Title IX Pro Bono Program at UT Austin Law School Expands

The first-of-its-kind program at the University of Texas School of Law guides students through the intricacies of Title IX cases.
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  • The program was designed to fill the gap in legal services provided to college students.
  • In the program's second year, plans include tripling the caseload and expanding the types of cases advisors and advocates take on.
  • The program creator, Olivia Horton, hopes that her program can serve as a blueprint for other college campuses across the country.

Olivia Horton, a third-year student at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) School of Law, first realized there was a gap in legal services available to college students with Title IX complaints when she was an undergraduate at Georgetown University.

It was 2018, and Horton was an undergraduate intern in the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights when the Trump administration released its proposed rewrite of Title IX, the civil rights law that prohibits schools or educational programs that receive federal assistance from discriminating against anyone on the basis of sex.

"We had never seen regulations that were this long and detailed and complex for Title IX, so there were a lot of question marks in the air for everyone," she told BestColleges.

Students with Title IX proceedings would need affordable, if not free, legal services, Horton realized, and law school students could help.

Now, Horton is putting her undergrad realization into action at UT Austin School of Law, where she's a leader of a pilot program that connects UT Austin students involved in Title IX proceedings with law school student advisors — for free.

In its second full year, the pro bono Title IX Advisor Program, which combines efforts from The Richard and Ginni Mithoff Pro Bono Program and the university's Title IX office, is expanding to take on a greater caseload with more types of cases.

In its first year, the program saw six cases with 10 law student volunteers. Now, they are prepared to take on up to 20 appointments with 40 student volunteers.

Those volunteers will now not only handle Title IX cases involving students that take place on and off campus, but also cases that involve employees and graduate students.

"We have learned so much about the things we were told when we were going to college and where some of that training may have gaps that lead to these terrible instances occurring," Horton said.

Here's How the Title IX Advisor Program Works

Horton charted out the program in her first year at UT Austin School of Law with guidance from Andrea Marsh, director of the Mithoff Pro Bono Program and supervising attorney for the Title IX project.

Now, in her third year, the program is expanding as more law school students, such as Kalyn McDaniel, are becoming more interested.

McDaniel, who was among the first group of law school students serving as advisors in the program, said the work has been eye-opening.

"Sex-based discrimination, abuse, and assault is an incredibly complex issue that I don’t think I fully appreciated until I was working with a client and seeing it from their eyes," McDaniel said.

To assist students through the confusing and often exhausting process, each student at UT Austin involved in a Title IX proceeding has the opportunity to ask for counsel from the pro bono program.

If the program is appointed to their case, the student will be provided with two law student advisors and a law scholar such as Horton or McDaniel, who deal mostly with coordinating and managing the case.

The students and the advisors share the same confidentiality agreement as any attorney-client relationship, Marsh explained.

The advisors' primary role is to help their clients identify their goals and help them understand the process so they can make their own informed decisions. Once appointed to the case, advisors can help students with each step of the process — from the investigative interview all the way through the final hearing. Advisors explain the process to students, help them identify evidence they might want to use, and prepare them for the hearing.

"In each of our cases, the students that we have advised have gotten a full and deep commitment from the advisors working with them. The advisors are coming to the project trained to provide trauma-informed advocacy and training on legal issues," Marsh said.

Since the university cannot show any selectivity to the students they serve, law students can either represent a complaining party or the responding party.

Regardless of which side law students represent, it is beneficial for the complaining party to have trauma-informed and thoughtful advocates on both sides.

"The pressure that our clients are under and the exhaustion that they deal with is really intense," said Horton. "Being able to take any load off of them by handling administrative things, explaining things to them, and making sure they know someone is there on their team is one of the best services that, I think, we can provide."

Benefits for Law Students, Title IX Litigants

Although McDaniel joined the program with the intent to advocate for survivors of sexual assault, she ended up advising a responding party in her first year.

"The fact that I was assigned to a respondent case was ultimately one of the most rewarding and mindset-shifting and expanding experiences, where I really saw the process and system from a different side," she said.

Working in the program is also a massive educational opportunity, McDaniel said.

"There is such a difference between writing an argument on behalf of a made-up person in your writing class and then doing it on behalf of a real person that’s going to have real impacts on their real life," McDaniel said.

According to Horton and McDaniel, the UT Austin community has generally benefited from the program, especially since there is no fee associated with their services. Many times, clients cannot afford their own lawyer.

Additionally, since they are both immersed in the same university culture, an initial barrier between students and advocates is broken.

"We are speaking the same language in many ways," Horton said.

Horton hopes that this program can continue expanding, even to other college campuses.

"There are law schools around the country that have the capacity and the law school student interest," she said, "and there are college communities around the country that need this service."