Mobilizing The Next Generation Of Lawyers Committed To Equal Justice

Saturday, June 23, 2012 - 11:23

The Editor interviews David Stern, Executive Director of Equal Justice Works.

Editor: For our readers who may not be familiar, please tell us about the founding and the mission of Equal Justice Works.

Stern: Equal Justice Works was founded in 1986 by a group of law students with the goal of expanding legal services to underrepresented populations and increasing opportunities in public interest law. Our mission is to create a just society by mobilizing the next generation of lawyers committed to equal justice.

To do this we provide a continuum of programs that begins with law students and extends into postgraduate careers and ensures a sustainable pipeline of talented and trained lawyers who are involved in public service. We help law schools strengthen their public interest law programs; we provide public service work experience and professional development and training for law students and lawyers; we build strong support in the legal profession for public service through pro bono work and financial support; and we engage in outreach and advocacy and are the national experts in programs that reduce educational debt barriers that prevent lawyers from pursuing public service careers.

Editor: The Equal Justice Works Fellowship is geared to recent graduates hoping to embark on a two-year project. Can you give us a few examples of such projects? Have they proved to be sustainable?

Stern: Equal Justice Works Fellows are entrepreneurs; they design new and innovative legal projects that can impact lives and serve communities in desperate need of legal assistance. It’s not uncommon for us to hear about a fellow’s project becoming a permanent fixture at their host site.

For instance, Parisa Fatehi-Weeks was a 2009 Equal Justice Works Fellow at San Francisco’s Public Advocates. Her project capitalized on the climate change policy momentum in California to generate affordable housing and equitable transit near jobs and vital services.  After her fellowship, Parisa stayed on, and her project was fully integrated into the work of Public Advocates' Metropolitan Equity team.

A 2008 fellow, Heidi Altman worked at Neighborhood Defender Services (NDS) of Harlem in New York City, providing counsel to non-citizens who were vulnerable to deportation due to criminal offenses and creating a model for in-house immigration expertise at defender offices.  Towards the end of her fellowship, the Supreme Court ruled in Padilla v. Kentucky that the U.S. Constitution requires defense lawyers to know and apprise clients of the immigration consequences of a conviction. Heidi has since left NDS, but her project continues to thrive there.  

In 2009, Luke Grundman was an Equal Justice Works Fellow spearheading a project at Legal Aid of Minneapolis designed to address the foreclosure crisis in the Minneapolis metropolitan area. Luke successfully advocated for affirmative fair housing policies and fought predatory lending practices. He has since been hired by Legal Aid of Minneapolis as a full-time attorney and the project has grown to include additional lawyers.

These are just a few of the stories – there are many, many more.

Editor: I’ve read that about 80 percent of your fellows remain in public interest law after their fellowship ends. Do you follow their careers? Where have they ended up?

Stern: We do try to follow the careers of our alums, and we frequently call upon them to speak on our behalf, write articles in our newsletter, etc. Our alums have gone on to accomplish some incredible things: Shannon Minter is a leading civil rights attorney who has had dozens of groundbreaking legal victories for the LGBT community; Kevin Bankston is a pioneer in the field of protecting constitutional liberties in the digital age; and in 2010 Wynona Ward was named a CNN Hero of the Year for her work protecting victims of domestic violence in rural Vermont. Our fellows are making policy changes in government; establishing nonprofits to help underserved populations around the country; and working on law school campuses to create unique clinics and programs to encourage and grow the public interest community.

Editor: Last year when you wrote for us, you wrote that law firms and corporations are now teaming up to share costs of fellowships. I imagine such partnerships not only boost funding but also help outside counsel and their clients build stronger relationships. Would you give us a few examples of such collaborations?

Stern: Hewlett-Packard Company and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP are co-sponsoring Equal Justice Works Fellow Camille Pannu, who works at The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in Delano, CA. Camille’s project addresses job creation, environmental health, and infrastructure access in rural and low-income communities of color in the San Joaquin Valley.

Morgan Stanley and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP joined together to sponsor Emily Amick, a 2011 Equal Justice Works Fellow working at Sanctuary for Families in New York City. Emily’s project addresses the legal needs of sex-trafficking victims and promotes the implementation of anti-trafficking laws through advocacy, coalition building and trainings.

Verizon and DLA Piper are co-sponsoring Leeja Patel, a 2011 Equal Justice Works Fellow working at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach in San Francisco on a project designed to address the lack of legal access for victims of domestic violence in the Bay Area’s South Asian immigrant community.

Goldman Sachs and Sullivan & Cromwell co-sponsored a fellowship for Gina Clayton, who works on eviction defense cases in New York City.

In addition to helping to fund more fellows and provide much-needed legal services in these communities, these collaborations have also led to joint pro bono projects with firm and corporate attorneys as they come together in support of their fellow. This benefits everyone – the fellow, the attorneys and, of course, the people who are receiving legal services they otherwise would not be able to afford.

Editor: I see too that you participate in the AmeriCorps program. In what capacity do your fellows work with that program?

Stern: The Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows program addresses the gaps in the legal aid community through pro bono management and direct representation. Our AmeriCorps Legal Fellows work in a variety of issues areas including healthcare, public benefits, foreclosure prevention, veterans’ issues, education, disaster relief and more, providing legal assistance to thousands of people each year.

The AmeriCorps program has allowed us to become the “first responders” of the legal community when national disasters occur. After Hurricane Katrina, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows were deployed to the Gulf Coast to provide free legal representation to victims of the storm to help them access FEMA benefits and begin to rebuild their homes and lives. Our fellows responded the Gulf Coast oil disaster and have been working in Joplin, Missouri to help victims of the 2011 tornado. In 2009, when the mortgage foreclosure crisis hit, Equal Justice Works quickly placed 30 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows across the country to provide legal assistance to those facing financial challenges due to the recession. Today our AmeriCorps Fellows are helping to alleviate the growing crisis of homeless veterans, providing holistic legal services and helping them secure permanent housing, medical care and support services.

Editor: Please tell us about your recent initiative with the Southern Public Defender Training Center to create the Public Defender Corps. How has that grown since its inception?

Stern: Public Defender Corps is a joint initiative of Equal Justice Works and the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC) designed to address the growing problem in indigent defense. We select approximately 20 lawyers who are extremely well qualified and provide them intensive training and support so they can improve the quality of representation provided to low-income defendants.

The application process for Public Defender Corps is highly competitive. This year’s competition drew more than 450 applicants from law schools across the country for just 19 slots. To be considered for the program, applicants must meet a set of rigorous academic and professional requirements; demonstrate a commitment to improving the indigent defense system and providing exceptional client-centered representation through personal experiences; and convey a conviction to the responsibilities of a public defender.

We currently have 37 Public Defender Corps fellows in the program who have joined public defender offices in Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia and West Virginia. They represent the cream of the crop – incredibly capable, passionate and dedicated attorneys who are committed to providing quality representation for people who are charged with crimes and cannot afford an attorney.

Unfortunately we have recently learned that the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, will no longer provide funding for this program. We are currently seeking additional funding, but the future of the program is unclear. In light of the fact that we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright and as a country have made little progress in living up to its standard, we are extremely disappointed that we may not be able to continue to provide this program to such well-qualified lawyers who are so eager to be public defenders.

Editor: Obviously, a great inhibitor to lawyers entering public service is the tremendous loan debt law students accrue. How does EJW address this issue?

Stern: For a number of 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. We have successfully advocated for increased loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs), and we were instrumental in the creation and passing of the landmark College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA), which created income-based repayment and loan forgiveness programs for those in public service.

Today we offer an extensive library of free, online informational materials and webinars on educational debt relief programs. We write the weekly Student Loan Ranger Blog that appears on the US News website and provides up-to-the-minute information and analysis on emerging programs and issues around educational debt, and we have a very active social media program that also spreads the word about educational debt relief. As a result, we have become the national resource for information on educational debt relief, 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.

Editor: Last year you celebrated your 25th anniversary, for which you assembled a steering committee to take EJW into the future. Who serves on that committee?

Stern: The list of participants is impressive: Cesar Alvarez, Greenberg Traurig, LLP; Amy Schulman, Pfizer Inc.; Susan H. Alexander, Biogen Idec Inc.; Eugene Assaf, Kirkland & Ellis LLP; Jack Berkowitz, ALM; Louis J. Briskman, CBS Corporation; Michael G. & Linda S. Caudell-Feagan; Robert Dell, Latham & Watkins LLP; D. Cameron Findlay, Medtronic, Inc.; Paul T. Friedman, Morrison & Foerster LLP; Kent A. Gardiner, Crowell & Moring LLP; Marc Gary, (formerly with Fidelity Investments); Jonathan P. Graham, Danaher Corporation; James L. Henderson III, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP; Hon. Sven Erik Holmes, KPMG LLP; Michael J. Holston, Merck & Co. Inc.; Anastasia D. Kelly, DLA Piper; Kim Koopersmith, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP; Hilary K. Krane, Nike, Inc.; Gregory P. Landis; Nicholas D. Latrenta, MetLife, Inc.; John G. Levi, Sidley Austin LLP; Teri P. McClure, UPS; Roderick A. Palmore, General Mills, Inc.; Carol Ann Petren, MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc.; Donn P. Pickett, Bingham McCutchen LLP; James G. Potter; Timothy A. Pratt, Boston Scientific Corporation; Edward A. Ryan, Marriott International, Inc.; Thomas L. Sager, DuPont; Robert A. Skirnick & Maria A. Skirnick, Meredith Cohen Greenfogel & Skirnick, P.C.;  Marschall I. Smith, 3M; Laura Stein, The Clorox Company; James C. Sturdevant, The Sturdevant Law Firm; Ken Thompson, Reed Elsevier; Daniel Troy, GlaxoSmithKline; Allan Van Fleet, Greenberg Traurig, LLP; Mark D. Wasserman, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP; Allen P. Waxman, Eisai Inc.; Kathleen A. Welch & Shelley Hearne, Corridor Partners, LLC; and Beth Wilkinson, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

Editor: How can law firms interested in Equal Justice Works learn more?

Stern: People interested in Equal Justice Works should visit our website and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on the latest news. Firms that are interested in learning more about our programs, how to sponsor a fellow and how our fellowship program can coordinate with their pro bono efforts can contact me directly. One of the joys of my job is meeting people who share a commitment to launch new lawyers into public service careers.

Please visit www.equaljusticeworks.org for more information.