be the core and crucible of the project under Evans’ leadership. It reminds me of a passage from another splendid humanitarian, James Baldwin, who was not wrong when he said, “The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” Laura Evans has something to teach us all about this I expect.