October 25, 2022

UNM Law students help land grants, colonias and acequias with legal assistance

Victoria Lovato, left, and Elisabeth Gutierrez, right, are the first two University of New Mexico law students to participate in the Community Governance Attorney Program. The program, established in 2019, focuses on providing legal assistance to land grants/mercedes, acequias and colonias.

The Community Governance Attorney Program, established in 2019, helps colonias, acequias and land grants when they need legal assistance by partnering them with law students.

Elisabeth Gutierrez of Las Cruces and Victoria Lovato of Ojo Caliente are third-year University of New Mexico School of Law students participating in the Community Governance Attorney Program.

Participants in the program presented the Community Governance Attorney Program’s progress at the Land Grant Committee meeting on Oct. 20 in Chilili.

“Today is a very special day because this is a program that took years of work by the (Land Grant Committee) to make this come to fruition,” Mark Edwards of the New Mexico Legislative Council Service said. “These two students are the very first student attorney (in the program).”

Both student attorneys have history with land grants and acequias.

“My whole life I’ve heard all about land grants:  the good, the bad, the laugh-through-the-tears and it taught me a deep love of history and a deep love for my community,” Lovato said. “I studied history and Spanish at New Mexico State University and when I came to law school, I was really hoping to have an opportunity to be guided towards my passion and I feel this (program) was just that.”

Lovato has a one-year clerkship with New Mexico Supreme Court Justice David K. Thompson that will delay her entrance into Legal Aid.

“I am excited to take that knowledge and skills that I gain and use them to the betterment of my community,” Lovato said. “I’m very honored to be a part of this program and very honored to be here today.”

Gutierrez’ family is from the Tularosa area and she has moved around including growing up in the colonias communities.

“I have experiences with a lot of different communities growing up and I wanted to be part of the land grant program because I initially went to law school to help with water issues and water law,” Gutierrez said. “I decided going into law school would be a better way to do that.”

Gutierrez studied agricultural economics at New Mexico State University prior to entering law school.

“I am really excited to get started,” Gutierrez said. 

Gutierrez begins her tenure at Legal Aid in Spring 2023.

The Community Governance Attorney Program’s Director Adrian Oglesby was unable to attend the Land Grant Committee meeting.

The program was established through legislation in 2019 to provide legal services for acequias, land grants-mercedes and low-income residents of colonias. 

The Land Grant Committee worked on establishing the Community Governance Attorney Program since before 2014 through meetings with the University of New Mexico School of Law, Edwards said. 

The Community Governance Attorney Act also provides a tuition waiver for participants and sets up a fund and commission.

Legally, the New Mexico Legislature cannot establish a scholarship program. 

“These students sign a contract (saying) that they are going to work for Legal Aid on behalf of the land grants, acequias and colonias for two years after law school,” Edwards said. “They’re going to get paid whatever the minimum entry level wage is at Legal Aid and in return for that, the State waives tuition and all other costs for their third year of law school.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Community Governance Attorney Program also assists colonias with legal assistance.