Equal Justice Works: 25 Years Of Working Toward Equal Justice For All

Monday, August 1, 2011 - 01:00
Equal Justice Works
David Stern

David Stern

It all began with the simple desire to increase access to justice for low-income people who could not afford a lawyer. The idea did not come from top attorneys or judges, but from a group of law students passionate about helping others. They saw a growing number of law students who wanted to spend a summer working in a public interest placement, but there was little if any funding to pay for a modest living stipend during these internships.

What began 25 years ago as an idealistic concept has turned into a $13 million national nonprofit organization - Equal Justice Works - whose mission is to create a just society by mobilizing the next generation of lawyers committed to equal justice. Equal Justice Works is the nation's leading creator of public interest opportunities for law students and lawyers and an outspoken advocate for increasing public interest law studies on campuses.

Equal Justice Works has been successful in part because we attract support from the full spectrum of the legal profession: corporate law departments, plaintiffs' firms, defense firms, nonprofit organizations, law schools and the judiciary. While these groups may disagree on many subjects, they agree on the importance of instilling public service values and creating opportunities for law students and recent graduates to work on behalf of underserved populations. Together these groups have supported Equal Justice Works programs that place thousands of law students and lawyers in communities across the country to provide representation to those unable to afford counsel and fight the growing justice gap in America.

Although the initial focus of Equal Justice Works was on students, within five years we expanded the organization to create fellowship opportunities for recent law graduates. Fueled by two cy pres awards in 1991 totaling $3.1 million, we launched our first postgraduate public interest fellowship program that placed seven new lawyers in the field to fight injustice. A few years later, we created a second postgraduate fellowship program under AmeriCorps, and last fall we launched a third fellowship program, the Public Defender Corps. Thanks to support from law firms, foundations, individuals and the federal government, we currently have over 170 lawyers and 650 law students in the field. These programs are responsible for launching more than 3,500 public interest legal careers.

The first postgraduate Equal Justice Works Fellowship program is privately funded and is particularly popular among law firms and corporations. Third-year law students and recent graduates finishing clerkships design their own innovative legal project with a nonprofit host organization to address a specific need in the community. Projects must result in tangible, substantial improvements in the lives of their clients. Equal Justice Works Fellows provide direct representation as well as advocacy and outreach, addressing issues such as access to healthcare, housing, domestic violence, immigration and civil rights. We place a premium on projects that are sustainable or replicable, which tend to attract fellows who are social entrepreneurs.

The strongest applications are sent to law firm and corporate sponsors based on subject matter and geographic criteria. The sponsors review applications, interview their favorites and select their fellows. In essence, we are a broker - we find stellar candidates with interesting projects, and we serve them up to sponsors who pick which fellows to support.

To be honest, I think most sponsors are initially skeptical about what a recent law school graduate can accomplish in a two-year fellowship, and they assume that these fellowships are for people who cannot get another job. One of the highlights of my job is to see how those preconceptions are shattered once they see the candidates and their stellar qualifications. Candidates are extremely impressive; they are driven and passionate about their proposals as well as the populations they hope to serve.We receive approximately 350 applications for 40-50 fellowships each year.

Our sponsors are ecstatic with the result. Renewal rates among corporate and law firm sponsors are between 80 to 90 percent. Sponsors enjoy picking among outstanding fellowship candidates, interacting with the fellows during their two-year fellowship and integrating the projects into the sponsor's pro bono programs. Sponsors are also thrilled to be launching the public service careers of these new lawyers - 80 percent of our fellows remain in public interest law immediately after their fellowship ends. Some create new nonprofit organizations, some become leaders in the organization where they served, some run for public office, and some become judges.

The latest trend is that law firms and clients are teaming up to share the costs and co-sponsor fellowships. For example, Pfizer has co-sponsored several fellowships with various firms including Kaye Scholer, Cadwalader, Ropes & Gray, Sidley & Austin and Jackson Lewis. HP has teamed up with Morgan Lewis; Johnson & Johnson co-sponsored with Patterson Belknap; Cigna with Cravath; DuPont with K&L Gates; Goldman Sachs with Sullivan & Cromwell; Verizon with DLA Piper; and Morgan Stanley with Simpson Thacher. This new co-sponsor model allows for additional fellows to serve people in desperate need of legal assistance, while also building the relationship between corporate entities and their legal counsel - establishing a bond and co-ownership in pro bono efforts.

Our second fellowship program is part of AmeriCorps, the national service program launched in 1993. Each year, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows work on projects that serve nearly 35,000 people in communities in dire need of legal assistance, including homeless veterans, families facing foreclosure, and low-income communities hit by disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, tornadoes and oil spills. We currently have 80 lawyers and 640 law students participating in our Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps programs.

This year, Equal Justice Works partnered with the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC) to launch the newest postgraduate fellowship initiative: The Public Defender Corps. In many parts of the country, low-income people accused of crimes do not receive the representation to which they are entitled. In some areas, years of neglect have led professionals in these systems to accept untenable caseloads and practice in ways that undermine the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Modeled in part after Teach for America, the Corps this fall will send 18 of today's brightest law graduates into hard-to-serve communities, particularly in the South, in an effort to improve the quality of defense afforded to low-income individuals accused of a crime.

Creating opportunities for students and lawyers to pursue public interest careers, however, is not enough. With the cost of law school rising, students are graduating with mortgage-sized debt that can make pursuing public service careers seem like an impossible dream. For the past several years, Equal Justice Works has been working to eliminate the financial barriers that can prevent talented attorneys and others from pursuing careers in public interest law. Equal Justice Works has successfully advocated for increased loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs), and was instrumental in the creation and passing of the landmark College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) that created income-based repayment and loan forgiveness programs for those in public service. Through our extensive outreach and education programs, we have become a national resource, assisting not only lawyers pursuing their dream of a public interest career, but also teachers, nurses, police officers, government workers and other public servants who benefit from the financial programs in place to protect those committed to service.

This fall we celebrate Equal Justice Works' 25th Anniversary. As proud as I am of our tremendous growth and numerous accomplishments, the injustices in this country continue to grow, with more and more people in need of legal help without the means to pay for it - for example, returning veterans who have extraordinary levels of homelessness, mental illness, physical disability and domestic violence. The needs are enormous.

Meanwhile, there is an unprecedented appetite among law students and new lawyers to engage in service. Many have grown up participating in school service learning programs or in Teach for America or AmeriCorps before attending law school. Each year we turn away hundreds of extremely well-qualified individuals looking for an opportunity to give back.

It is this combination, the demand from needy communities and the abundance of newly minted lawyers wanting to serve, that motivates me to develop new initiatives that address systemic problems plaguing our legal system as well as unforeseen issues that arise.

Equal Justice Works has a proud history of being among the first responders to the country's major crises. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Equal Justice Works raised $2 million to send 19 fellows to the Gulf to help those devastated by the storm start rebuilding their lives - work that continues today. When the housing market took a dive, Equal Justice Works secured funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to place 30 lawyers across the country to fight foreclosure, saving hundreds of homes. Now as Joplin, Missouri begins to pick up the pieces left from the powerful tornadoes that blew through the town in May, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows will be working in the field to offer disaster relief legal assistance as residents attempt to put their lives back together.

As we celebrate our 25th anniversary year, I am proud that we have assembled a dream team steering committee consisting of some of the top general counsel in the country, including Hilary Krane of Nike, Teri McClure from UPS, Roderick Palmore of General Mills, CIGNA's Carol Ann Petren, Edward Ryan from Marriott International, Marschall Smith of 3M, Pfizer's Amy Schulman and Ken Thompson of LexisNexis.

In addition to raising funds to support our ongoing work, the committee is helping raise funds for the Justice Innovation Fund, which will provide Equal Justice Works with a source of funding to launch new initiatives as opportunities arise. Seed capital is often the hardest money to raise, and yet it often produces the highest return on investment.

Reflecting back 25 years to those idealistic law students who helped launch Equal Justice Works, there is much to celebrate. But there is much still to be done in mobilizing the next generation of public interest lawyers to help the most vulnerable among us receive the same access to justice as more fortunate citizens. We hope you will be part of that future.

Equal Justice Works will hold its 25th Anniversary Gala on Thursday, October 20 in Washington DC. For ticket or sponsorship information, information on the Justice Innovation Fund or any of Equal Justice Works programs, please visit www.equaljusticeworks.org.

David Stern is Executive Director of Equal Justice Works, the nation's leading creator of public interest law opportunities for law students and lawyers.Prior to serving as Executive Director, Stern joined the organization in 1992 to launch the tremendously successful Equal Justice Works Fellowship program. After Stern earned his JD from Georgetown University Law Center, where he focused on public interest courses, he clerked for two federal judges in Baltimore, MD before working at a public interest law firm focused on civil rights.Stern has been an integral part of Equal Justice Works' 25-year history and had been recognized as one of Legal Times' "Greatest Washington Lawyers in the Past 30 Years."

Please visit www.equaljusticeworks.com for more information.