Career Spotlight: Samantha Vacciana (JD 03)
When she first came to Gainesville to begin classes at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, J. Samantha Vacciana thought she had a pretty clear idea of what she wanted to do. After working in the student affairs office at Florida Atlantic University, she thought earning a law degree would allow her to advance in her present career. Instead, law school became a journey of self-discovery that took her in a direction she never would have imagined.
It all started in her second year when Vacciana enrolled in the pro se clinic taught by Peggy Schreiber and Iris Burke.
“I got involved in doing some actual litigation with clients and just fell in love with it,” says Vacciana, now an attorney with Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County. “I decided at that point that I wanted to practice and began pursuing goals toward that.”
The work she did in the clinic tapped into something in Vacciana, who discovered a satisfaction in helping victims of domestic violence that continues to this day.
“In that clinic I ended up getting certified through the Supreme Court as a certified legal intern, which allowed me to go out that summer and clerk at Legal Services here in Gainesville and work with victims of domestic violence,” she says. “I really enjoyed representing them in court, and I also enjoyed being in the courtroom, something that I didn’t think I was going to do. I was terrified initially, but once I got in there and got my comfort level, I started realizing, ‘Hey, I actually can do this.’”
Making a real impact on people’s lives opened up a completely different idea to Vacciana of what she could do with a law degree. She had met victims of domestic violence in her previous career in student services, and knew the struggles they faced. As an attorney, she felt she could really help them.
“It was really great to be able to say, ‘OK, we’re helping these victims to at least get some protection.’” she explains. “It’s a piece of paper, I recognize that, but it’s a piece of paper that law enforcement can then use to arrest a batterer, it can help that person get custody of their kids, get some child support, and be able to sort of move away from a volatile situation. So it’s a piece of paper, but it carries some weight. So that was what for me was interesting in being able to help people that way.”
While working in the law school’s Center for Career Services, Vacciana sat down with Jessie Howell Wallace, now the office’s director, and determined what she should be doing to do this type of work when she graduated. She focused on doing work in the community and working in a public interest environment to get the experience she needed and applied for a Florida Bar Foundation Fellowship in the Summer of 2002, which allowed Vacciana to get paid while working for a public interest organization and get experience going to court representing victims of domestic violence.
At the beginning of her third year of law school, Vacciana learned through Career Services of the Equal Justice Works fellowship, which would enable her to work in a public interest environment and pay off some of her student loans while in the fellowship. She prepared and submitted a grant proposal to represent immigrant victims of domestic violence, an idea stemming from her experiences witnessing the additional problems immigrant victims face.
“At that time, the agency I was working for couldn’t represent immigrant victims (because it received federal funding), and they were oftentimes more vulnerable because the abuser can say, ‘Well, I’m going to report you to immigration,’” she explains. “And so a lot of times they were left out of the legal process.”
The proposal to Equal Justice Works required a lot of working and fine-tuning, but eventually Vacciana received a phone call saying her project had been selected and funded by the law firm of Greenberg Traurig and The Florida Bar Foundation. The fellowship started in August 2004 and ran for two years. Working at Palm Beach Legal Aid, Vacciana built relationships in the community, getting law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and other agencies involved with the project.
In August 2006, The Department of Justice picked up the project and expanded it. Vacciana continues to work as attorney for the project, known as Legal Assistance to Victims of Domestic Abuse (LAVDA), along with two support people, case managers, and three advocates from the local battered women’s shelter. The project takes a holistic approach to legal services, providing a one-stop shop for clients to get an injunction, assistance with immigration relief, child custody and child support, as well as help with myriad issues tied into domestic violence.
“Now, what started out as a one-person program that was going to run for two years has expanded and now we have six people who serve exclusively immigrant victims of domestic violence.”
Vacciana looks back at law school as a growth process. If someone had told her back then that she would be doing what she is now, she would have told them they were crazy. Sometimes, growth takes a person in surprising and unexpected directions, and Vacciana couldn’t be happier with where she ended up.
“I love it. I actually get up in the morning and look forward to going to work,” she says. “It’s not really a job to me, it’s a passion, it really is. The impact you make on people’s lives, it’s a rush. It’s really an incredible rush to be able to help them.”