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Law students speak: Why I do public interest work


Maybe you’ve considered doing work in the public interest field, but you’re not sure it’s right for you. Would it help you clarify your thinking to hear directly from other law students throughout the country about the work they’re doing?

Here, nine students who’ve devoted part of their law school career to public interest opportunities explain why they chose the path they’ve taken, along with the most satisfying—and most challenging—aspects of their efforts.

How TV and reality differ

Ashley Zink, 2L

Before coming to law school, my view of what happened to someone who’d been wrongly convicted was about as stereotypical as it got. I knew what I saw on TV: There was always clear and obvious evidence of corruption that everyone seemed to ignore, the process of redemption was horrible but exciting, and justice always won out in the end.

After living in a world of “Making a Murderer” and “Serial,” I was excited when I found out that Boston University School of Law offered a clinic for wrongful convictions. Even before my first year began, I knew I wanted to be a part of this clinic during my law school career. After originally being waitlisted, I was eventually offered a spot in the clinic for my second year.

On the first day of class, we were told exactly what to expect. There were three clients, and we’d each have to choose which one to work for. As is often the case, the clients weren’t simply claiming innocence the way you usually hear about on TV.

The issues these clients faced were much more legally complex. Their claims ranged from a judge deciding not to give jury instructions for the defense of another to unfairly denied Batson challenges (those are objections to peremptory challenges alleging that they’re being used to exclude potential jurors on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex). It quickly became clear that this wasn’t what I’d seen on TV. This was real life.

Since the start of the clinic, I’ve learned an immeasurable amount about what it actually means to be an attorney doing criminal appeals work. We’ve spent two frustrating months trying to obtain all available documents from the previous attorneys who represented our client.

Simultaneously, we’ve been spending many hours every week working to complete a thorough document review of the full trial transcripts. In reviewing them, I even had the unique experience of evaluating the inclusion or exclusion of testimony by applying what I’d learned in evidence class in real time.

Since fully reviewing the trial transcript, our time has been spent debriefing from the review and discussing what we learned. This brainstorming process has led to interesting conversations about potentially legitimate claims our client may have and the strategy involved in deciding what and when to file at this point in the appeals process.

While most of law school is simply reading cases and hoping you remember the small details when you get cold called in class, this clinic has offered me an opportunity to fully use my critical thinking skills and creativity.

Shortly after the school year began, the clinic director, Professor Ruth Greenberg, won a case for a wrongly convicted client. I was able to be present for the phone call when she informed him that he’d soon be released from prison. It was at this moment that I understood the true, inspiring fact of what it means to work on these cases. It’s not like you see on TV. But sometimes, though very rarely, justice really can win out in the end.

“Discharging” duties for veterans

Randall Nice, 3L

When I learned about the Veterans Advocacy Law Clinic at The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, I was drawn to it by my seven years of Marine Corps experience and sense of camaraderie with fellow veterans. The clinic was highly recommended by other student-veterans, and I saw it as an opportunity to help the veteran community.

I was excited about the clinic’s work obtaining discharge upgrades for veterans. Many veterans receive damaging discharges as a result of such issues as post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma, which can cause service members to engage in self-destructive behaviors. Often, the military’s response is to separate the service member with an other-than-honorable discharge.

Tragically, many of these servicemembers have otherwise exemplary service and combat records but can’t receive Veterans Administration benefits with an other-than-honorable discharge on their record. Furthermore, this discharge embarrasses veterans and can prevent them from obtaining employment.

In these situations, the clinic advocates on behalf of the veterans to various military review boards within the U.S. Department of Defense. Students engage in fact gathering, preparing witness statements, legal research, and document drafting in support of an upgrade request.

We argue that the board should change the veteran’s discharge to honorable on the grounds that the PTSD or MST mitigates the misconduct, and the veteran’s overall service record merits an upgrade.

This semester, I took on a new type of case for the clinic. The military gave our client a bad-conduct discharge as a result of a court-martial. However, since his discharge, our client has established his own nonprofit to help veterans in need, mentored veterans in crisis, and devoted his life to helping veterans in many other ways. In his case, instead of arguing that the discharge was inequitable, we’ll argue that he should receive clemency due to his post-discharge conduct.

I look forward to the challenge of advocating for our client with this novel argument. It’s exciting to know I could be setting precedent for other veterans who seek an upgrade based on clemency.

Additionally, the clinic affords me the opportunity to represent veterans at Tucson’s Veterans Treatment Court. There, veterans who’ve been charged with misdemeanor crimes can enter a diversion program designed to help them address the specific issues that led to their arrest, such as substance abuse, homelessness, or anger.

In this setting, I work closely with our clients and help them navigate their way through the program. We explain their legal options, prepare motions, and help them find solutions to problems they encounter along the way. Sometimes, we negotiate with the prosecutor or make an argument to the judge on why the veteran deserves to stay in the program.

Upon completion of the program, the court dismisses the veteran’s charges, often allowing the veteran to regain a sense of honor and accomplishment.

Humanizing society’s most shunned

Glenda M. Almela, 3L

I decided to join the Florida International University College of Law Death Penalty Clinic in my third year because, like most of my peers, I wanted to participate in an experiential program that would allow me to fully understand what it’s like to advocate for real clients in a real work setting.

Previously, I’d taken Professor Stephen Harper’s capital punishment course, where we focused on the concept that “death is different.” This principle truly resonated with me, particularly because I was born in Cuba, where the death penalty is often employed as a punishment by the Cuban government, but it’s never truly discussed in Cuban courts or by the Cuban public.

However, when I began my work in the clinic, I never expected to become so invested in my clients’ defense. I also didn’t expect that I’d come to relate to many of these men and women whom society considers to be the worst of the worst. It has truly been the most rewarding and humbling experience I’ve ever undertaken.

To me, the clinical program has been an immersive experience into the social, scientific, legal, and historical perspective of capital punishment jurisprudence in the United States. Every day is a different challenge and an emotional journey as I get to find out key background information about our clients and the injustices they’ve faced not only within the criminal justice system, but also in their daily lives.

Many of the clients we represent suffer from various mental illnesses, including bipolar and borderline personality disorders, substance abuse disorder, and autism disorder. Some are still adolescents, some are victims of childhood abuse, and some were sentenced to death because of prosecutorial misconduct.

The clinic serves to humanize these individuals whom, to many, are known for having committed these atrocious crimes. But to us, they’re men and women who have families and who feel sadness, hope, love, and fear—just like everyone else.

The program also serves to demonstrate how the critical shortage of qualified and adequately funded counsel has led many of these men, women, and young adults to be placed on death row even when they may not even be mentally capable of fully grasping the consequences of their actions.

For example, one of our assignments was to analyze case law that clearly supported the admission of evidence that negated the “cold” element of one of the death penalty statute’s worst aggravating factors. The fact that this argument was never even attempted by defense counsel demonstrates the importance of the work we’re doing.

Additionally, my work in the clinic has reinforced in me the notion that the death penalty should be abolished altogether. I’ve come to fully doubt its deterrent effects and believe it’s an outdated punishment that reflects the worst we have to offer as a society. My participation has also ingrained in me the importance of pro bono work and the need to provide legal support and a voice to these men and women, which to them literally makes a difference between life and death.

Ensuring veterans aren’t left behind

Steven Kerns, 2L

As a veteran, I came to Harvard Law School’s Safety Net Project within the Veteran’s Legal Clinic to help bridge the civilian- military divide. SNP offered me a chance to help civilians and veterans realize some part of
the American dream.

The veterans’ clinic serves civilians and veterans alike, and the SNP provides civilians and veterans with guidance through the Social Security, SNAP, Medicaid, and poverty prevention processes. We serve a strong legal need: Nearly 70 percent of Social Security applicants have no legal representation.

As a student, the clinic offered me a pathway to maintain the momentum I’d built up establishing my litigation skills in my summer at the California Attorney General’s office. The SNP gives me full responsibility for my cases: preparing an evidentiary record, interviewing clients, writing a legal brief, delivering oral argument, direct questioning of clients, cross-examining experts, and if a case is denied, preparing for the appellate argument.

A veteran recently told me that our team had changed his life. He was fond of saying that if it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. He was falsely imprisoned, sexually assaulted as a child, and tragically self-aware of all of it.

Most painful was his nobility, his gentle demeanor, and his broken strength. He blamed no one. He accepted responsibility for more than just his actions—he accepted responsibility for the world. The military has a way of conditioning many of us not to seek help until it’s too late, to shoulder the blame for circumstances beyond our control— to grin and bear it. It’s our strength in war and, often, our undoing at home.

After combing through more than 500 pages of medical records and recruiting mental health experts to evaluate the long history of impairments and treatment, I put together a written argument that led the administrative law judge to make a decision on the record—telling us on the day of the hearing that he was approving the case for more than eight years of retroactive benefits. This highly unusual move happens only when the ALJ determines the case is clearly in the applicant’s favor and a hearing is no longer necessary.

Our client was spared having to dive deep into his trauma for the record. Realizing this, he was overcome with relief. And while we all shared a brief moment of joy, that veteran’s need is no less important than helping the civilians who walk through our doors. Our communities thrive together.

As President Eisenhower noted in his seminal Cross of Iron speech, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.”

I may not be able to change the status quo, but the SNP empowers me to help Americans left behind by perpetual war. Here, they’re not forgotten. Here, my mission is no different than it was in the Army: to serve the American people.

Life-changing experience

Laura Alvarenga Scalia, 2L

When I was 16, my family and I migrated from El Salvador in search of a better future. Being an immigrant, the law has directly affected me and my loved ones on a daily basis. Having been through the legalization process myself, I experienced firsthand how the law can marginalize and isolate underrepresented communities, but also how it can empower them.

These experiences shaped my decision to come to law school and to get involved with the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

The clinic provides legal support to grassroots organizations working on critical issues that affect the immigrant community. This semester I was part of the legal team working on a class action lawsuit challenging the termination of temporary protection status for immigrants. I chose this project specifically because it has a special meaning in my life; some of my family members are TPS holders and are directly affected by its termination.

Going into the project, my goal was to somehow help and protect my family. However, after being more deeply involved, this project has taken on a whole different meaning for me.

Through the clinic, I traveled to San Francisco to attend the preliminary injunction hearing at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California and to meet some of the plaintiffs and community organizers involved in the project. After spending time with them and getting to know them on a more personal level, I was enchanted by their passion and commitment to social justice.

Moreover, I witnessed with my own eyes how the lawsuit had not only become a tool of empowerment for the plaintiffs, but also how it had created unity among the plaintiffs, the organizers, and the advocates in their collective fight toward justice for all. It was a powerful experience— one where my identities as an immigrant, a law student, a daughter, and a social advocate intersected—and a moment where their cause was my cause and where their hopes and dreams were also my own.

Through IRC, I also traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to work with Al Otro Lado, a bi-national legal services organization. It provides important legal orientations to refugees fleeing persecution and waiting their turn to present themselves at the border to apply for asylum in the United States. This was perhaps one of the most shocking, meaningful, and life-changing experiences in my law school career.

It was a very emotional and difficult setting because I struggled not only to listen to their stories, some of which involved torture and violence, but also to face the realities of our current immigration system. On the one hand, I knew the harsh reality these individuals would be facing upon surrendering themselves at the border. On the other hand, I hoped the information I provided might allow them to have a better chance to win their asylum case and, therefore, a chance for a better life.

Being part of IRC has changed my perspective of the law. It has made me realize how the law can become a tool not only for social justice but also a means of empowerment for vulnerable communities. As a law student, it’s very easy for school life to take over and to be sheltered in this “bubble” of logic and reasoning, alienated from the reality of the outside world. IRC has kept me grounded and served as a constant reminder of why I came to law school.

A “working” system can be unfair

Lucy River, 2L

During my first year at The University of New Mexico School of Law, I sought out Professor Barbara Creel at the New Mexico Innocence and Justice Project and begged to volunteer. As a 2L, I’m thrilled to be participating in the program as a student.

Having been a police officer, a lobbyist, and a corrections official in the past, all the while studying for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, I observed the holes in our system firsthand. I left government a bit disillusioned and worked for a nonprofit geared toward expanding transparency in public affairs. Once I decided to become an attorney, joining the NMIJP was a no-brainer.

Reviewing wrongful convictions appeals to me because, while there are some good people in the public safety branches of government and while the justice system works some of the time, mistakes happen. I view the NMIJP as attempting to even the odds by achieving a modicum of justice on the back end for some who’ve been unjustly convicted. I want to be a part of that.

During my time as a cop, for example, I remember having to arrest a woman in her 60s because her husband called 911 alleging she’d taken his phone away from him during a domestic dispute. When we arrived at her home to investigate, she admitted taking the phone, which is a crime.

The senior officer on scene demanded I arrest her. I did. The arrest may have been what policy and the law required, but there was no way to guarantee the wife had been the primary aggressor or whether her husband simply knew the system well enough to orchestrate the situation to his wife’s disadvantage.

In my heart, I felt it was the latter. But the system wasn’t on her side. A minor example, perhaps, compared to the level of injustice a wrongful conviction for murder might create, but it highlighted for me how the system, even when “working,” can produce unfair results.

As an NMIJP student, I’ll soon assist counsel in two proceedings— one is a new trial, and the other is an appeal involving the court’s interpretation of a recently enacted DNA statute. In terms of reform efforts, a state senator has accepted our invitation and will soon visit the law school to discuss upcoming legislative issues in the criminal justice realm. I hope that criminal justice system reforms from our state legislature may become law in New Mexico.

Participating in the program has opened my eyes to the possibility of criminal defense work. Rather than focusing just on a career as a civil rights litigator, which was my previous goal, I’m choosing more criminal procedure classes as I plan my studies. Understanding the machinery of the criminal defense and post-conviction world will be critical if someday I’m to represent a NMIJP client myself.

Learning new (and better) mistakes

Lesly Santos, 3L

As the child of immigrants living in Yonkers, N.Y., I witnessed firsthand the injustice, discrimination, and unscrupulous conduct that low-income immigrants can endure as they try to navigate our complex immigration system.

I watched my mother pay thousands of dollars to a notario, an unlicensed and unregulated advocate who preys on immigrants. As is so often the case, he made my mother’s legal situation much worse. When we finally found her a real attorney a decade later, he was furious about the way my mother had been deceived.

Only because of that attorney’s intense, relentless struggle did my mother ultimately receive that little piece of plastic that meant everything for our entire family. I remember translating her approval notice, seeing her face light up as never before. For the first time, the notice I was reading to her brought good news. At that moment, it became clear that I wanted to help achieve this joy and peace of mind for others like my mom.

My three semesters in the Pace University— Elisabeth Haub School of Law’s Immigration Justice Clinic, plus two summers as a legal intern with the nonprofit Catholic Charities, confirmed my desire to dedicate myself to the rights of the immigrant poor and prepared me very thoroughly for this challenge.

As a student attorney, along with the rest of my case team members and with constant consultation with our faculty supervisors, I diagnose each client’s problems, analyze their options, select the strategy, make the decisions, and execute the lawyering tasks needed for our varied caseload of both affirmative applications and deportation defenses. We practice from immigration court through the Board of Immigration Appeals up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where my student colleagues argued and even filed petitions for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This level of responsibility is an incredible learning experience. I’ve developed confidence in my battle-tested professional judgment. Of course, mistakes are inevitable for every lawyer, and in the clinic we learn how to cope with mistakes and move on. “New and better mistakes” is our motto. I aspire to eventually open my own office. I want to be a community-based advocate independent of the government or external funders and accountable only to my clients. Immigration practice is extremely challenging; the wins are few, but success isn’t how many cases I win but how many people I can serve and how well. For our clients, we’re often their only chance.

Cases rejected by other providers have taught me that sometimes the clients who seem “hopeless” are those who can benefit from representation the most. One who especially resonates with me is a Guatemalan teenager who, despite her very difficult and scary situation, plans to become an attorney and speak for the voiceless herself someday. I see a bit of myself in her, and my ability to help her to realize her dream is so gratifying.

Religious freedom for all

Thomas Wheeler, 3L

One of the reasons I chose to attend the University of St. Thomas School of Law was to learn from some of the best religious liberty experts.

During my 2L fall semester, I participated in Professor Tom Berg’s Religious Liberty Clinic, which consisted of Professor Berg and two students. Throughout the semester, we read about the history of First Amendment jurisprudence, and then each of us drafted an amicus brief involving a First Amendment issue. It was a unique opportunity to learn First Amendment history, work one-on-one with Professor Berg, and advocate on behalf of a real client.

My case involved Darrell Harris, a Muslim inmate in California. He alleged that a prison guard violated his free exercise rights when, during a cell search, the guard threw down, kicked, and desecrated his Quran, preventing him from doing his daily reading of the Quran for 10 days.

We wrote an amicus brief on behalf of four national Muslim organizations highlighting two arguments. First, we claimed that intentional hostile acts toward Harris’s religious book violated the free exercise clause, even if he could have read Quranic passages in other religious texts or he could have obtained another copy of the Quran earlier.

In the alternative, we claimed that, because Harris believed he must read from the Quran daily and was prevented from doing so, he was substantially burdened. The Ninth Circuit panel agreed and ruled unanimously in favor of Harris.

The drafting process required me to master the record below, and in it, I found a statement that struck me. An imam who works as a prison chaplain stated, supposedly in an expert capacity, that Islam didn’t require daily reading from the Quran and that Harris’s Quran was not desecrated according to Islamic law.

This statement struck me because it required the court to determine the validity of Harris’s belief. Being a religious person myself and knowing that many Christian groups have different interpretations of religious doctrine, I was suspicious of giving courts the power to determine the validity of various doctrinal interpretations. As such, a statement from a religious authority offering the court such an opportunity surprised me.

Trying to explain another person’s religious belief was humbling. Because I knew little about Islam prior to the clinic, I had to perform extensive research to write the brief. My research verified the authoritative texts that Harris relied upon for his belief in daily Quran reading and substantiated his belief using other Islamic scholarship. Learning limited information about a new religion, and then trying to persuasively use that information to explain another’s faith, reminded me of my own limited capabilities.

The Muslim organizations had credibility in asserting the argument that Harris had a good-faith belief in daily Quran reading. That being said, the various organizations had their own perspectives, and it took time to distill their viewpoints into one persuasive argument.

In the end, we were able to do so and they all gave their support, which bolstered our brief’s credibility. Also, the amici’s participation emphasized to the court the importance of the case to the rights of Muslim inmates.

All in all, the Religious Liberty Clinic is an outstanding program. It was a unique opportunity to work closely with Professor Berg and formulate religious liberty arguments for amici who were helping a religious believer in need. And it was great to be able to write arguments supporting someone of another faith—emphasizing the importance of all types of religious freedom.

Putting citizen lawyer ideals to work

Nicholas Thompson, 2L

I enrolled in the Elder & Disability Law Clinic at William & Mary Law School during the 2017 fall semester. I chose the EDLC for a number or reasons, chief among them the ability to serve the underserved in the greater Williamsburg community and the personal recommendations of trusted classmates. After thoroughly enjoying the first semester of the clinic, I signed up for the second semester.

During my time in the EDLC, I provided free legal services (under the supervision of Professor Helena Mock) to qualifying seniors and disabled individuals. I helped clients create plans to deal with current legal and financial issues. Primarily, this included drafting wills, powers of attorney, and living wills.

I also advocated for clients who were unable to speak for themselves by representing clients in guardianship and conservatorship hearings, applying for Medicaid and veterans’ benefits, and protecting clients who’d been victims of elder abuse. I also wrote a blog post for the clinic addressing what seniors should do following the Equifax credit breach.

Prior to enrolling in the clinic, I was very unfamiliar with the EDLC opportunity. I was particularly drawn to the clinic because I had some experience in trust and estates planning— my mother, a William & Mary alum, is a trusts and estates attorney in Virginia Beach. The EDLC was a phenomenal opportunity for me to receive one-on-one instruction from a local practitioner in the areas of elder and disability law. Further, the ability to serve and engage with clients provided invaluable experience.

The most inspiring moment of my two semesters in the EDLC involved a client pursuing the guardianship of a relative. During the guardianship process, the potential ward passed away. The client sent me a heart-warming thank-you letter with a contribution to the clinic. Her sincere gratitude was so inspirational and rewarding.

The William & Mary Law School education is grounded in the philosophy of the citizen lawyer. Aspiring lawyers are taught to not simply be exceptional legal craftsman, but also good citizens of their communities, states, and nation. The EDLC is the perfect opportunity to embody the citizen lawyer ideals before graduation.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.