A 25-year tradition of public interest law
I joined Equal Justice Works in 1992, six years after the organization was founded. Since that time, I have happily watched the demand for public interest law curricula, loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) and postgraduate opportunities grow on campuses as more and more students express their desire to help communities that need it most.
What started as a group of students from 14 law schools wanting to “do good,” has grown to become a national organization, with 200 member law schools. Today, we offer the largest postgraduate legal fellowship program in the country; our annual conference and career fair is the largest national event of its kind, this year attracting 114 employers and more than 2000 students; and we are an advocate for educational debt relief programs that will help more pursue public interest careers.
As we our mark our 25th anniversary, public interest law is facing difficult challenges. Poverty is up, the justice gap is growing, legal aid and public defender budgets are shrinking and the job market is weak. On top of that, the level of educational debt continues to increase, causing financial constraints that make it even more difficult for students to consider public interest careers.
Now more than ever, Equal Justice Works is determined to help lawyers and law students interested in public interest careers pursue their dreams. We are looking ahead and planning more programs and initiatives that will create pathways to public interest jobs and bring us closer to achieving our goal of equal justice for all.
A glimpse at the future of Equal Justice Works
Coco Culhane and Susan Friedman started their public interest law careers on two different paths, but found themselves at the same destination—an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. The opportunity to become an Equal Justice Works Fellow has allowed these two young lawyers to catalyze their careers and provide access to justice in underrepresented communities.
Coco was an editor for a political magazine before attending law school. While working for the publication, she felt a disconnect between the problems within society and how they were addressed. Coco concluded that earning a law degree would help her to tackle some of these problems. As she was researching topics for her law review note, she came across a case that stated that 18 veterans commit suicide every day. She looked for an organization that was addressing the legal needs of veterans in New York City, but there were none. That is when she decided to create her project.
Coco had previously learned about Equal Justice Works and its program opportunities. “Equal Justice Works was known as the fellowship for supporting innovative ideas,” said Coco. Coco developed her project with the Urban Justice Center with the purpose of providing civil legal services to low-income veterans suffering from PTSD, substance abuse problems and other mental health issues. For Coco, being selected as an Equal Justice works Fellow has opened the door to meeting a need that did not exist in the New York area.
While Coco’s public interest career was ushered in by her passion for assisting veterans, Susan Friedman's path toward public service was unconventional. Susan entered law school with a background in biochemistry. She had become interested in intellectual property law and wanted to merge her interest with public interest law. As a law student, Susan interned with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and saw the need for forensic science reform to prevent wrongful convictions. During her second year in law school, a professor noticed Susan’s level of passion for public interest work and informed her about the Equal Justice Works Fellowship program. “I knew that the application process was very competitive, but it seemed like a great opportunity coming out of law school,” said Susan. With the help of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, she was able to create a project that will help ensure the successful implementation of forensic science reform in Maryland that would help correct and prevent wrongful convictions.
It is the mission of Equal Justice Works to help young lawyers develop innovative projects that unite a unique skill set and a passion to provide equal justice. Many of our Fellows, like Susan and Coco, seek out Equal Justice Works for the opportunity to live out their dreams of making a difference. Together, we are making an impact to close the justice gap.
Then and now: reflections from an original Equal Justice Works Fellow
Manuel Duran Huezo, an Equal Justice Works alumnus from the first class of Fellows, still remembers the excitement he had when he helped his first client. “My Fellowship was an opportunity to wage war against the injustice I saw taking place,” he said. Like many passionate public interest lawyers, Manuel saw a pressing need that he wanted to address.
As a veteran, Manuel saw a disparity in the treatment of other veterans and volunteered his time at a homeless veteran’s shelter providing legal services. This was the pivotal moment for Manuel. He had an idea for addressing the legal needs of those who truly needed help but lacked the resources to make it happen. “The legal employment climate 25 years ago was very much as it is today. No one was hiring in legal aid offices because budgets were very limited,” Manuel shared. “There was a level of respect and prestige for new lawyers who started public interest law careers, but the opportunities were few. Equal Justice Works bridged that gap.” While attending a law school awards ceremony, he learned about the Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Manuel submitted his application and the rest was history. After witnessing the predatory practices of contractors and lending companies, he was able to develop a project helping elderly citizens who were being taken advantage of.
Equal Justice Works became a foundation in developing Manuel’s public interest law career and was able to assist him in obtaining funding to continue his project for an additional five years after completing his fellowship. He learned advocacy skills that would later become beneficial to his career. For Manuel, the Equal Justice Works mission has emphasized the importance of motivating young lawyers to get involved in public interest work and to see the fulfillment in helping underserved communities. “Without my fellowship experience, I would not be the lawyer that I am today and I would not have been able to help the people I did,” he said.
Today, Manuel runs a private practice, which offers pro bono legal services. He was also recently selected to be a part of an advisory group for the Mexican government. Only 110 community leaders are selected nationwide. In an effort to continue to his legacy of public interest law, he also donates his time to current Equal Justice Works Fellows, offering them support as they begin their careers.
What to do as your grace period ends and you enter repayment on your student loans.
When it comes to repaying your student loans grab the bull by the horns. 1) Figure out what loans you owe, to whom and how much. 2) Evaluate your repayment options and what you’ll pay under different plans. 3) If you cannot afford standard payments, seek out income-based repayment plans that can help lower your monthly payments. If you cannot afford income-based payments, request a deferment or forbearance. 4) Do not default on your loans! Always talk to your servicers to figure out options to reduce, suspend or postpone payments, which are always due until you receive notice otherwise. For more details, read this post in our Student Loan Ranger blog. For more student debt tips and information, follow the Equal Justice Works Student Debt Relief hash tag, #studentdebthelp on Twitter.