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Altruistic law student wins new public service award

May 15, 2009

David Ali Chami's devotion to helping others was cemented by tragedy.

Chami, who graduates from the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law this week, was coaching 10 South Mountain High School students in oral argument, preparing for a national competition, when one of them, Citlaly Jimenez, was killed in a crosswalk.

"She was volunteering at an elementary school on her spring break," Chami said. "She was walking to the bus stop when a car ran a red light and killed her. To think someone with her needs was working to help others drove me even more. I decided I could show my appreciation for her hard work with my efforts."

Chami, who has donated hundreds of hours to pro bono activities, has been chosen to be the first recipient of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law Award for Service to the Public. The award recognizes the student with the greatest contribution to public service during his or her years at the College of Law.

"At graduation, as we recognize scholastic achievement, it is also important for the College of Law to honor outstanding commitment to public service because public service is a core part of what it means to be a lawyer in a community," said Dean Paul Schiff Berman. "I am therefore very pleased at the creation of this award, and David is a truly deserving inaugural recipient; his public service activities are simply breathtaking in scope."

Kristine Reich, Director of Pro Bono and Community Outreach, said Chami sets an example of selflessness.

"What sets David apart from many others is his consistent motivation to look beyond self-interest and find the greatest reward in empowering others to find their own success - the very essence of this award," Reich said.

Students at the College of Law are encouraged to develop a sense of responsibility to public service through the Pro Bono Program, which has 22 student-led groups. More than 90 percent of graduating students voluntarily participate in clinics, externships and pro bono activities, donating more than 70,000 hours of free legal and law-related services each year. The College has externships with more than 200 community partners, legal clinics have assisted more than 3,300 members of the public, and the Pro Bono Board raises funds for public interest fellowships.

Reich cited Chami's work with the Inaugural Marshall Brennan Moot Court Competition. One of the South Mountain team, 18-year-old Ambra Jordan, surpassed 71 competitors from seven U.S. cities to win the competition, which was held at Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law in Philadelphia in March.

"David devoted more than 100 hours of coaching and enlisted the help of other law students to coach the team of students at South Mountain High School," Reich said. "As a result, these students emerged as self-confident and college-bound, evidenced by their excellent showing at the competition; seven out of nine qualified for quarterfinals, three moved on to semi-finals and the team brought home the first national champion largely because of David's dedication.

"At the same time, David continued to excel with grades and his own moot court competitions," Reich said. "He is the ideal law student to receive this new prestigious award."

Chami didn't start law school until he was 31, married with two children, and already had started a successful career in information technology at a small company in Michigan.

Chami said he was doing well, professionally and financially, but felt like he was underachieving.

"I just felt like I hadn't met my own expectations," Chami said. "I'd always wanted to go to law school. And then my younger cousin was accepted at Vanderbilt University Law School. I thought, 'He's doing it. That's what I was supposed to do.'

"And my wife's brother, who was 37, was finishing law school. I thought, 'If he can do it, so can I.' "

With the unwavering support of his wife Lulu, Chami quit his job and started at Wayne State Law School in Detroit. Eventually, he transferred to the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, because he had friends in Arizona.

Along the way he and his wife had a third child, then a fourth.

"Having kids made me notice the disparate treatment between the haves and the have-nots," Chami said. And he decided to take action.

Chami was on the Youth Mentoring Board, was president of the Street Law Program, and organizes law students to teach law-related classes to South Mountain High School students one day a week.

"It was phenomenal," Chami said. "I worked on setting it up in more classrooms, getting more law students involved. At the end of the semester, the students were crying and hugging each other."

He also worked on the YMCA Youth and Government Congressional Bill Review Competition and the Teen Court Program, a diversionary program in which teens serve as prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs and members of the jury to determine the proper consequence for a peer who has admitted responsibility for a violation of the law.

But the most rewarding was the two months he spent coaching the Marshall Brennan students after school, and said he plans to stay in touch with the students and encourage them through college and, hopefully, law school.

"Looking at what they accomplished, how hard they worked, accompanying them to the competition, motivated me even more," Chami said.

Chami said he'd like to have a job where he could continue helping "the little guy." But as he graduates, he is one of the many caught without work in the faltering economy.

"If you had told me three years ago that I'd be graduating with nowhere to go, I would never have believed it," he said. "But I have no concerns whatever. I'm confident in my skills and my ability to market myself. And if I need to, I'll do it on my own."

Chami said he measures real success by his first objective, being the best father he can to his four children, Nawal, 6, Zeinab, 4, Hussein, 2, and Ali, 3 months.

"I have a close relationship with my kids, so I'm a winner."

Judy Nichols,
(480) 727-7895
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law