Recent grants focus on equity and opportunity

Equity and opportunity begin at home, and recent grants received by professors from the School of Law demonstrate the commitment to and importance of that work. Moving toward justice, these grants will aid in modernizing, reorganizing, and expanding services.

Katherine Norton, director of clinical and international programs and assistant professor of law, and Wes Oliver, director of the criminal justice program and professor of law, received a grant for their project Utilizing Technology to Enhance Custody Appeals. Grace Orsatti, director of the externship program, the pro bono program and assistant professor of clinical legal education, received a grant to help the Wills & Healthcare Decisions Clinic expand its services to Pittsburgh's diverse communities.

Norton and Oliver received an American Bar Endowment's Opportunity Grant for their project. According to the grant submission, "low-income litigants often feel ill-prepared to communicate issues that were encountered in trials that resulted in the changing custody of their child, which would qualify them for pro bono services that would support their case appeals." This grant will aid in the development of a web-based computer program that will assist litigants communicate facts and legal issues necessary to preserve their rights in a streamlined process.

Through the grant, students at the Family Law Clinic will work with litigants and the web-based program to help prepare applications for the appellate pro bono program. The next step for the program will be for the program to assist pro se litigants, with the assistance of the Family Law Clinic, in drafting initiating appeal documents for an appeal will be to prepare additional documentation for review by a lawyer within a certain timetable.

Norton said, "Professor Oliver and I are very excited about this project. It's been a long time coming. As supervising attorney of our family law clinic, I see a lot of family law matters that could have gone so much differently if there were more tools to help individuals convey what they are trying to ask the court to do. Even finding a way to get into the door can be difficult for unrepresented individuals. In my years working with court and other stakeholders, the goal of the existing pro bono custody appellate program has been to find ways to get litigants into the appellate process where the case is heard on merits and not stalled because they do not know how to convey what they are seeking to do. We are hopeful that this project can assist in helping to achieve this goal."

Growing legal services to create equity is also the tenet of Orsatti's grant, given by the McElhatten Foundation. "Fewer than half of all Americans have a last will and testament or financial/healthcare power of attorney documents, and economically vulnerable and minority populations are less likely to have such documents in place," she said.

Through the McElhattan Foundation grant, the Wills and Healthcare Decisions Clinic will expand its free estate planning services. Supervised School of Law students will assist individuals with planning and preparation for incapacity and end life. They will also help to address the risk of elder exploitation, abuse, and neglect.

"Grant funds will also be used to grow and further develop community partnerships between legal, medical, and financial planning professionals to serve the public. Strengthening these relationships will generate greater collaboration across professions to help the elderly and disadvantaged communities," Orsatti said.

For more information about the School of Law's clinics and services, visit

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