My Impact: A Conversation with 2017 Equal Justice Works Fellow Darlene Hemerka

/ Blog Post

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. In honor of the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Director of Law School Engagement and Advocacy Brooke Meckler spoke with Darlene Hemerka, a 2017 Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP. Darlene currently works as a staff attorney at the Legal Clinic for the Disabled.

Darlene Hemerka is a lifelong advocate for people with disabilities. Having been diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, Darlene knows firsthand what it’s like to be discriminated against because of your disability.

During her undergraduate studies, Darlene created a disability rights organization for students and served on her school’s Chancellor’s Disability Advisory Council, helping to advise faculty and staff on how to increase accessibility for people with disabilities. Despite being a vocal advocate for disability rights, Darlene experienced discrimination at her university.If they can do that to me, as somebody who is extremely active and outspoken about my disability and disability rights, how do they treat other people,” she asked herself. “That was really the moment I knew I wanted to go to law school and pursue disability rights.”

Fueled by a passion to make a difference, Darlene spent her first summer of law school at a disability policy organization in California. While it was a fruitful experience that taught her to be a more effective advocate for disability rights, she realized that working to change policies was only worth it, if they could be implemented. “You can have the best policy in the world, but if nobody is enforcing it, then it doesn’t really do so much,” Darlene noted. “So, I decided to transition my focus from policy advocacy to litigation.”

In 2017, Darlene joined the Public Interest Law Center as an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP. During her Fellowship, she advocated for students with disabilities in the Philadelphia School District and shared resources with students and their families about secondary transition services. These services aim to “help students prepare for life after school … [and gain] education, employment, and independent living skills,” said Darlene. “[My Fellowship was also about] educating students about what their rights were, and why they should really be in the driver’s seat as much as possible.”

Darlene also shared advice for law students and new lawyers when it comes to approaching organizations to design a Fellowship project. “If you have either a project that you are particularly interested in or a subject area, like disability rights for me, find organizations that align with those values. And then don’t be shy [about reaching out],” she advised. “I mean, the worst thing they can do is tell you ‘no, we’re not applying’ or, ‘we’re selecting someone we’ve had as an intern.’ Expect to hear the word ‘no’ quite a bit… but [understand] part of that persistence is going to pay off as a public interest lawyer because you’re going to hear ‘no’ a lot.”

During the application process, Darlene also encouraged candidates to reach out to Fellows for guidance on how to craft a top-tier project proposal, just like she did. “It’s been my experience that everyone is super willing to talk to you if you’re willing to reach out and ask,” she said.

Expect to hear the word ‘no’ quite a bit… but [understand] part of that persistence is going to pay off as a public interest lawyer because you're going to hear ‘no’ a lot.

Darlene Hemerka /
2017 Equal Justice Works Fellow

When asked to share advice to law students and future Fellows, Darlene stressed the following: “There’s no straight path to public interest. If you don’t get a Fellowship, the first time you apply, that doesn’t mean you’re never going to get a Fellowship. If public interest is what drives you and is your passion, just don’t give up on that. Continue to look for ways to develop those skills and make it shine on your resume that you really are committed to public interest, even if it’s not your full-time day job.”

Following her Equal Justice Works Fellowship, Darlene stayed on with the Public Interest Law Center for a year and half before transitioning to a staff attorney role at Philadelphia-based nonprofit Legal Clinic for the Disabled.

To learn more about Darlene’s experience advocating for people with disabilities, both during and after her Equal Justice Works Fellowship, watch the full interview here.

Interested in kickstarting your public interest law career as a 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow? Visit here to apply for a 2022 Design-Your-Own Fellowship before the September 20, 2021 deadline!

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow