A pro bono asylum case turned into a rewarding educational, professional and personal experience for Janica Woodley and Jessica Tobin, both L’10.

What started as work at UR Downtown, a satellite center that serves as a hub of community-based service for the University, turned into a personal and touching experience for Woodley and Tobin. They quickly found themselves immersed in the details of a continuing immigration case involving an Iranian woman who is now free to study and work in the United States, in part, as a result of their efforts.

The opportunity arose when Eliot Norman, an attorney at Williams Mullen in Richmond, contacted Tara Casey, director of the law school’s Harry L. Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service. Norman had an asylum application from a young Iranian woman whose visa was about to expire, and he needed help on short notice putting together her case, which he had taken on a pro bono basis.

“We assigned the students to gather facts to support the application,” Norman says. “They went to work right away.”

The urgency was obvious, Woodley says. “He had us calling her about five minutes” after their first meeting.

The students spent hours over the next few weeks “digging and digging to develop facts” that would be crucial to supporting the woman’s petition, Tobin says.

Because the woman was a graduate student who was close to their age, the students quickly found themselves invested in the case. And the facts they uncovered were frightening. Their client had been interrogated in a windowless room, her family home was raided, and her property confiscated. She was beaten and her family was threatened, their investigation showed.

“Immigration law can have an immediate effect on someone’s life,” Tobin says. “We realized we had taken on a lot of responsibility.”

The final submission to U.S. authorities was almost 200 pages, Norman says, and the students developed much of the information. “I know facts win these cases,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to emphasize with the students. Lives depend on the outcome.”

Armed with their submission, Norman and the woman appeared in the Chicago Asylum Office to present her case, and a hearing officer subsequently granted her request for asylum.

For Woodley and Tobin, the experience brought life to classroom lessons. Says Woodley, “This clearly puts what lawyers do into context.”

This article originally appeared the in the summer 2009 issue of Richmond Law, the University of Richmond School of Law alumni magazine.