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Equal Justice at Work: October 2012

 

Executive Director’s Corner

Equal Justice Works is gearing up for our Fall Events!

October is a wonderfully hectic time at Equal Justice Works as staff are preparing for our annual week of events - Leadership Development Training (LDT) for Fellows; the Conference and Career Fair (CCF) for law students and law school professionals; and our Annual Dinner.

The Leadership Development Training brings all of our 135 Fellows together for three days of professional development workshops led by national experts and Equal Justice Works alumni – former Fellows who are now public interest leaders around the country.  This allows our Fellows to develop valuable skills such as strategic planning, fundraising, and media relations, which they will use during their fellowship and throughout their careers.  Just as important, our training provides an opportunity for Fellows to forge connections with others doing similar work in other parts of the country.  It is the camaraderie between the Fellows that makes being part of the Equal Justice Works family so powerful.  I always feel a sense of awe and inspiration when I talk with the Fellows.  It is a highlight of my year.

At our Annual Dinner on October 25 we will present the 2012 Scales of Justice Award to Randy Milch, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Verizon, in recognition for his commitment to justice and diversity and his leadership at Verizon in building a strong pro bono program.  For those who have attended the dinner, you know it is incredibly uplifting to be with the Fellows and hundreds of people who provide support to make our programs possible. 

On October 26 and 27, more than 1500 public-interest minded law students, 120 employers, and law school professionals from our 200 member law schools will come together for two jam-packed days of interviews, workshops and networking.  The highlight of this year’s event will be a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who will share stories of her career and the public interest experiences that led to her appointment as the 111th justice and first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court. 

Around the country, October is also breast cancer awareness month. In this newsletter, we’ll spotlight 2005 Equal Justice Works Fellow Haley Schwartz, an award-winning lawyer who started the Breast Cancer Legal Project at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc. We will also spotlight 2012 Equal Justice Works Fellow Hillary Schneller, who has just begun her project at the National Women’s Law Center, and is gearing up to address women’s health issues and the new laws under the Affordable Care Act.

Please enjoy the stories of these passionate fellows, and we hope to see you at our Fall Events. 

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Fellows on the Front

Helping women gain access to health care

As an undergraduate at Barnard College in New York City, Hillary Schneller volunteered as an escort at a women’s health clinic in midtown Manhattan, guiding women through protesters and helping them gain safe access to the health care clinic. After her first year of law school at Columbia, Hillary served as an intern at Planned Parenthood, where she worked on a report with the Pennsylvania ACLU to document the barriers to health care for female inmates. Hillary recalls, “With the poor care these women received, they returned to their communities without an essential requirement—good health and access to care—for building a future.” From facing protestors to writing the report for the ACLU, Hillary has seen both the literal and more subtle barriers that women face when trying to access health care.

Hillary is now a 2012 Equal Justice Works Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) in Washington, DC, and she is just a few weeks into her fellowship. Her project aims to use a powerful legal tool included in the new Affordable Care Act to address women’s barriers to health care. Hillary says: “The Act includes a nondiscrimination provision, which is significant because it is the first federal law to broadly forbid sex discrimination in health programs. Because the law is new, I’ve focused the first few weeks of my fellowship on research and planning.” Hillary and the team at NWLC will work with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights to investigate complaints of sex discrimination.

Through her professional experience, Hillary has gained insight into the barriers that women face while trying to access health care, and she is bringing this insight to her fellowship project. She says the barriers that she sees come partly from gaps in healthcare coverage that put women at a disadvantage. For example, in the individual insurance market, because of a practice known as “gender rating,” women can be charged substantially higher rates for insurance simply because they are women. While some insurance plans are set up so that women pay more out of pocket for services, others simply exclude benefits—like maternity care, which can cost up to $10,000—that women need. Hillary says, “The inability to afford health insurance, and being forced to go without it, can result not only in poorer health but can also trigger or exacerbate financial catastrophe: more than half of working-age women report being uninsured or underinsured; having medical bill or debt problems; or foregoing care because of cost. The Affordable Care Act addresses some of these barriers, but there is still a great deal of work to be done.”

With her breadth of experience and knowledge and her commitment to enforcing the provisions in the Affordable Care Act, Hillary is on course to help many women gain access to health care. She says that “the opportunity to lift from page to practice a new legal tool to secure the rights of women to access affordable care without discrimination is incredibly exciting.”

 

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Alumni News

Creating a network of support for breast cancer patients

When Haley Schwartz was a young girl, her mother’s best friend, Carolyn, was diagnosed with breast cancer. While Carolyn struggled with the disease, Haley’s mother was one of her main caretakers. Carolyn’s daughter Meredith would often sleep over at Haley’s house to escape the sadness that pervaded her own. Although she was quite young at the time, Haley says she was “keenly aware of the struggles that Carolyn faced beyond her clinical treatment to navigate through the layers of emotional, personal, legal, and other issues that accompany a diagnosis of any life-threatening illness. When Carolyn lost her courageous battle at the young age of 47, Meredith came to live with us. Carolyn and Meredith inspired me to start the Breast Cancer Legal Project.”

Haley became an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP in 2005, and she began working at Atlanta Legal Aid Society to start the Breast Cancer Legal Project (BCLP). The project has since grown into an integral part of the support network that is offered to breast cancer patients in the Atlanta community. It expanded to address the needs of low-income women with all types of cancer through Atlanta Legal Aid’s Cancer Legal Initiative (CLI). BCLP and CLI are now core specialty programs offered by Atlanta Legal Aid Society, with a dedicated team of lawyers and staff who ensure that legal services are incorporated into the holistic care that cancer patients receive.

“It is the ultimate dream to be able to begin your legal career as the architect for your own vision of social justice,” Haley says. “My goal was to address legal needs that were often created, amplified and complicated by a breast cancer diagnosis. Those legal needs were just not being addressed.” One area that was especially high-need was estate planning for Haley’s clients. “Discussing one’s mortality and planning for death can be an uncomfortable conversation. But it can be transformed into an incredibly empowering one,” Haley says.

One such conversation was a turning point for Haley in understanding the potential reach and scope of the Breast Cancer Legal Project. The case involved Lois, a 43 year-old single mother who was dying of breast cancer, but holding on for weeks longer than expected. She was suffering greatly. Lois’s social worker called Haley to help with guardianship paperwork. Lois had told the social worker that she could not let go because she had not yet completed arrangements for her 11 year-old daughter. The father was unfit to take care of her, and Lois wanted her sister to become the legal guardian upon her death. Haley brought the paperwork to Lois so she could sign it. “I held her hand and told her everything was going to be okay. I wish there were words to describe the sense of peace that instantly washed over her,” Haley says. “Later when I returned to my office, I got a call from her sister thanking me for putting Lois at ease. Lois, she told me, died just hours after I left the room.”

Haley says, “I realized then that this project was not just about Lois, but about Lois’s sister and Lois’s daughter, and the impact and collateral damage that legal issues can have on the lives of people faced with illness.”

Estate planning turned out to be an area of the law that really spoke to Haley, and she is now taking her experience in that area to the private sector. However, she says “once you are a public interest lawyer, you are always a public interest lawyer. When you start your career doing this work, it becomes the foundation of your constitution and the lens through which you evaluate your contributions to your community.” As she embarks on a new path with new challenges and opportunities for growth, Haley is leaving in place a structure that will provide legal assistance to breast cancer patients for years to come.

 

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AmeriCorps Update

A Medical-Legal Partnership takes root in Arkansas

Kevin Robert de Liban is in the second year of his Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship at Legal Aid of Arkansas. His project aims to address the legal needs of people living in the more rural parts of the state. To do that, he has initiated and sustained a medical-legal partnership between Legal Aid of Arkansas and community health clinics in these rural areas. He recently sent us an update on how his project is going, and we wanted to share it with you. We’re proud of the great work Kevin is doing in Arkansas, and grateful to the Corporation for National Community Service for making it possible.

Legal Aid of Arkansas has launched medical-legal partnerships with Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock and several community health clinics in the more rural region of the Mississippi River Delta. One of these clinics, Lee County Cooperative Clinic in Marianna, AR, has a history itself rooted in the service of Vista workers during the late 1960s. At that time, brave local advocates and "foreign" Vista workers (as local antagonists labeled them) came together to found the community health clinic in the face of significant and sometimes violent racist opposition. Forty-three years later, Lee County Cooperative Clinic is a trusted community institution dedicated to serving all the residents of the surrounding areas. Legal Aid of Arkansas attorneys make the one-hour drive along a soy- and cotton-lined highway to the clinic twice per month to see patients who have legal needs in this high-poverty region of the state

In May 2012, the clinic held a major breast cancer screening event as part of its commitment to women's and community health issues.  By virtue of our close partnership, the clinic invited Legal Aid of Arkansas to be there and suggested that the safe space created by the screening would be an opportune time to discuss domestic violence, a significant issue in the region.  Without domestic violence shelters or formal domestic violence resources, domestic violence issues fall to local lay advocates who host weekly meetings for survivors in city hall.  To complement these local efforts, Elizabeth Tonti, a Legal Aid of Arkansas attorney, AmeriCorps Volunteer, and long-time domestic violence advocate, went to the screening and invited women to come speak with her about myriad legal issues.  

Drawn by a live band, Zumba classes, and of course the screenings, over 100 women came to the clinic. Many of them came to visit with Elizabeth about various aspects of domestic violence and family law, including orders of protection, custody and visitation issues, and divorce. The event highlighted the opportunities for creative collaboration between organizations who serve the same people in different ways. It is this kind of holistic approach to care that can empower people with the tools they need to make their lives better.

 

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Educational Debt Tip of the Month

Stay out of default – consider cohort default rates and learn about borrower protections

The Department of Education released the first official three-year cohort default rates on September 28, and the results are sobering. The new rates show that more than 3.6 million borrowers entered repayment between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2009 and 13.4 percent of them – 489,000 borrowers – had already defaulted within three years. That’s more than one in eight.

Since cohort default rates measure how many federal student loan borrowers default within a certain time period after entering repayment, they are an important measurement of how students fare after graduation.

Anyone applying to school should consider prospective institutions’ default rates. You can use the sortable cohort default rate spreadsheets at TICAS’ Project on Student Debt. Another great resource is the Washington Monthly’s College Guide which ranks colleges by the real value they provide students.

Federal student loans have important protections – including deferment, forbearance and income-driven repayment plans like Income-Based Repayment (IBR) – that can help you avoid default. So, despite the sobering default rates, students should borrow federal student loans (and avoid private loans) whenever possible.

And whether you’re thinking about borrowing or already have student loans, learn about these protections so you can take advantage of them if needed.

To learn more about how programs like IBR work, attend one of our free student debt webinars. Our new ebook, Take Control of Your Future, offers a range of information on student debt relief and will be available in the Kindle Store later this month.

 

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Illinois Foreclosure Fellowship

Equal Justice Works has been awarded a grant by the state of Illinois to establish four 3-year Fellowships in the state to assist distressed and at-risk homeowners and tenants. The Foreclosure Fellows will be placed with our partner organizations—Chicago Legal Clinic, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, and the University of Illinois College of Law and Community Preservation Clinic.

We are currently seeking Illinois-licensed attorneys, or recent law graduates who have taken and passed the July Illinois bar exam, with up to two years of work experience.  Applicants should have a demonstrated record of ensuring equal access to the justice system for all homeowners and renters. The application and procedures are available on our website. Applicants must submit their materials by October 24. The three-year Fellowships will begin December 1, 2012. Each host organization may set the Fellow’s salary commensurate to what an attorney with similar experience and/or responsibility would receive at that organization.  Equal Justice Works will provide up to $41,000 toward that salary level. If the salary exceeds $41,000, then the organization will provide the remaining amount. Host organizations will also provide health insurance benefits and other employment benefits.Please direct all questions to Kathryn Gravely, Program Manager at kgravely@equaljusticeworks.org or (202) 466-3686 ext. 125.