A few weeks ago, I was visiting with Ralph Nader HLS ’58. I have known Ralph for most of my life and have seen how his dedication to the public interest has created enormous impact on so many issues including consumer rights, car safety, protecting whistleblowers, and corporate misconduct to name a few.
While Ralph is extraordinary, he is certainly not alone. Thousands of lawyers have dedicated their careers to helping under-served communities and causes. The vast majority of these lawyers will say they are incredibly happy with their choice, even though it meant a great deal of personal and financial sacrifice. It is hard but fulfilling work.
Here’s the problem: As the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow, we face a crisis in who has access to justice. There is just one legal aid attorney available for every 6,415 low-income Americans. About 80 percent of defendants in criminal cases can’t afford a lawyer, and the majority of parties in housing, probate, and family courts across the country go unrepresented. All the while, corporations and the wealthiest citizens can afford to hire the best lawyers.
The justice gap in America is a moral crisis, but dedicated law students and lawyers can help. Today, more students enter law school with public interest aspirations than in a generation. Many have been in AmeriCorps, Teach for America, the Peace Corps or have experienced the satisfaction of community service in high school or college. They are hungry for opportunities to serve. Unfortunately many are blocked by the scarcity of public interest jobs and mortgage sized educational debts.
Equal Justice Works, a national nonprofit dedicated to empowering tomorrow’s public interest lawyers, provides programming for students who want to take their public interest commitment to the next level. We pave the way for law students to build careers they dream of –careers that do more than pay the bills – by offering a continuum of programs for law students and young lawyers dedicated to closing the justice gap
Law students should learn how to manage their educational debt before it gets overwhelming. Students can supplement their eligibility for Harvard’s innovative Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP) with many of the educational resources offered by Equal Justice Works. We provide free monthly webinars and a free e-book, “Take Control of Your Future,” that contain comprehensive information on programs that can help you manage your student debt, like income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). You can get legislative updates, primers on debt relief programs, and more on our Huffington Post blog.
As a student, you can read about unique public interest law projects and enroll in AmeriCorps JD to cultivate your skills and work with 720 other law students across the country to deliver crucial legal services to people in need. Those with a passion for public service can act as student leaders, raising awareness about the need for public interest lawyers and inspiring other students to explore opportunities to expand access to justice. Because of Equal Justice Works’ student-led Law Students for Pro Bono campaign, thousands more law students across the country will be exposed to public interest law through pro bono requirements like Harvard’s.
You will find a wealth of public interest legal opportunities at the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair, where more than 1,200 law students and recent graduates meet in Washington, D.C. in October to network, participate in cutting edge workshops about public interest law, receive media coaching, and interview for positions with over 140 public interest employers from around the nation.
Students entering their final year of law school can look to Equal Justice Works for answers to that pervasive question – “what’s next?” We offer the largest postgraduate legal fellowship program in the country with 285 Fellows currently in the field. An amazing 85 percent of our former fellows remain in public interest law to this day.
You can apply to help veterans with homelessness, debt, and other legal issues in the Veterans Legal Corps. You might seek to assist individuals in obtaining employment by expunging or sealing criminal records and restoring occupational and driver’s licenses with the Employment Opportunity Legal Corps. If you are committed to helping the recent wave of unaccompanied immigrant children receive assistance and fair representation, apply to Justice AmeriCorps. And if you wish to work with low-income communities to preserve and improve Section 8 housing, you can join the VISTA Affordable Housing Preservation Project. You can also apply for a privately funded Equal Justice Works Fellowship, where you design and implement your own project on any issue from environmental justice to LGBTQ advocacy.
One Harvard alumna, Megumi Tsutsui, is turning her law school experience into a rewarding public interest career through an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Megumi did clinical work at the Legal Services Center, offering assistance to victims of predatory lending and debt collection. There, she realized an unmet need for the protection of low-income and minority populations against these malicious practices. She designed a plan to cultivate financial stability in low-income and Latino communities in the Bay Area by resolving bad debt and facilitating access to affordable loans. Megumi was awarded an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Now you can find her in Oakland at Housing and Economic Rights Advocates, continuing the work she started as a student and making her plan a reality.
Megumi isn’t alone. Many Harvard alumni have received these Fellowships to design and implement their own groundbreaking projects. In Michigan, 2014 Equal Justice Works Fellow Jessica Frisina is working to throw a wrench into the school-to-prison pipeline for Detroit’s children, representing them in juvenile court and organizing the local community in advocating for restorative alternatives to incarceration and expulsion.
In California, 2013 Equal Justice Works Fellow Annie Hudson-Price is representing court-involved veterans suffering from service-related trauma and illness while promoting the widespread adoption of Veterans Treatment Courts as community-based alternatives to traditional sentencing models. And right here in Massachusetts, 2013 Equal Justice Works Fellow Erica Boyce is providing legal assistance and educational outreach to independent commercial fishermen on Cape Cod, facilitating mediation and training in dispute resolution to resolve entrenched conflicts between independent fishermen and the massive fishing companies that threaten their livelihoods.
Harvard Law students have more support for public interest pursuits than any other law school in the country. With its comprehensive course offerings, pro bono requirement, student practice organizations, and nearly 30 in-house clinics, Harvard Law School gives its students exemplary tools to cultivate public interest careers.
You have the power to be a force for justice. Under-served community and causes desperately need your talents. And Equal Justice Works has the resources to help you along the way.
David Stern is Executive Director of Equal Justice Works. Visit www.equaljusticeworks.org to learn more about innovative programs and resources that are empowering and mobilizing the next generation of public interest lawyers.