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My Impact: A Conversation with 2014 Fellow Annie Lee

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My Impact is a conversation series from Equal Justice Works, using interviews with alumni to shine a light on what’s possible with an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Program Specialist Sarah Jasper spoke with Annie Lee, a 2014 Fellow in the Design-Your-Own Fellowship Program and chair of the Alumni Advisory Council. As a Fellow, Annie was hosted by the National Center for Youth Law.

Annie Lee began her professional career as a history teacher in the Bronx—a role that gave her firsthand insight into the obstacles facing her students, which inspired her pivot to public interest lawyering on behalf of underserved students. “What I realized in my time teaching is that [students] faced so many barriers outside of our classroom and our school,” Annie explained. “I was really interested in trying to address some of those, and so that’s why I went to law school.”

Early in her legal career, Annie learned to leverage resources, her network, and the experiences available to her to become a strong advocate. These skills proved useful when she chose to pursue an Equal Justice Works Design-Your-Own Fellowship. Throughout the application process, Annie relied on her public interest peers, who helped her navigate the complexities of law school, define her Fellowship, and clarify what she wanted her long-term public interest career to look like. She highly recommends that potential Fellows do the same and lean on their networks to maintain strong connections in the public interest community.

In 2014, Annie began her Equal Justice Works Fellowship, where she worked with the National Center for Youth Law to improve educational outcomes for foster youth. “People view foster youth as a child welfare issue [without acknowledging] the other aspects of [a] child’s life,” explained Annie, “including schooling.” Her Fellowship also advocated for increased transparency in how school districts utilized their funding, and directly represented students in special education and in school disciplinary matters.

Throughout the conversation, Annie emphasized the value of collaboration. She recommends reaching out to others in the public interest community for help, citing the work she did with her host organization to define the focus of her Fellowship during the application stage. “It’s not just on you to figure out this new idea,” Annie stated. “You can work with other people to… take that pressure off yourself.”

Annie was able to have a smooth transition from her Fellowship into the next step of her career by having a conversation about new opportunities with her supervisor at her host organization. For those who are not sure what next steps to take after their Fellowship, Annie advised: “life is not linear… there is no right next step—it is whatever step you choose. Choosing one thing for the immediate future does not necessarily foreclose other things.”

Through her extensive public interest experience in varying roles, Annie has developed a lot of advice for those who are starting out in public interest, including what steps were most helpful to get her to where she is today. One important step is setting boundaries and remembering to care for yourself, as well as your clients, to avoid burnout. To set helpful boundaries, Annie recommended reaching out to people you trust at your place of employment and asking them about their experience. Having this conversation with your employer will give you a good idea of what to expect as an employee.

Annie also advised current law students who are looking for inspiration for their project to join clinics related to their interests. “It is the best learning experience… far better than any doctrinal class you can [take],” said Annie. She so highly recommends clinics to young professionals because her experience in a clinic clarified her path forward in two ways: it showed her what content area of law she wanted to focus on, and it let her test out which kinds of legal tasks she found to be the most engaging.

Annie’s last bit of advice for anyone looking into a career in public interest was to leverage the experiences available to you in law school. “Clinics, externships, summer internships… [use these] to figure out the content that you’d like to work in, the skills you’d like to build, and the geographical region that you want to be in.” One of the most helpful tools along the way, besides her Fellowship experience, was her network, which she began building through experiences like internships. Her connections in the public interest field helped her land her Fellowship at the National Center for Youth Law and continue to help her in her current job as the Director of Policy at Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) and in her advocacy as a co-founder of the national Stop AAPI Hate coalition.

In addition to an extensive professional career, Annie stayed involved with Equal Justice Works after her Fellowship through the Alumni Advisory Council. She now uses her networking skills to foster connections within the Equal Justice Works alumni community. “One of the best parts of being on the Alumni Advisory Council is the diversity… we’ve got folks from all across the country, but also [from] different fields, different types of Fellowships and different parts of their career,” Annie explained. “I really like when we come together and leverage our skills and experiences to give back to the Equal Justice Works community.”

To learn more about Annie’s work advocating for educational rights, watch the full interview here.

Interested in kickstarting your own public interest law career? Visit here to apply for a 2023 Design-Your-Own Fellowship before the September 13, 2022, deadline!

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow