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In the Spotlight: Equal Justice Works Board Member Michael J. Harding Discusses How Law Schools Can Better Support Black and Brown Students

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Photo of Michael J. Harding

Michael J. Harding, a rising third-year law student at Villanova University and a member of both the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors and the National Advisory Committee (NAC), recently chatted with Equal Justice Works about serving on his campus and in the community and how these experiences have helped to set the foundation for his legal career.

You have a clear passion for public interest law as shown by your work on campus at Villanova University and in the community. What inspired you to become a public interest leader?

I always believed that the true reflection of our character is how we treat people living on society’s margins. Bryan Stevenson, my role model and the founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative exemplifies this foundational principle through his work. In my view, lawyers like Bryan advance justice by harnessing the law’s immense potential for good. As an aspiring public interest lawyer, I aim to leverage diverse voices to challenge existing power structures and legal frameworks that perpetuate systemic injustices.

One of the ways you serve on your campus is through the Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee. What are some of your responsibilities as a member?

The primary responsibility of a National Advisory Committee (NAC) member is to serve as a link between Equal Justice Works’ Law School Engagement and Advocacy team (LSEA) and our law school communities. In part, this includes sharing the resources and opportunities that Equal Justice Works has to offer with my peers and career service professionals. Further, NAC members report back to Equal Justice Works staff on public interest legal issues, trends, and events happening in our regions. Additionally, we assist Equal Justice Works in planning the annual Conference and Career Fair and select recipients of the Regional Public Interest Awards.

What are some projects and/or initiatives you are working on at your law school? 

I’m launching a new public interest law blog at Villanova University School of Law, where I will serve as its Editor-in-Chief. This blog will function as a student-run online publication where law student writers will concisely analyze and discuss current public interest legal issues and trends. Additionally, it will help promote and coordinate the Anti-Poverty Symposium held at Villanova Law. While the website for the blog is currently being built, it will be up soon so that the incoming staff writers will have a platform to publish their work.

As a public interest leader, you have served as a role model to young Black and brown students. Why is it important to provide law students access to mentors who have experienced similar challenges and difficulties? 

We’ve all seen the disappointing statistics showing how few Black and brown lawyers and law students there are in our profession. The legal profession, including law school, reflects an essential, yet often difficult to attain, vocation. Many Black and brown law students struggle with imposter syndrome while trying to navigate the highly competitive, established, and white-dominated arena in their pursuit of a career in law. As one such student, I have made a concerted effort to connect with mentors who look like me while also reflecting a world full of endless possibilities in the profession.

It’s important for law students, especially those who are first-generation, to have access to mentors who relate to them for several reasons. First, these mentors understand the unique struggles of students and see us for more than grades or rankings. Such a mentorship reminds students why we entered law school and whom we aim to serve once we graduate. Second, these mentors expand the scope of what students believe we can achieve despite the explicit and tacit forces suggesting that we don’t belong. Finally, connecting Black and brown law students to mentors who can relate helps students remember that we can transform our feelings of fear or self-doubt into fuel to persist, overcome, and achieve.

What are some steps law schools can take to better provide career and academic support for Black and brown students? 

Law schools should fund opportunities and programs that recruit, retain, support, and graduate Black and brown law students. It would be helpful for them to publicly advertise and financially support existing programs like The Appellate Project that are designed to provide support for Black and brown students. Law schools should also ask their Black and brown students what specific support they need, collaborate with them to provide it, and then ensure those students’ needs are met on a regular basis. These are just a few examples of many, but I believe they will help Black and brown students thrive in any law school environment.

Last year, you became a member of the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors. How has the experience been so far?

My experience on the Board has been surreal. Go look at the list of members and you’ll see why I feel this way. The list includes general counsels of major companies, chairpersons of Am Law 100 firms, federal circuit court judges, law school deans, President Obama’s former Solicitor General, public interest leaders, and more. It’s been an incredible opportunity to work with and learn from some of the brightest legal minds in the country. As a Board member, I’ve been fortunate to learn the inner workings of a national nonprofit organization, and to assist its mission to mobilize future public service leaders. In short, I’m eternally grateful for this experience and look forward to helping Equal Justice Works thrive in the years ahead.

In what ways have these opportunities—from the National Advisory Committee to the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors—helped to set the foundation for your legal career?

These experiences have reaffirmed my commitment to pursue a career serving those on society’s margins through justice-oriented lawyering and policy making. Moreover, the extraordinary network I’ve cultivated within the NAC and Board will allow me to access opportunities to advance my public interest legal career. Serving in these two groups has been an honor, and I’ll take the lessons I’ve learned with me wherever my career leads me.

Lastly, what advice would you give to law students interested in becoming public interest leaders at their schools but unsure of where to start?

My three pieces of advice are to serve as an Equal Justice Works student representative on your law school campus, to become an Equal Justice Works ambassador and join its National Advisory Committee, and to sign up to volunteer at events hosted by your school’s pro bono society. Whatever you decide to do, get involved. You won’t regret it!

Visit here to learn more about ways that you can serve on your law school campus.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow