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Walter Jean-Jacques Discusses his Journey to Public Interest Law

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Walter Jean-Jacques is a second-year law student at the University of Notre Dame Law School, and a member of both the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors and the National Advisory Committee (NAC).

Photo of Walter Anthony Jean-Jacques
Photo of Walter Anthony Jean-Jacques

You have a clear passion for public interest law as shown by your work with student organizations at Notre Dame Law and through your many internships. What inspired you to become a public interest leader at your school?

When I began law school, there was a faculty member and individual in the career development office that provided public interest opportunities, but no particular student advocating for this subset of experiences throughout the country. [The NAC opportunity] caught my attention my 1L year and filled me with vigor to become the “public interest person” at Notre Dame.

What drew you to public interest law?

Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, I witnessed inequities on a day-to-day basis. I was constantly asking, “Why hasn’t this person received rightful representation?’ and “Why has this inequality not been addressed in the legal realm?” It made me wonder if there were actually people doing the work to help these people. In school, I did a report on Thurgood Marshall, and I was enamored. I saw how his work helped the communities around him, and I knew I wanted to be like him. From that point on, every life decision I made was with his legacy in mind. From my internships at civil rights organizations to teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools, I’ve always felt a calling to work in the public interest sector.

Walter Jean-Jacques is interviewed by Equal Justice Works Communications Intern Catherine Williams

One of the ways that you serve on your campus is through the Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee. As a member representing the mid-west region, what are some of your responsibilities?

As a member of the National Advisory Committee, I make sure member law schools in the mid-west region are aware of the different Equal Justice Works opportunities available to law students and law school professionals. Some of those opportunities include the Conference and Career Fair, the Rural Summer Legal Corps, and the Design Your Own Fellowships and Fellowship Programs.

At the 2018 Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair, you participated on the Student Advocacy Summit panel, where you spoke about planning successful public interest events at your school. Can you share some best practices for organizing and advocating for public interest initiatives on law school campuses?

When organizing and advocating for public interest initiatives on law school campuses, some of the best practices are to be open and ask difficult questions with law school leadership. For example, after my first National Advisory Committee meeting, I was inspired by the Equal Justice Works resources that are available to students who want to pursue a public interest career. Promptly, I went to my Dean’s office to discuss how to make those resources accessible for students. From securing funding for the Conference and Career Fair to organizing on-campus events with public interest speakers, communication with law school leadership can help students become more interested in pursuing a public interest career.

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

I joke that being a part of the board of directors was one of the best birthday presents because I found out I was selected on my birthday. It has been a phenomenal experience to not only advocate on behalf of students who are interested in pursuing public interest law, but to be in the room with so many leaders who are advocating for equal justice for all. Picking the brains of judges and nonprofit presidents about issues that impact students and equal justice on a day-to-day basis has allowed me to become a better advocate. And, in return, I have been able to better advocate for students. As a member of the board, I hold an equal say alongside my peers, which allows me to be vocal about important issues: “How can I advocate for students? How am I making sure that student voices are being heard?” Overall, I am very grateful for the experience.

In what ways have these opportunities—from the National Advisory Committee to the board of directors—helped to set the foundation for your legal career?

These opportunities have helped me to see myself as a public interest leader. At six years old, I was advocating for lawyers to come back to communities like mine and serve the needs of the people. It is empowering to now be providing those opportunities as a board member, and by advocating for students to do the work as a member of the National Advisory Committee.

Lastly, what advice would you give to incoming law students who are interested in becoming public interest leaders at their schools?

Don’t shy away from your interests. There’s a reason you were drawn to public interest leadership. Don’t be quiet—your passion and resilience is especially needed right now. Everyone comes from a unique background and I believe those qualities and differences foster talented advocates. And, we need many more advocates to help inspire the next generation of public interest lawyers.

There’s a reason you were drawn to public interest leadership. Don’t be quiet—your passion and resilience is especially needed right now.

Walter Jean-Jacques /
Rising 3L, Notre Dame Law School
Member, Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee & Board of Directors

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow