The public interest arena is vast and varied. Because it is Seattle University School of Law’s mission to educate leaders for a just and humane world, we believe that incorporating a public interest component into your career is essential. The students featured in this section have forged their own paths, pursuing inspiring legal work and bettering the world around them. If you are inspired by a current student working in public interest, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Class of 2009
In some ways, it is incredibly hard for me to believe that I am about to begin my second year of law school. Not because the first year of law school seems in many ways designed to be a tormenting experience. Although it often was. Not because I turn 40 in a few months, although I do. I think more than anything, despite the voluminous reading, the infamous Socratic method, the insanity of your entire grade being based on a single exam at the end of the semester as well as other crazy little things that marked this past year’s experience, in the end I take comfort in knowing that what one member of the Washington State Bar Association referred to as a “license to help people” will one day be mine.
As much as I questioned it this past year, having the grace of some distance from my first year law school experience has given me the opportunity to be reminded of why I subjected myself to this insanity in the first place. Even more so now than prior to my starting law school, I recognize the potential power of the law to help (and unfortunately, in many cases to harm) people. Although the need to survive my first year of law school eclipsed this knowledge much of last year, working for a poverty law organization as well as taking an international human rights seminar this summer has helped me to renew my vision for how I can hopefully make more of a difference using the law as a basis for advocacy. It was this hope that led me to leave federal service and change careers after several years in the public health field.
Perhaps more important, it was my longtime passion regarding homelessness and poverty issues that prompted me to make a change that I am hopeful will provide me the opportunity to both help people on an individual level—particularly those needing legal services but not able to afford them—and change or create laws that will assist in mitigating or eliminating the many systemic issues that contribute to people’s poverty. As I do legal research this summer on a variety of issues relating to homelessness and poverty, I am gratified that somewhere along the way the effort that I make will help an advocate make an argument to assist a homeless or otherwise economically disadvantaged person that will hopefully improve his or her life, even if it is in what seems like only a small way. And in some instances, it might even make a difference for many people, which of course would be all the better. What more can a social justice advocate ask for?
To learn more about Kim’s 2007 summer experience, please see her PILF Summer Journal.
Class of 2008
Since I was ten years old and read the book “50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth”, I have been committed to the idea that one person can make the world a better place. Over a decade later I organized a voter registration drive in Austin, Texas. On one hot September day outside Waterloo Park, I approached a large middle-aged man with a shaved head and several tattoos and asked him if he would like to register to vote. My question seemed to ruin his mood. He responded, sounding resigned and slightly embarrassed: “Well, I can’t…I’m a felon. I got caught with drugs the summer after graduating high school and did some time.”
I explained to him that once off parole and off probation, a felon can legally vote in Texas. He was incredulous: “Really??” “Yep.” He paused, and then started to tear up. “I’ve never voted and always thought I never would.” I will never forget what he said as he signed the registration card: “I finally have my freedom!”
I realized at that moment the power of educating someone on their legal rights. With one simple sentence, I not only changed this man’s relationship with his government, but helped him regain his self-confidence.
Now in my third year of law school, I am still doing my part to serve the public interest. This summer, I interned as a Legal Advocate in the Family Assistance Program at Solid Ground. The program assists individuals with public benefits disputes with the Department of Social and Health Services. Under attorney supervision, I handled cases through the entire benefit dispute process, including the initial intake, client interviews, research, brief writing, negotiations, and representation in administrative hearings before the board of appeals. I will even be taking one case to Superior Court in January as a Rule 9 intern.
The best part of my job, however, was empowering the clients by informing them of their legal rights and how the public benefit system works in Washington. I found that the most value I added was not the specific legal assistance, but being an effective communicator for clients whose lack of effective communication skills often led to their legal issue in the first place.
I have been very fortunate that the School of Law has many resources for those interested in public interest law, most of which do not involve casebooks (much to my relief!). I highly recommend taking any of the Clinics that the school offers. There is nothing more educational than representing real clients with real problems under close (but non-intervening) supervision. There are also many public interest externships and volunteer opportunities, such as with the Housing Justice Project. Additionally, the Law School hosts many public interest events such as job fairs, receptions, skills training, and info sessions. These are excellent opportunities for networking with attorneys and other law students committed to the greater good.
The bottom line for those interested in public interest law: the two biggest assets you can develop during law school are real-world experience and a professional network of public interest contacts. Grades are a distant third. So drop your casebook, get out there and start working!
Class of 2008
I came to law school with passion to continue advocating for victims of domestic violence and immigrants. I quickly learned, however, that passion alone was not enough. Passion would do me no good when arguing for my clients if I couldn’t formulate an intelligent, thoughtful response. Being forced to argue both sides of issues, as we often are, gave me insight in what to expect from opponents which in turn improves my argument. Coupling passion with legal analysis and public policy makes me a stronger advocate for the people I want to serve.
During my second year, I interned with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) in the Violence Against Women Unit in Seattle. At NWIRP, I was able to see the gaps in the law that needed the attention of policy advocates. Having to tell a bruised and battered woman who barely spoke English that, although domestic violence was illegal in this country, there was no remedy for her under immigration law was an experience that fueled my passion to work on immigration law at the legislative level. This experience and others convinced me that policy development and advocacy were the next steps on my career path.
This summer, I had the opportunity to intern at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in Washington, D.C. MALDEF is leading nonprofit Latino litigation, advocacy and educational outreach institution in the United States and their D.C. office focuses primarily on legislative advocacy. I spent most of the summer working on the comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate. Everyday we participated in teleconferences with a coalition of organizations all dedicated to reforming immigration. This was a great learning experience for me as I saw relationships form with unlikely allies. My favorite part of working with MALDEF was not the celebrity sightings or the impressive press conferences but sitting down and analyzing how the proposed legislation would really affect immigrants. At first glance, a piece of legislation might look harmless, but by bringing people from difference experiences to the table, we were able to gain unique perspectives on what would really happen when the rubber hits the road.
Some of the biggest challenges that I have faced during my career have been matters of the heart. I will never understand how some people can do such awful and inhumane things to others. Hearing people’s stories makes me sad, angry and I sometimes feel powerless to help. I feel cursed and blessed at the same time: cursed because I am unable to turn my back on people now that I know the horrible things that people are capable of doing to each other, but blessed because I am focused on something bigger than myself and I get to see courage in action everyday. I have met amazingly strong people over the course of the work I have done: women in shelters who do extremely courageous things for their children and immigrant women who face innumerable barriers to safety. If they can continue to dream and fight for a better future, then so can I.
My future goals are not set in stone. I know the place for me is working in the public interest arena on issues dealing with domestic violence and immigrants. One goal of mine is to balance a career that is challenging and inspiring while still taking care of myself mentally and physically. I also want to be able to mentor younger lawyers and law students on how to find and develop their passion. My own passion has carried me through difficult days and yielded amazing highs.
To learn more about Holly’s 2007 summer experience, please see her PILF Summer Journal.