Collaborating Across the Nation, Fellows Team Up to Protect the Civil Legal Needs of the Underserved

By Hana Hausnerova, director at Equal Justice Works

Across the country, millions of low-income Americans struggle with civil legal problems like accessing safe and stable housing conditions, healthcare, disability benefits, and veterans’ benefits; or seeking protection from domestic violence or economic exploitation. Even more unfortunate: 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help whatsoever due to a lack of resources to serve them.

To help bridge this justice gap, Equal Justice Works designed issue-specific Fellowship programs that bring together a team of lawyers and non-lawyers like community advocates and law students at the local, state, or national level to respond to a legal issue at scale and in a coordinated manner. Through this Fellowship program model, Fellows have the opportunity to work collaboratively and share resources with one another, enabling them to be more effective advocates. Since the inception of this program model, thousands of Fellows, Community Organizers, and Student Fellows have collaborated to make meaningful and measurable collective impact by addressing a range of critical legal aid issues, including eviction and foreclosure prevention, expungement, disaster preparedness and relief, immigration, elder abuse, human trafficking, indigent defense, and veterans’ assistance.

Photo of Daryl F. Hayott

“Being part of a Fellowship Program is essential to tackling high pressure, high value civil legal problems, like the eviction crisis in Virginia,” said Daryl F. Hayott, a 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Housing Justice Program. “As part of the Fellowship program, we can split up responsibilities while working in a coordinated fashion and making best use of each Fellows’ skill set while also being able to cover more area and help more clients.”

Being part of a Fellowship Program is essential to tackling high pressure, high value civil legal problems, like the eviction crisis in Virginia.

Daryl F. Hayott /
2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Housing Justice Program

As the nation’s largest provider of post-graduate public interest Fellowship opportunities, Equal Justice Works has a long, successful track record running Fellowship programs—since 1993, we have implemented more than 25 federally and privately-funded Fellowship Programs, with a total value of over $50 million. In the last five years alone, Equal Justice Works has administered 12 federally and privately-funded Fellowship Programs.

Through the Fellowship program model, Fellows focus on a specific issue area, helping to break down barriers to justice for individuals and families by:

  • Providing direct legal services
  • Creating referral networks
  • Conducting outreach and education events for low-income individuals and training other attorneys and allied professionals
  • Cultivating civic and political will
  • Increasing service capacity of host legal services organizations through developing community partnerships and best practice tools and resources
  • Strengthening collaboration among host legal services organizations

Equal Justice Works supports Fellows by providing customized training and technical assistance to build legal skills, encourage collaboration, and leverage a community of practice to achieve collective impact. Beyond providing direct legal services to target communities, our Fellowship program model makes it possible to build capacity for the legal aid community by seeding the field with trained attorneys who will develop and bring best practices and tools for more effective service delivery to their organizations and community partnerships, even after their Fellowship ends.

For example, through our Department of Justice-funded program, the Crime Victims Justice Corps, between 2018 to 2020, 62 Fellows and 44 law students assisted more than 4,000 crime victims, including 2,336 human trafficking survivors. Following the two-year Fellowship, 65% of the Fellows were hired by their host organizations and continue to leverage their network and connections developed during the program.

Photo of Stephanie Martinez
Photo of Stephanie Martinez

“The Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program gave me an opportunity to focus my immigration law practice on working with survivors of trafficking,” said Stephanie Martinez, a 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Crime Victims Justice Corps. “I was able to gain crucial training and experience to best represent my clients, and after my Fellowship, I was able to secure a grant to continue to work with immigrant survivors of trafficking. I am now a supervising attorney at my organization and continue to focus on anti-trafficking.”

The Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program gave me an opportunity to focus my immigration law practice on working with survivors of trafficking.

Stephanie Martinez /
2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Crime Victims Justice Corps

Equal Justice Works also runs privately-funded programs on disaster recovery and preparedness. In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, we established the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, mobilizing 23 attorneys to provide free civil legal services to low-income and marginalized communities affected by these disasters in Texas and Florida. From 2018 to 2020, Fellows in the program provided legal information and services to more than 30,000 individuals and secured nearly $3 million in economic benefits for clients, through fines and fee waivers, FEMA assistance, and housing related matters such as title disputes and rent. Additionally, 90% of the Fellows’ supervisors reported that their legal services organization had increased capacity to serve disaster survivors in their community as a result of the program.

Photo of Brittany Perrigue Gomez
Photo of Brittany Perrigue Gomez

“The Equal Justice Works Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has provided Fellows who represent those impacted by disasters the ability to expand disaster legal knowledge and give new breadth to being a disaster focused attorney as a career path,” said Brittanny Perrigue Gomez, 2018 Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid disaster benefits team manager.

“Being part of an Equal Justice Works Corps has allowed me to find others who are as passionate about the disaster legal issues that impact families across Texas and provide me support and friendships that will last far beyond my Fellowship. As a corps we are far more effective than working alone.” Brittanny Perrigue Gomez, 2017 Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps.

Being part of an Equal Justice Works Corps has allowed me to find others who are as passionate about the disaster legal issues that impact families across Texas.

Brittanny Perrigue Gomez /
2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Disaster Recovery Legal Corps

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Fellows in our programs already had an established virtual network and continued collaborating virtually, through listservs and pre-scheduled monthly Fellow meetings. This collaboration allowed Fellows to quickly identify best practices and refine service and outreach delivery to meet the new needs of their communities in a hybrid virtual and in-person way. Fellows also had a preexisting support network of their peers and Equal Justice Works staff and alumni. Our Fellowship Programs create lifelong networks for our Fellows and develops passionate, well-trained, and connected public service leaders ready to make change happen.

Equal Justice Works set me up for success as a public interest attorney.

Dianna Torres /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow
New Mexico Immigration Corps

Diana Torres Headshot
Photo of Diana Torres

“Equal Justice Works set me up for success as a public interest attorney,” said 2020 Fellow Diana Torres in the New Mexico Immigration Corps. “[Equal Justice Works gave me] the opportunity to pursue my interest in immigration law and provided me many opportunities for professional development by organizing yearly conferences where I could learn from my peers and from seasoned public interest attorneys who gave me a glimpse into what my career could look like long term.”

We continue to explore ways to expand our Fellowships programs, and are seeking partners to help us do so. If you’d like to learn more about partnering with Equal Justice Works, please reach out to us at [email protected]

By April Hewko, program manager at Equal Justice Works, with contributions from Adriel Orozco, executive director at New Mexico Immigrant Law Center and 2016 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Immigration law is incredibly complex and ever-changing, making it nearly impossible to navigate without the guidance of a lawyer. Through our Fellowship opportunities, Equal Justice Works has made a clear commitment to increasing access to justice for immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Since 1993, we’ve created 386 Fellowship opportunities focused on supporting immigrant populations, most recently mobilizing a network of 7 paralegals and 6 lawyers (Fellows) who were hosted by the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC).

From 2016 to 2020, the New Mexico Immigration Corps deployed lawyers and paralegals to provide critically needed legal aid to immigrant children and families throughout New Mexico; the team of 13 paralegal and attorney Fellows served more than 7,400 immigrant individuals through consultations, provision of legal information, and/or direct representation. A primary goal of the program was to create a pipeline of new and prospective lawyers from the immigrant community and communities of color into the public interest sector in New Mexico.

Photo of the New Mexico Immigration Corps Fellows. Top row (L-R): Deshawnda Chaparro, Eduardo Garcia, Martha Laura Garcia Izaguirre. Bottom row (L-R): Adriel Orozco, Diana Torres, Rebekah Wolf.

Throughout the four-year program, Fellows partnered with public interest programs at the University of New Mexico School of Law to create opportunities for law students interested in working with immigrant populations; collaborated to increase the representation of historically marginalized individuals in the legal profession; coordinated with more than 40 pro bono attorneys interested in supporting low-income immigrants; and worked with community organizations to provide holistic services and support. More broadly, the program addressed racial equity in the nonprofit and legal sector in New Mexico by ensuring Fellows came from the communities they served, while including impacted communities in decision making, and collaborating with like-minded organizations that prioritized equity.

Restrictive immigration policies at the federal level over the past four years and during the more recent COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Fellows’ work environment and how they were able to serve the immigrant community. However, due to the flexibility of the Fellowship, program participants were able to respond to the increased arrests of immigrants, the continuing needs of DACA recipients, and the detention of asylum seekers throughout the last four years. Fellows were also able to focus their work on the needs that were exacerbated because of the pandemic (e.g., language access, criminal and immigration detention, and screening for additional needs such as housing assistance) by transitioning to electronic formats and collaborating with other organizations to advocate for more protections and resources for the immigrant community. This was a priority for the Fellows as the pandemic disproportionately affects Black, Latinx, and immigrant workers.

Over the course of the program, Fellows conducted more than 250 legal education community outreach events and activities for over 6,500 participants, such as citizenship and DACA pro se workshops and Know Your Rights presentations and trainings. These events, as well as regular individual consultations with clients, were essential over the last four years, as laws and policies changes caused confusion, fear, and insecurity for clients and the community in general.

Fellows in the New Mexico Immigration Corps benefitted from collaborating with partner organizations and other Equal Justice Works alumni and Fellows in their cohort. The cohort model provides the opportunity for Fellows to have hands-on experience in specific issue areas and become a part of a core group of dedicated practitioners who share a common passion, learn together, share resources, innovate, problem-solve, and build a stronger community of practice.

“I learned a lot and greatly benefitted from being able to meet and confer with other Fellows nationwide. I got a lot of support from the host organization and was given access to all the tools I needed,” said Martha Laura Garcia Izaguirre, 2017 Equal Justice Works Fellow.

I learned a lot and greatly benefitted from being able to meet and confer with other Fellows nationwide. I got a lot of support from the host organization and was given access to all the tools I needed.

Martha Laura Garcia Izaguirre /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Following the four-year program, NMILC has been able to secure grants to sustain the positions of six of the seven Fellows. Adriel Orozco, executive director of NMILC and 2016 Equal Justice Works Fellow, reflected, “The New Mexico Immigration Corps allowed NMILC to strengthen its supervision and mentorship programs, particularly with a racial equity lens. Additionally, the project allowed NMILC to be responsive to the many challenges that arose for the immigrant community because of anti-immigrant policies at the federal level as well as the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Equal Justice Works is looking for opportunities to expand its reach of immigration-related cohorts in the future. One such way is by increasing efforts to expand its Disaster Resilience Program, which helps communities, including immigrant communities, before, during, and after a disaster, including COVID-19.

We are proud of what our Fellows in the New Mexico Immigration Corps have achieved over the last four years, providing direct legal services and outreach and strengthening the pipeline of legal talent in New Mexico to serve immigrant families.

The New Mexico Immigration Corps program was funded with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other donors.