Rob Poggenklass, who will graduate from William & Mary Law School in May, has received the 2010 Oliver White Hill Law Student Pro Bono Award by the Virginia State Bar (VSB). The award recognizes “extraordinary law student achievement in the areas of pro bono and under-compensated public service work in Virginia” and honors the memory of renowned civil rights advocate Oliver White Hill. Poggenklass will formally receive the award on June 18.
Poggenklass is the third Hill honoree from the Law School, more than any other school. Previous William & Mary recipients include Reco A. Thomas ’02 and Maryann P. Nolan ’07.
During his time at William & Mary, Poggenklass has devoted himself tirelessly to public service. Poggenklass recalled that he did not know what he was getting into when he began working for the Northern Virginia Capital Defender Office after his first year of law school. He grew up in Iowa where there is no death penalty and had not really given the topic much consideration. But, after defending those accused of capital murder, he became engrossed in the work of protecting the rights of those who often are cast aside by society.
Following his second year of law school, Poggenklass worked with death row inmates through the California Appellate Project. He recalled shaking the hand of a client in prison, a memory that seems etched in his mind.
“There are people who can’t afford representation and need it badly,” he reflected. “There’s a great potential for abuse. There’s a great potential for racism, and it’s easy to punish people who don’t have people speaking up for them.”
In addition to these summer work experiences, Poggenklass has been active in many law student advocacy and public service organizations. He helped restart the Law School’s student chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and served as the chapter’s Vice President. As a member of the chapter, he helped lobby to overturn the state law that prohibits voting by citizens who have committed a felony and helped some ex-felons to petition the governor to restore their voting rights.
When asked why he feels so strongly about his advocacy work, Poggenklass replied, “My parents did a really good job of instilling in me a sense that the world is bigger than just me and that I need to spend my time helping people, otherwise I’m not living a productive life. “
He said that advocacy is the reason he decided to study law. “I’m here to help other people… I think of it [pro bono work] as my law school experience… being in the courtroom, the jails ... [it’s] more important that a lot of the stuff I do in class.”
Poggenklass also rolled up his sleeves to help those affected by recent hurricanes. He helped found the William & Mary chapter of the Student Hurricane Network. During his first year of law school, he planned a trip to New Orleans during which he and 21 other law students volunteered over spring break to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina. While some students did legal work and organizing, Poggenklass helped tear down damaged houses so that the foundations could be re-used for new ones. He has been back to New Orleans a second time under the auspices of the SHN and also held the offices of Treasurer and President of the group.
Poggenklass is modest about receiving the Oliver Hill Award, in spite of his many contributions to public service. “I think that there’s got to be a lot of other people who have done amazing things. I assume that there are fantastic people starting national organizations and moving and shaking the world. I don’t often feel like I’m someone who does that.”
Law School Dean Davison M. Douglas disagreed. “Rob is one of those people who will make an impact wherever he goes,” he said. “We are grateful that he has done so much for the Law School and the community at large.” Robert E. Kaplan, an Associate Dean at the Law School, nominated Poggenklass for the award and expressed a similar sentiment. “Rob's steadfast commitment to public defense and his leadership of the Student Hurricane Network are two examples of the meaningful, tangible difference he has made in many individuals' lives."