Before he enrolled at Carolina, Rich Nguyen-Le spent four years leading and supporting soldiers as an Army infantry officer. When he came to Chapel Hill, Nguyen-Le knew he wanted to find a way to give back here as well.
“My job as an infantry officer was helping others. Solider care was primarily my concern. Now that I’m in law school, it’s all about me, and that felt weird,” says Nguyen-Le, who will start his second year at UNC School of Law this fall.
It didn’t take him long to find a way to fill that need. Over the past year, Nguyen-Le has spent more than 120 hours providing legal support to vulnerable community members who need assistance. This includes helping veterans with discharge upgrades, facilitating asylum applications and researching cancer patient rights.
His work was recently recognized by Carolina Law’s 2021 Pro Bono Publico Awards, which celebrate the pro bono efforts of UNC Law students, faculty and alumni.
“Everybody has hobbies. For me, it’s genuinely helping others,” Nguyen-Le says. “Ultimately, I could be playing video games or watching Netflix, or I could be using my time in a more meaningful way.”
While his pro bono experiences have directly helped community members in need, they’ve also solidified a passion for law he developed as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University and provided hands-on learning for his future career.
A sense of duty and service
Long before Nguyen-Le thought about becoming a lawyer, he knew he’d follow in a family tradition and join the military. Several generations of his family served in the Vietnamese military, including his father, who fought in the South Vietnam Army during the Vietnam War.
It was the sense of duty, Nguyen-Le says, that attracted him to the profession.
Nguyen-Le joined the ROTC at Johns Hopkins while studying international relations. His coursework spurred his initial interest in the law and led him to an internship with Baltimore’s public defender’s office. When he graduated, Nguyen-Le served as an infantry office for four years and kept his eye on becoming a lawyer.
Last summer, he transitioned out of his active-duty role and headed to Chapel Hill to begin law school. Nguyen-Le is still a member of the Army Reserves and hopes to serve in the JAG Corps after law school.
Finding a new way to give
With only one week between arriving in North Carolina and the start of the fall semester, Nguyen-Le’s first few months in Chapel Hill were busy.
“Transitioning from a professional back to school was a bit rough because there’s a different mindset and skillset involved,” he says. “The first semester was like drinking out of a firehose, honestly.”
But in that semester, he also got his first taste of what it meant to really be a lawyer through his first pro bono projects. From there, he was hooked on serving the community with the new skills he was gaining in the classroom.
While several pro bono projects consisted largely of research work, he had the opportunity to work closely with clients for other projects, including working with homeless veterans to upgrade their military discharges so that they could gain access to more services.
“That was not only the best of both worlds from the legal and community service, but it also impacted that community I just came from,” Nguyen-Le says. “It’s a satisfying feeling to help somebody who actually needed your help.”
The experiences have also provided practical hands-on learning.
“Learning what a contract is is different than learning what makes a good contract,” he says. “The theoretical of what should be in a contract is great — understanding what’s allowed, what’s not — but if you’re going to draft a contract, that’s a different thing.”
Though he’s already logged 120 hours of pro bono work in his first year, he still has two more years of law school, and he plans to use that time to continue giving back to those who need help.
“Pro bono affords you that low risk but a non-sterile environment to practice,” he says. “It also affords you the opportunity to contribute to a bigger cause.”