Equal Justice Works Names Verna Williams as CEO

Photo of Verna L. Williams
Photo of Verna Williams, courtesy of the University of Cincinnati College of Law
WASHINGTON, July 21, 2022  — Equal Justice Works, the nation’s largest facilitator of opportunities in public interest law, today announced that Verna Williams will be the organization’s new CEO.

Verna comes to Equal Justice Works from the University of Cincinnati College of Law, where she currently serves as the dean, and brings decades of experience both practicing and teaching law, specializing in constitutional law, critical race theory, race and the law, family law, and feminist legal theory. In her role as CEO, Verna will build on the 36-year history of Equal Justice Works, an organization founded by law students, which currently has more than 200 Fellows and 2,300 alumni, 85% of whom remain in public service positions following their Fellowship.

“The mission of Equal Justice Works to create opportunities for leaders to transform their passion for equal justice into a lifelong commitment to public service is an admirable one that means so much to me personally. Throughout my career, while I was at the Department of Justice, the National Women’s Law Center, and the University of Cincinnati College of Law, public interest law has truly been at the heart of my work, especially with a focus on civil rights and women’s rights. At this time, when economic security remains out of reach for too many and long-standing legal protections are in jeopardy, the mission of Equal Justice Works and the work of the Fellows is more important than ever. It’s an honor to join this organization,” said Verna Williams, incoming CEO of Equal Justice Works.

“Verna has an impressive background and experience practicing law, driving educational opportunities in public interest law, and leading a law school — all of which relates to the work and community of Equal Justice Works. She has a clear vision for the future of the organization; a strong record of championing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; and she has a demonstrated ability to lead and build connections across groups within the community. Given her experience, vision, and personal qualities, I am thrilled and enthusiastic about welcoming Verna to the leadership of Equal Justice Works,” said Ivan Fong, Chair of the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors.

“Verna is an outstanding choice to be the next leader of Equal Justice Works,” said David Stern, Executive Director of Equal Justice Works. “For 30 years, I have been inspired by the students, Fellows, and alumni who are on the front lines challenging systemic injustice and making a lasting impact in the communities where they serve. At a time when injustices proliferate, there is an unprecedented appetite among law students and lawyers to devote themselves to public service. Equal Justice Works is poised to respond, and Verna is the right choice to be the next leader of this organization.”

At this time, when economic security remains out of reach for too many and long-standing legal protections are in jeopardy, the mission of Equal Justice Works and the work of the Fellows is more important than ever. It’s an honor to join this organization.

Verna Williams /
Incoming CEO of Equal Justice Works

Verna most recently served as the Dean of the College of Law at the University of Cincinnati, where she began working as a member of the faculty in 2001 teaching areas of family law, gender discrimination, and constitutional law. She also founded and co-directed the College’s Judge Nathaniel Jones Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Prior to her roles at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, Verna was the Vice President and Director of Educational Opportunities at the National Women’s Law Center, focusing on gender equity in education. Additionally, Verna clerked for the Honorable David S. Nelson, U.S. District Judge for the District of Massachusetts, and, following her clerkship, she practiced law at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, DC, and at the U.S. Department of Justice. Verna graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School and Georgetown University.

Verna Williams will join Equal Justice Works as CEO on September 19. Learn more about Verna here.

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About Equal Justice Works

Equal Justice Works is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for lawyers to transform their passion for equal justice into a lifelong commitment to public service. As the nation’s largest facilitator of opportunities in public interest law, Equal Justice Works brings together an extensive network of law students, lawyers, advocates, legal services organizations, and supporters to build a community committed to fulfilling our nation’s promise of equal justice for all.

Contact
Sarah Lackritz
Vice President of Marketing & Communications
Email: [email protected]

Equal Justice Works is excited to announce that we are accepting nominations from our Alumni and Fellow community to fill an open position for a recent alum to serve on our Board of Directors beginning in 2023 for a three-year term.

We recruit new board members to strengthen our organization’s effectiveness and secure the resources we need to fund our very ambitious agenda to create opportunities for lawyers to transform their passion for equal justice into a lifelong commitment to public service.  

Our Board consists of national leaders from every corner of the profession: judges, corporate counsel, law firm partners, law students, alumni, academics, and public interest advocates. We recognize and appreciate that this diversity on our board is one of the organization’s strengths, and we appreciate that board members bring a variety of skills and capacities.    

We welcome and encourage our Alumni and Fellow community to participate in the nomination process for a recent alum—defined as an alum who has successfully completed an Equal Justice Works Fellowship within the past five years. For the current position eligibility, the nominee will have successfully completed their Fellowship in the period 2017 – 2021.  This board member will have full and equitable membership on the Board entailing the same rights, obligations, responsibilities, and expectations of every board member, including service for a three-year term. Self-nominations are accepted. 

We recognize and appreciate that diversity on our board is one of the organization’s strengths, and we appreciate that board members bring a variety of skills and capacities. In deciding whom to invite to join our board, we need to balance these skills and capacities with the organization’s needs. 

We seek a board member who exhibits the following characteristics:  

  • Commitment to the mission and goals of Equal Justice Works 
  • Willingness to give time and talent 
  • Willingness to contribute a personally significant gift (i.e., one of their top three charitable contributions) 
  • Willingness to ask others to contribute a gift 

We want the board overall to have members who bring/add: 

  • Networks or linkages to individuals and organizations which can help advance Equal Justice 
  • Works initiatives or fundraising goals 
  • Demonstrated executive leadership quotient/recognized public stature 
  • Strategic thinking skills 
  • Diversity  
  • Nonprofit Board expertise  
  • Experience working with complex organizations 

Click here to submit a nomination.  The application will close on July 20, 2022, and nominees who are selected to move forward in the process will be notified in October 2022.   

For more information about the application process, please reach out to [email protected]. Visit here to learn more about the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors.  

The following letter was sent to 2021 Fellows in response to feedback regarding host organization supporting payments. 

Dear Fellows,

Thank you for the feedback and conversation we have had to date. I acknowledge your dissatisfaction that we cannot accommodate your request to give each of you or your host organizations an additional $7,000.

As you know, Equal Justice Works is devoted to creating opportunities for lawyers to transform their passion for equal justice into a lifelong commitment to public service. We are always striving to do better. We don’t always get it right, but we are a learning organization that welcomes feedback and adapts when something can be improved, while also being thoughtful and deliberate about relationships, sustainability, fairness, and fiscal constraints in our community.

We are sympathetic to the very real challenges and concerns you have about public interest lawyer salaries. We appreciate your highlighting the significant disparity between the support we are providing to host organizations for first- and second- year Fellows beginning in September. You should know, however, that despite the $7,000 increase in supporting payments for the host organizations of the class of 2022, the median Fellow salary and distribution is very similar to what it was for the class of 2021.

Our biggest learning from our exchange is that five years is too long between adjusting host organization supporting payments, which they use to fund your salaries. Here is how we will move forward differently:

  • Beginning with the class of 2022, we will adjust our supporting payment to host organizations with each Fellowship class year. We will seek the advice of host organizations, sponsors, and our Fellowship alumni as we determine that increase.
  • We will continue to elevate public consciousness about the financial burdens and challenges public interest lawyers face and drive greater awareness of your contributions that clearly reflect the value of your work.

As always, we are grateful for your commitment to the work you do. We hope you will continue to make a positive impact for individuals, families, and communities across our country.

Thank you,
David Stern
Equal Justice Works Executive Director

Visit here for FAQS about host organization supporting payments.

Over the weekend, yet again we bore witness to the racist violence of our country. This horrific hate crime that resulted in the death of ten people is another painful reminder of just how much work is still needed to achieve racial justice in our country.

The actions we saw have brought new images of racism and injustice that Black communities continue to face. My thoughts are with the victims and their grieving families, as well as with our staff, Fellows, Alums, supporters, and host organizations in the Buffalo area.

As an organization committed to fulfilling our nation’s promise of equal justice for all, we have a strong obligation to stand up against racist violence. Black communities deserve better, they deserve justice. As always, I’m grateful to all our Fellows for fighting to enact meaningful change.

In solidarity,
David Stern
Equal Justice Works Executive Director

After 30 years of service, Equal Justice Works Executive Director David Stern will be retiring from the organization. With his pending departure, we are seeking a new executive director to build on David’s immeasurable impact, creating opportunities for law students and lawyers to transform their passion for equal justice into a lifelong commitment to public service.

Equal Justice Works is working with Russell Reynolds Associates to conduct a search for the next executive director of the organization. The next executive director will have the exciting opportunity to transform and shape Equal Justice Works for the next era of impact. We are seeking someone who can connect head and heart, express passion for the Equal Justice Works mission, and inspire others.  

View the full position description here.

Nomination and Application Process

Inquiries, nominations, and applications are invited. Interested candidates should submit, confidentially, a résumé and letter of interest to [email protected]   

Thank you for sharing this announcement with your networks and contacts. 

By Touri Goode, program coordinator at Equal Justice Works

Photo of the DRP Cohort 1 Fellows. Top row, L-R: Latasha Cooper, Stephanie Duke, and Hannah Dyal. Bottom row, L-R: Robert Flores, Meghan Smolensky, and Maria Vazquez.

The legal needs that emerge following a disaster are complex and difficult to navigate alone. Public interest lawyers play a crucial role in helping families overcome barriers to recovery in the aftermath of a disaster. Civil legal aid is a building block that helps create community sustainability, resilience, and preparedness for future disasters.

In June of 2020, Equal Justice Works launched the Disaster Resilience Program to help fulfill the need for equitable legal services before, during, and after a disaster occurs. Through the program, public interest lawyers work on-the-ground providing free civil legal aid to low-income communities in areas prone to disasters such as hurricanes, floods, winter storms, wildfires, and pandemics.

Photo of the DRP Cohort 1 Student Fellows. Top row, L-R: Kayla Barbour, Kyla Howard, and Andra Lehotay de León. Bottom row, L-R: Eric Rhoton, Shania Waugh, and Maya Wiemokly.

The first cohort of the Disaster Resilience Program mobilized six Fellows (public interest lawyers) who served from June 2020 to October 2021 in Texas and Florida. In the summer of 2021, they were joined by six student Fellows (law students) who worked alongside them to provide support and build their legal skills outside of the classroom.

“Being part of the Disaster Resilience Program allowed me to become a trusted stakeholder and partner within both the disaster networks and disability organizations,” said 2020 Fellow Stephanie Duke. “Having staff designated to disaster work allowed for consistency and representation of the needs of the disability community.”

Being part of the Disaster Resilience Program allowed me to become a trusted stakeholder and partner within both the disaster networks and disability organizations.

Stephanie Duke /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Disaster Resilience Program

Due to the nature of the Fellowship model, program participants had the opportunity to collaborate with each other, share resources and learn from each other so that they could be more effective advocates for their clients. As a result, the Fellows in the Disaster Resilience Program were able to make a significant impact in the communities where they served.

Fellows provided legal services to 545 individuals and 668 pro bono hours to disaster survivors, contributing to a staggering $670,235 in combined economic benefits gained for clients. Here are some top highlights from cohort one:

  • At Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, 2020 Fellow Hannah Dyal helped to file a lawsuit against FEMA for violating the Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit claims that FEMA had denied funds to victims of Winter Storm Uri and had not disclosed the rules for determining disaster aid.
  • Meghan Smolenksy, a 2020 Fellow at Lone Star Legal Aid assisted a client who lost his job after receiving a heart transplant. He could no longer work in his immunocompromised condition and did not qualify for unemployment payments. Meghan filed a CDC Declaration moratorium so that his landlord could not evict him. She was able to get her client rental assistance and the eviction case against him was eventually dismissed.
  • At YMCA International Services, 2020 Fellow Roberto Flores represented a widow of a U.S. Army veteran who was forced to remain in Canada because she wasn’t a legal permanent resident of the United States. Her home was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey along with her immigration documents. Roberto helped her to apply for a 601 Waiver and offered her pro bono representation and interview preparation. Her waiver for permanent residency was approved in May 2021.

“Being in the Disaster Resilience Program allowed me to stay focused specifically on disaster recovery work,” said Hannah on the benefits of the program. “If I had not been in the program, the cases I was working on would likely have been “non-priority” and I may not have been able to focus on those cases and clients.”

Being in the Disaster Resilience Program allowed me to stay focused specifically on disaster recovery work.

Hannah Deal /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Disaster Resilience Program

In addition to direct legal services, Fellows led community outreach and education efforts that included collaborating with 55 community organizations and conducting 4,000 disaster preparedness presentations and trainings. Program participants also authored a Disaster Attorney Guidebook that’s set to be released later this month. The Guidebook, a first of its kind, provides an overview of disaster assistance available under state and federal laws and outlines the steps that attorneys should take to ensure assistance reaches low-income disaster survivors.

Equal Justice Works is continuing its commitment to disaster recovery and preparedness, with a second cohort of Fellows who are being mobilized to serve communities in California, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Fellows in California will support communities affected by wildfires and provide education in wildfire prevention; in Louisiana, Fellows will serve communities impacted by housing instability, hurricanes, floods, and COVID-19; and Fellows in New Mexico will provide holistic legal services to immigrant families to help reduce the risk of harm from disasters.

To learn more about the Disaster Resilience Program, visit here.

Cohort 1 of the Disaster Resilience Program was funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, and the Bigglesworth Family Foundation.

Photo of Vivian Martinez

Equal Justice Works is proud to announce that Vivian Martinez has joined the organization’s board of directors as its newest member. Vivian is a second-year law student and Public Interest Scholar at LMU Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“Equal Justice Works was founded by law students, and they are still core to our mission.  We provide public interest opportunities, training, and educational debt assistance to enable these students to pursue their public interest dreams while in law school and beyond,” said David Stern, executive director at Equal Justice Works. “We are honored to welcome Vivian to the Board. She is an accomplished young leader whose passion for public interest law and commitment to serving her community make her a perfect addition to our Board of Directors.”

At LMU Loyola Law School, Vivian stays active on campus by volunteering at the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic, where she provides direct representation to individuals who are unable to obtain immigration legal services elsewhere. At the Clinic, Vivian also collaborates with other law students on advocacy projects to advance the rights of immigrant communities of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. In addition to her immigration advocacy work, Vivian is a member of La Raza de Loyola and the Disability Law Society at her school.

“As the first in my family to attend law school, I feel an enormous responsibility to channel my family’s strength as new Americans into action of my own,” said Vivian. “I am thrilled to grow the momentum of the Equal Justice Works mission and uplift diversity in the legal field for continuing generations of QTBIPOC law students and lawyers. It is my great privilege to contribute to the vision of advancing equal access to justice alongside the dedicated board and passionate staff at Equal Justice Works.”

I am thrilled to grow the momentum of the Equal Justice Works mission and uplift diversity in the legal field for continuing generations of QTBIPOC law students and lawyers.

Vivian Martinez /
Equal Justice Works Board Member

Vivian’s passion for public interest law extends beyond campus. Following her first year of law school, Vivian helped to provide critical legal services for people living in rural communities as part of the Rural Summer Legal Corps, a partnership between Equal Justice Works and the Legal Services Corporation that supports law students in serving rural communities each summer. During her Student Fellowship, Vivian was hosted at California Rural Legal Assistance, where she assisted with employment and immigration matters for LGBTQ+ rural communities in the Central Coast and Central Valley.

“My experience as an RSLC Student Fellow was fundamental to my journey in public interest law,” said Vivian. “The LGBTQ+ Program provided me with the training and mentorship necessary for a strong foundation in inclusive and affirming client representation. I gained invaluable skills to strengthen collaboration between clients and their legal team. The partnership between Equal Justice Works and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., made my commitment to those most marginalized possible and allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of our legal system and its impact on LGBTQ+ rural communities.”

After law school, Vivian plans to pursue a career in public service where she can draw on her experience in holistic services to uplift immigrant communities.

Visit here to view a full list of Equal Justice Works Board of Directors.

Headshot of David Stern
Photo of David Stern

Equal Justice Works is proud to announce that Equal Justice Works Executive Director David Stern is being awarded the 2022 Laurie D. Zelon Pro Bono Award by the Pro Bono Institute (PBI).

“It’s only fitting that PBI honor David in this, his year of retirement,” said Eve Runyon, PBI President and CEO. “We are thrilled to celebrate his many contributions to public interest law and a truly illustrious career.”

Each year, PBI presents the Laurie D. Zelon Pro Bono Award to an individual or organization for their exceptional commitment to pro bono legal services. David will be recognized this evening at the PBI Annual Conference held in Washington, D.C.

It’s only fitting that PBI honor David in this, his year of retirement. We are thrilled to celebrate his many contributions to public interest law and a truly illustrious career.

Eve Runyon /
President, CEO
Pro bono Institute

“Throughout my career, I’ve always been passionate about equal justice and creating opportunities for law students and lawyers to make an impact in our communities, and our country,” said David. “Receiving this award from the Pro Bono Institute is deeply humbling because of our shared commitment and enthusiasm for expanding access to justice for people most in need.”

In 1992, David joined Equal Justice Works, then known as the National Association for Public Interest Law (NAPIL), to launch its postgraduate fellowship program. In 1995, he was promoted to executive director.

During his time at Equal Justice Works, David has built an extraordinary community of lawyers from all corners of the profession. Under his leadership, Equal Justice Works has facilitated more than 2,300 public interest fellowships, with 85% of Fellows continuing to serve the public following their Fellowship. In addition, Equal Justice Works is a national expert on student debt relief and partners with more than 90% of ABA-accredited law schools to promote public interest law opportunities across the country.

Receiving this award from the Pro Bono Institute is deeply humbling because of our shared commitment and enthusiasm for expanding access to justice for people most in need.

David Stern /
Executive Director
Equal Justice Works

David has been recognized as a “Champion of Change” by the White House, as one of “The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America” by The National Law Journal, and as one of the “Greatest Washington Lawyers in the Past 30 Years” by The Legal Times. In 2006, he was honored by the Mississippi Center for Justice for bringing national attention to the legal needs of survivors of Hurricane Katrina and for creating Equal Justice Works’ Katrina Initiative, which deployed lawyers to the Gulf Coast region to help thousands of people left without homes, jobs, or social services.

David currently serves on the Advisory Committee for Voices for Civil Justice, a nonpartisan communications hub advancing fairness in America’s legal system. He is also a member of the Legal Services Corporation’s Leaders Council, which is dedicated to raising public awareness of the crisis in civil legal aid nationwide.

Visit here to learn more about David’s commitment to public service and here to learn more about the Laurie D. Zelon Pro Bono Award.

Kirkland & Ellis LLP litigation partner Erin Johnston joins the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors.

a photo of Erin Johnston, Johnson
Photo of Erin Johnston

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Equal Justice Works, the nation’s largest facilitator of opportunities in public interest law, today announced that Erin Johnston, a litigation partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, has been named to the organization’s board of directors.

“We are pleased to welcome Erin to the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors,” said David Stern, executive director at Equal Justice Works. “Her unwavering passion for pro bono work and serving communities is a passion we share at Equal Justice Works, and we look forward to drawing on her experience and knowledge to guide our vision for continued growth.”

A leader in the legal profession, Erin has been a powerful force in driving pro bono initiatives. At Kirkland & Ellis LLP, she has received the Pro Bono Service Award six times for her exceptional commitment. Erin has also been recognized by The Legal 500 U.S. for General Commercial Disputes, and was named a “Rising Star” in Business Litigation twice by Super Lawyers.

“It is a remarkable privilege to join the Equal Justice Works Board of Directors,” said Erin. “The impact of this organization on growing the field of young talent successfully pursuing public interest careers after law school is astounding, and the commitment of this Board to continued growth and excellence in this endeavor is unparalleled.  I’m honored to have the opportunity to contribute in every way I can.”

[Erin's] unwavering passion for pro bono work and serving communities is a passion we share at Equal Justice Works, and we look forward to drawing on her experience and knowledge to guide our vision for continued growth.

David Stern /
Executive Director
Equal Justice Works

At Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Erin represents Fortune 500 companies in complex business disputes in state and federal courts across the country. She has successfully handled products liability actions, contract disputes, class actions, securities and accounting fraud cases, antitrust matters, bankruptcy-related disputes, government investigations, and appeals. Erin also holds several leadership roles at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, including serving as chair of the Diversity Committee and the Women’s Leadership Initiative in the Washington, D.C., office.

Kirkland & Ellis LLP is one of the top law firm supporters of Equal Justice Works. Since 2012, Kirkland & Ellis LLP has invested more than $1 million to support 15 Equal Justice Works Fellowships.

The full list of Equal Justice Works Board of Directors members can be found here.

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About Equal Justice Works

Equal Justice Works is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for lawyers to transform their passion for equal justice into a lifelong commitment to public service. As the nation’s largest facilitator of opportunities in public interest law, Equal Justice Works brings together an extensive network of law students, lawyers, nonprofit legal aid organizations, and supporters to promote public service and inspire a lifelong commitment to equal justice.

Contact
Heena Patel
Marketing and Communications Director
Email: [email protected]

Join representatives from Equal Justice Works, The JPB Foundation, and JPMorgan Chase to learn more about the newest iteration of the Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program.

Virginia is home to five of the top ten evicting large cities in the United States—a housing crisis affecting thousands of tenants across the state who need legal representation. Yet for too many, our justice system is inaccessible.

Since 1993, Equal Justice Works has mobilized more than 250 lawyers and community organizers to combat housing instability. Since the Housing Justice Program was established in 2019, Fellows have provided legal services to individuals and families, advocated for their rights and engaged with community partners to address the systemic barriers contributing to housing instability in Virginia. In 2021, JPMorgan Chase and The JPB Foundation invested a total of $3.75 million to provide Equal Justice Works with the resources to expand the Housing Justice Program from Richmond, VA, to other communities with high eviction rates, such as Hampton Roads. The grants are a part of JPMorgan Chase’s announcement to award $8.6 million to six organizations to help improve household stability.

On Thursday, January 27, 2022, from 10:30–11:30 a.m. ET, join representatives from Equal Justice Works, The JPB Foundation, and JPMorgan Chase to learn more about the newest iteration of the Equal Justice Works Housing Justice Program at this press event

This virtual event will focus on how public-private partnerships help increase capacity of the legal aid community in Virginia, provide legal assistance to low-income families facing eviction, and advocate for policies and practices that protect the rights of tenants. Partnerships between Equal Justice Works and Virginia Poverty Law Center, as well as between Equal Justice Works and program funders The JPB Foundation and JPMorgan Chase will be highlighted as experts discuss short- and long-term solutions to advance equal justice for all.

Speakers include:

  • Hana Hausnerova, Director of Public Programs, Equal Justice Works (Moderator)

  • Annie Greengard, Senior Program Officer, The JPB Foundation

  • Abigail Suarez, Program Officer, Community Development, Global Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase

  • Laura Dobbs, Staff Attorney, Virginia Poverty Law Center; 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow

To register for the event, please visit hereFor any media questions or requests, please email [email protected].