Archive for Contibutions/Guest Articles

*Guest Post* – The Benefits of Working in Public Service by: Brittany Hamner

Brittany Hamner is a Project Assistant at NALP and rising 2L at Howard University School of Law. She is interested in a career in public service, and is currently interning with the D.C. Housing Authority.  

Benefits of Working in Public Service

It’s the time of year where law students entering their second year (2L) participate in what is known as “On Campus Interview” or OCI process.  During this time, employers largely from the biggest private sector law firms in the nation come to the top law schools and interview certain students from the incoming 2L class.  Students at the top of their class in these top law schools will receive offers from these big law firms and go on to make six figure salaries right out of law school.  For those students who do not make the cut, or are not at top tier schools where OCI may not even exist, all hope is not lost.  Although there is a huge gap between private sector and public interest salaries, public interest jobs offer several key advantages over private practice.  Below are some advantages to public service work.

Furthering the Public Good

Most importantly, the primary reason to undertake public interest work is to further the public good.  The opportunity to help underserved people, effect societal change, or provide equal access to justice for individuals is work that a dollar amount cannot be placed on. In fact, the lowest paid lawyers (typically those doing public interest work) report the highest levels of happiness. (NY Times).  There is the opportunity to do pro bono work at most firms; however, this work will comprise of a fraction of the number of hours spent defending large corporations, which may not provide as much personal satisfaction.

Better Work-Life Balance

Public service offers a more relaxed culture because the focus is on service rather than profit.  Unlike the private sector, there isn’t the pressure to meet billable hour quotas, gain face-time with partners, or spend free time on client development activities and thus allows for more flexible schedules, and 9-to-5 work days.

Valuable Work Experience

In a recent article posted by the ABA Journal, dissatisfaction with work quality was cited as the top reason associates leave their firm. (ABA Journal).  Law students, new lawyers, and paralegals work on urgent issues all the time in the public interest sector.  “That’s the very nature of public interest work: it is law reforming, a challenge to the status quo.” (Equal Justice Works).  Where some law firms assign new attorneys to a specific practice group, public service allows new attorneys to explore a variety of practice areas while performing substantive work.

Job Security

The public sector offers job security that the private sector simply cannot match.  After the recession in 2008, many students who had accepted offers into big firms were deferred and instead went into careers in public service.  Upon the end of the deferral, many chose to stay with their public interest organization citing job security, as well as the other reasons listed here, as their reasons.  (NY Times).


Finally, as mentioned, there is a huge gap between private sector and public interest salaries; however, senior lawyers at nonprofit organizations tend to earn a comfortable living.  Among public sector jobs, there are also government jobs, both state and federal, which tend to pay more than nonprofit organizations.   Further, legislation such as the College Cost Reduction & Access Act provides public service loan forgiveness and income-based repayment options, which can make entering public service quite easy.  (Equal Justice Works).


Opportunities in the public sector are both plentiful and diverse and the skills and training you receive are easily transferable no matter where your legal career takes you.  For information on Public Sector Career Paths, visit the PSJD Resource Center or search Public Service Jobs with the PSJD search tool.


A message from NLADA regarding LSC funding.

As many of you know, the Trump administration’s proposed budget called for completely eliminating funding for LSC. Congress has the final say on appropriations, and it appears that at least some in Congress are in favor of a reduction in LSC funding. Below is a message from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association regarding Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funding for FY’18, and how you can act to tell Congress any reduction in LSC funding is a mistake.

From the National Legal Aid & Defender Association:

As you may know, the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies last week approved a spending package that would cut funding for Legal Services Corporation (LSC) grantees by 24 percent. This would impose unacceptable budget cuts that would force grantees to severely curtail services and potentially even close offices. At the same time, the White House and some in Congress appear to remain committed to eliminating LSC.

That is why I wanted to let you know about, which provides information, fact sheets, and talking points about LSC and civil legal aid, which you may find useful for your own advocacy. The key purpose of the site however, is to give individuals a quick and simple way to contact their own elected officials to advocate for LSC.

With so many competing spending priorities facing Congress, it is vital that we demonstrate the depth of support for LSC that exists within members’ own constituencies. I would like to ask that you help achieve this by using the site and sharing it broadly throughout your networks. This effort will be most effective if it includes a cross section of stakeholder groups, particularly: (1) clients and former clients, (2) public interest advocates who work with populations that routinely experience civil legal needs, (3) private and corporate lawyers, particularly those that have experience working with legal services programs pro bono, and (4) law students and law school faculty.

Please note: if you receive LSC funds, you are prohibited from using this site for grassroots lobbying. However, the site does include other resources and updates you might find useful.

The national response to the White House recommendation to eliminate LSC has been deeply impactful, and with appropriations bills currently being drafted and considered in Congress, now is the time to elevate the voice of communities and constituents in a more coordinated way. Where permitted, please link to the site in your upcoming communications, and start a conversation using #ActOnJustice on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for helping to make sure that LSC continues to be protected, and that the clients of its grantees continue to receive access to justice.


DAVID MILLERManager, Policy Initiatives  |  |  (202) 452-0620 ext: 244

1901 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Suite 500, Washington DC 20006




*Guest Post* – President Trump’s Effect on Public Interest Law by: Dylan Goll

 Dylan Goll is a Project Assistant at NALP and rising 2-L at American University Washington College of Law. He is interested in a career in public service, particularly in working with U.S. patent law.  

The Trump administration brings a lot of speculation in regards to the future of our country. The fate of the public interest sector of law is most certainly a part of that speculation. President Trump has made plenty of controversial proposals that range from his factually-lacking stance on climate change as seen through his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, his support for his vice president’s pro-life stance of limiting funding to organizations such as Planned Parenthood, to his immigration ban proposals that federal courts have determined to be unconstitutional. As Trump’s administration increasingly tries to further their success in these controversial issues, an interesting result has occurred; there has been a resurgence of interest and vigor in public interest law.

The Trump administration poses a clear threat to some sectors of the public interest world through Trump’s controversial proposals and his proposed budget cuts, a silver lining still exists. Many liberals and those potentially affected by the administration’s proposals have participated in the myriad of protests that have occurred across the country since Trump’s election, while some have fought back either with the law or through opening up their wallets to public interest organizations and non-profits. Law, particularly public interest law, is now one of the hottest ways liberals and those affected by the administration’s proposals can fight back as seen through the unprecedented turnout of lawyers and law students at major airports across the country to offer legal advice and counsel after Trump attempted to pass his travel ban as an executive order (The Hill). Furthermore, the ACLU sued Trump towards the end of January over the travel ban. Legal backlash that the President has faced illustrates the significance public interest law is playing in the fight against Trump’s administration. A whole generation of students is now inspired to turn to a legal education to fight against issues of social justice and produce positive change in the world (The Hill).

Furthermore, support for public interest organizations and non-profits have grown at a tremendous rate despite the threat of federal funding for various public interest organizations being cut. The week after the election, Planned Parenthood received 80,000 donations and it was clear that a message to the administration was being sent by the public as many of those donations were made under Vice-President Pence’s name (IndyStar). The Sierra club saw a similar increase in donations as Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreements. The support didn’t end there as ACLU’s donation page crashed due to the high number of donations they were receiving after they made a public statement to use their team of lawyers and activists to fight Trump’s agenda with its full power (FindLaw). Lastly, Trump’s proposed travel ban has also met resistance due to financial support from donors as the Council on American-Islamic Relations experienced a tremendously large increase in donations and a surge of volunteers (FindLaw).

A Trump administration means a lot of things for this country. Whatever side of the political spectrum you reside, no one can argue that the administration and its plans greatly affect the public interest sector and threaten the very existence of some public interest organizations. President Trump and his administration have already experienced severe legal backlash from those organizations and lawyers. I don’t, and nor should the American people, expect this conflict over ideology and policy to stop anytime soon. However, politics aside, I find it inspiring that a whole generation of students and lawyers are banding together in the name of public good and social justice. This resurgence in public interest law not only illustrates the strength and potential for change a legal education provides, but it also acts as a source of inspiration for a generation of kids who are looking to make the world a better place.


1Ls & 2Ls: Apply to Sit on the Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee!

1Ls & 2Ls: Apply to sit on the Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee!

Image courtesy of Equal Justice Works

The Equal Justice Works National Advisory Committee is comprised of public interest law students and professionals who provide guidance and advice to the organization and help us achieve our goal of expanding public interest opportunities for law students and lawyers. The annual summer kick-off includes an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. and the opportunity to meet face-to-face with national public interest law school leaders during our annual National Advisory Committee Retreat.

Equal Justice Works is now accepting applications for both law students and law school professionals to serve on the Committee for the 2017-2019 term. We are especially looking for applications from 1Ls and 2Ls! The *new* deadline to apply is Sunday, May 14th at 11:59 p.m. (EST).




Email us at with any questions!


Pro Bono Publico Award Winner Gabrielle “Gabs” Lucero

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award.  Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.  This week, the 2016-17 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award winner will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and her public interest commitments.  (Check out posts by the Merit Distinction honorees here and here.)  Today, we’re featuring award winner and Duke University School of Law student Gabrielle “Gabs” Lucero, who has organized pro bono projects that advocate for victims of sexual assault and veterans.

Creating Impact through Infrastructure

by Gabs Lucero, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Winner, 2016-2017 (Duke University School of Law)

My goal in coming to graduate school was to pursue a career in service and advocacy.  I became involved with sexual assault advocacy as a high school student and have since dedicated the majority of my academic and extracurricular time toward advocating for victims of sexual assault.  Early in this process I realized the power of the criminal justice process to either hurt or harm victims of sexual assault, and so I decided to go to law school to be a positive force within the system.  I also recognized the need for legislative changes regarding sexual violence, so I decided to pursue a master of public policy in the hopes of bridging the gap between people with public interest needs and the structures they must navigate in seeking relief or systemic changes.

Through my education and experiences in advocacy work, I have learned that one of the best ways to have an impact is to create a strong and lasting infrastructure.  As such, my activities throughout my time at Duke and in Durham have centered on the goal of creating an infrastructure for veterans and sexual assault victims, especially through my involvement in two pro bono projects: the Veterans Assistance Project (VAP) and the Coalition Against Gendered Violence (CAGV).

It was incredibly important to build an infrastructure that will survive my departure and the continual flux of students entering and leaving the law school.  I can trust that when people know that infrastructure is there, they will continue to utilize it, grow it, and increase the impact of the project on the clients that need help.  My goal at Duke has been to create strong infrastructures that address important community needs and will continue to grow with each new class of engaged students.

VAP is a program that connects students with veterans seeking services from the Veteran Unit in Legal Aid to help with work such as discharge upgrades, access to benefits, and military sexual trauma claims, among others.  My goal with VAP has been to create a self-sustaining foundation that serves local Durham veterans.  My co-director, Sarah Williamson ’17, and I worked closely with the Veteran Unit Legal Aid attorney to restructure the program which was challenged by inconsistent support from supervising attorneys and by changes that Legal Aid was undergoing in its work with veterans.  Working closely with the new attorney, we were able to establish a structured process so that students could more easily and regularly complete the work.  We instituted office hours with the supervising attorney every week, conducted training on the specific types of claims, and streamlined the connection between the attorney and the students on each veteran’s claim.  We created standing documents and templates that students could use in claims.  We also drafted step by step outlines for the process for certain parts of cases so that students could turn to them without having to spend extra time on similar research.  Additionally, we established connections that will be our go-to personnel in future cases, such as a local practitioner who specifically conducts the required Veterans Affairs assessment for claims of military sexual trauma.

When I joined the Coalition Against Gendered Violence, it was a relatively inactive group that put on two or three informational events throughout the year.  Once in leadership, my co-director, Shannon Welch ’17, and I went to work on expanding the group and its impact.  We connected with an attorney at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCCASA) and began to develop a program where law students could represent student sexual assault victims in college adjudication processes.  We recognized that defendants in adjudication hearings were disproportionately represented by counsel, whereas victims often did not have representation and went to the hearings alone.  Victims are often limited by factors of cost, embarrassment, not wanting to tell their family what happened, and many other significant concerns.  In order to have a fairer process, we wanted to create a mechanism for students to have representation and support throughout the adjudication process.  We have worked diligently with NCCASA to create an infrastructure that provides training for law students to work with victims in the college adjudication system.  The training includes, for example, how to help a victim write an opening statement, working with clients on questions, and understanding the nuances between different colleges’ processes.  The goal of the project, for both CAGV and NCCASA, is to create a statewide infrastructure between the different North Carolina law schools where law students represent victims at any college across the state.  My role has been to establish a lasting connection with NCCASA and to build an infrastructure for trainings and volunteer availability for representation of victims.  My co-director and I have also worked diligently to provide more availability and acceptance of resources for members of the Duke Law community who are survivors of sexual assault.  This has included, among other things, creating a successful initiative to include resource stickers in every bathroom stall at the law school and providing a training for law students on working with victims as clients and witnesses.  We hope to further empower students to take better care of themselves as well as their clients in the future.

I hope to leave the Law School with strong infrastructures in place that are ready to be built upon by the many dedicated students that come after me.  After I graduate, I plan to continue a career in public service by first clerking on the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.  I will then serve on active duty with the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.  I hope to one day be a Special Victims Prosecutor within the JAG Corps.


Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction Honoree Lilah Thompson

2016-17 Merit Distinction Honoree, Lilah Thompson

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.  This week, one of the 2016-17 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and her public interest commitments.  (Check out last week’s guest blog by Merit Distinction honoree Derek Mergele, and next week award winner Gabrielle “Gabs” Lucero will be guest blogging on PSJD.)  Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Temple University School of Law student Lilah Thompson, who co-created a workshop that simulated the life of a refugee.

Looking Between Borders to Understand the Refugee Experience

by Lilah Thompson, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2016-2017 (Temple University School of Law)

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. Of the 65.3 million people displaced worldwide 21.3 million are refugees. Over half of the world’s refugees are children. The number of refugees in the world is currently at the highest level ever recorded in human history. To fully understand the stories behind these staggering numbers, I worked with Professor Jaya Ramji Nogales to create Between Borders: A Refugee Simulation Experience. Between Borders is a participatory workshop that simulates the life of a refugee throughout all stages of the refugee process. This simulation is an awareness-building activity that places participants in the “shoes of a refugee” in order to conceptualize the experiences that they face. The simulation focuses on four important aspects: (1) why refugees flee; (2) how they are deemed refugees; (3) how refugees are screened and vetted; and (4) how they are welcomed to a new country.


Why do refugees flee?

Currently, 53% of refugees worldwide come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Every country’s conflict is different, which makes the reasons why refugees flee and each refugee’s journey different. For example, an estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the violent civil war in 2011. This includes over 4.8 million who have escaped to neighboring countries, thousands who have attempted to seek asylum in European countries, and over 6 million who remain internally displaced within Syria. While situations in countries facing mass displacement and flight are different, they share important commonalities, including violence, instability, and persecution.


How are individuals desginated as “refugees”?

In designing Between Borders, one important aspect for me was to define refugees accurately, by also making clear what they are not: terrorists or illegal immigrants. In order to be deemed a refugee, an individual must prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Without falling into one of those groups, the individual is not provided protection as a refugee. Once registered and approved as a refugee, individuals reside in refugee camps where they wait until they can be firmly resettled in a third country, like the U.S. These temporary camps are typically situated in neighboring countries. The situation in refugee camps is dire; health care, food, employment opportunities and education are extremely limted.


How are refugees screened, vetted, and processed to come to the United States?

Under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), an interagency process that includes three primary U.S. Government agencies—Department of State, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—refugees are vetted based on specific requirements. These requirements cannot be waived, and include an in-person DHS interview, security checks, and a medical exam. Due to these strict requirements, the process currently takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months, or even longer.Additionally, many refugees have to wait long periods of time to even be processed, and some wait in refugee camps for up to 20 years before being resettled in a third country.


How are refugees welcomed to a new country?

After being granted a visa and going through all security background checks, refugees finally arrive to the U.S. They are greeted at the airport by a caseworker who works for one of the U.S. private agencies that have cooperative agreements with the State Department to provide reception and placement services for arriving refugees. At this stage, a new struggle begins. Refugees have only 90 days of assistance from these agencies. In that time, they must sign up for English classes, get jobs, enroll children in school, go to health visits, set up their new homes, and obtain government-approved benefits. As the clock ticks, many refugees struggle to become self-sufficient within this three month time-frame.


Why is it important to understand the refugee journey? 

It is essential to understand that refugees are just like anyone living in the U.S., except their lives have been torn apart by persecution and violence. The only difference between U.S. residents and refugees is chance. Imagine switching places with a Syrian child. She is sitting at her desk in school, and suddenly a bomb explodes two classrooms away. She scrambles through hallways trying to find her brother to see if he is okay. Together, they run home through the streets, hoping their parents are there. Her parents won’t allow her to go to school the next day, or the day after. Her fafther, a taxi driver, can no longer work, because no one is taking taxis. Instead, the taxis have been replaced with tanks. She wakes up, day after day, hearing bombs going off, and witnessing the loss of life in the streets. If we put ourselves in the shoes of this child, it is easy to comprehend why her and her family would flee. Why they would do anything in their power to seek safety and stability in the face of violence and uncertainty. As one participant in Between Borders commented: “There are unprecedented amounts of refugees and migrants in today’s world, but here in the U.S. they are ‘invisible’ to us … we need to appreciate the problems that cause refugees and migrants to take this journey and the challenges they faced along the way.”


What does it say about the United States when we turn our back on refugees?

It says that we do not understand. We cannot tell the difference between a refugee, who is fleeing terror, from a terrorist, who is the oppressor. It says that, even with all of the facts about what refugees face, and that they are screened and vetted more than any other individual who sets foot on U.S. soil, we do not care to help. It says that U.S. citizens deserve peace of mind over a refugee child’s safety from violence or death. My goal throughout law school has been to educate individuals about refugees and asylum seekers. Not simply about their legal claims, but about our moral obligation to understand.


The most recent executive order that targets refugees is immoral and a violation of our human rights obligations. But, most importantly, it is misinformed. The goal of Between Borders is to broaden awareness and understanding, and allow that to influence how we treat and understand other human beings. In the face of misinformation, if we can come together as a community to better understand the refugee journey and learn about the refugee process then surely we can change the hearts and minds of others.


Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction Honoree Derek Mergele

2016-17 Merit Distinction Honoree, Derek Mergele-Rust

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.This week, one of the 2016-17 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees will be guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. (This year’s Pro Bono Publico Award recipient and the other Merit Distinction recipient, will also publish blogs in the consecutive weeks.) Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Texas Tech University School of Law student Derek Mergele-Rust, who helped launch the Texas Tech School of Law Gender Marker and Name Change Pro Bono Project.

Changing Gender Markers in West Texas

by Derek Mergele-Rust, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2016-2017 (Texas Tech University School of Law)

West Texas is the embodiment of every stereotype that people around the country have of Texas: wind sweeping across flat dusty plains dotted with oil wells as tumbleweeds blow between cattle grazing on the prairie grasses. Not included in this stereotypical vision are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and families. Lubbock, Texas promotes itself as the friendliest city in the United States, even though the Human Rights Campaign has awarded Lubbock a 0 score on its Municipal Equality Index—an index that measures how welcoming and friendly a municipality is towards LGBT individuals.

The Texas Legislature is currently wrestling with a “bathroom bill,” similar to HB2 in North Carolina, that requires transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matches the gender marker on their birth certificate. However, in Texas, a court can order that the gender marker of a person’s birth certificate be amended to reflect the gender identity of the person. There are no set requirements for the court order, the court simply grants the petition at the judge’s discretion. To run for an elected judge position, Texas requires candidates to identify as a member of a political party. In Lubbock, all judges identify as Republicans. Of the six district court judges, three have granted petitions to amend the gender marker on birth certificates.

In May 2016, the Texas Tech School of Law launched the Gender Marker and Name Change Pro Bono Project to assist transgender people in West Texas obtain the court order to amend the gender marker on the individual’s birth certificate. This Pro Bono Project is the first of its kind outside of one of Texas’s major metropolitan areas, and Texas Tech is the second law school in Texas to have such a project. Since the launch last May, the Pro Bono Project has helped several transgender individuals obtain the necessary court order. The Pro Bono Project has received requests for help from students, residents of Lubbock, and residents of various West Texas communities, some of which are over 100 miles from Lubbock.

When this project started, I thought that simply helping one person would amount to a huge success for Tech Law. The reality is that there is a transgender community in west Texas that needs support. Regardless of age, race, or economic background the west Texas transgender community now has a place to turn to when they need help amending a birth certificate.


Guest Blog Post – Equal Justice Works Public Interest Law Awards!

The Equal Justice Works Public Interest Law Awards are now open!

These awards are presented annually to eight law students at Equal Justice Works member schools who have a demonstrated commitment to public interest law and pro bono work. The Awards seek to identify and honor law students who have provided extraordinary service through clinics, volunteer work, internships, extracurricular projects, and more.


The deadline to apply for an Equal Justice Works Public Interest Law Award is March 10, 2017Click here to apply now!


Please forward all questions to Equal Justice Works at Good luck!


Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Prison Abolition for Transgender Liberation

Lark Mulligan Picture
2015-16 Pro Bono Publico Award Winner, Lark Mulligan

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

Last week, the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees guest blogged about their law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. Today, we’re featuring our 2015-2016 Pro Bono Publico Award Winner and DePaul University College of Law student Lark Mulligan, a multi-talented advocate dedicated to transgender rights.

Prison Abolition for Transgender Liberation
Lark Mulligan, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Winner, 2015-2016 (DePaul University College of Law)

I met her in Cook County Jail, where she was awaiting trial for felony charges.[1] A Black transgender woman from Chicago’s south side, our client spent her late teens and early twenties in and out of prison and jail. Incarceration is an especially dangerous and traumatic experience for transgender people because they are almost exclusively housed according to their gender as assigned at birth, meaning that trans women, like my client, are housed in men’s facilities. Like many other incarcerated trans people, she was placed in “protective custody,” a misleading name for what others might call “solitary confinement.” It was a small cell where she sat in isolation and experienced daily threats, harassment, and slurs from correctional staff. While she was in protective custody, jail staff denied her HIV medications, gender-affirming feminine products like bras and makeup, and hormone therapy, which she had been taking as prescribed for over a decade.

Eventually she was convicted, served two years in a men’s prison, and was paroled out on house arrest to an all-men halfway home. Having been kicked out of her mother’s house after coming out as trans as a teenager, she was no stranger to gender-segregated shelters and public housing, and she knew the risks of presenting her true gender in such an environment. After feeling it out for a week, she began presenting more in line with her female gender identity, wearing feminine clothing, makeup, wigs, etc. But she immediately felt unsafe when the other residents and house staff harassed her for her appearance, calling her names, and threatening to sexually assault her.

She tried to get a job so she could move into her own apartment, but everything was working against her. Because of her ankle bracelet, she was only able to leave the house for a few hours every day. She didn’t have a diploma or GED because she dropped out in tenth grade when administrators forced her to use the men’s room, students harassed and attacked her, and teachers would only refer to her as “he”. When she was able to get her foot in the door with an employer, she would bring in her state ID and birth certificate to fill out the new hire paperwork. However, because of an Illinois law that prohibits someone with a felony conviction from changing their legal name until ten years have elapsed since the termination of their sentence,[2] her documents unfortunately still displayed her masculine-sounding former name and identified her as “male.” Employers would take one look those documents, shoot her some strange glances, ask a few invasive questions about her identity and genitalia, and later she would receive a call saying they “decided to go with an internal hire.” When she was finally hired, she was quickly fired after refusing to wear the men’s uniform.

After a few months of struggling, she returned to her halfway house one day to find all of her belongings on the sidewalk. The Illinois Department of Corrections only pays rent for people on parole for three or four months, and her time limit had expired. Because she had nowhere else to live, that evening her ankle bracelet automatically notified her probation officer that she missed curfew, and the next day she was arrested on a warrant for probation violation and taken back to Cook County Jail.

The United States is experiencing an urgent crisis of hyper-policing and mass incarceration of poor people of color, in particular Black people, and the criminal legal system ensnares people in impossible situations. Transgender people of color living in poverty are impacted by these trends in specific ways; over 50% of Black transgender women can expect to be arrested at some point in their lives, and because the world is so gendered and hostile to people who fall outside gender norms, they face numerous barriers to returning to a stable life. One reason trans people are overrepresented in the criminal legal system is that they experience disproportionate rates of poverty and homelessness resulting from barriers to housing, education, and employment. As a result, trans people might commit survival crimes like retail theft, sex work, or trespassing into a building to sleep at night. Without stable housing and under the burden of a criminal record, it is almost impossible to find a job, and the cycle of poverty and incarceration continues.

Even if they are not committing any crimes, the mass media has very effectively taught police, judges, states attorneys, and the rest of us to assume that trans women of color occupying public space are sex workers. Many transgender women of color report being arrested and charged with prostitution while they were simply walking down the street – a phenomenon some have termed “walking while trans.”

Transgender people are also being murdered at staggering rates, with over 21 murders in the U.S. in 2015 alone, the vast majority were women of color, and many of them went uninvestigated. The global average lifespan of a transgender person is around 23 years. By failing to hold anybody accountable for these deaths, the legal system passively condones this violence and the notion that trans people of color are disposable. Further, transgender people who try to defend themselves from racist and transphobic violence, as in the cases of CeCe McDonald and Eisha Love, are often arrested and prosecuted while their attackers go free.

In short, the criminal legal system is not working for transgender people.

To address some of these injustices, in 2008 a group of prison abolitionist activists, social workers, and lawyers founded the Transformative Justice Law Project (TJLP), which provides free holistic legal services and support for trans people who are criminalized in Chicago and throughout prisons in Illinois. Among other things, we currently help trans people change their legal names, advocate for trans prisoners, conduct workshops and trainings, and publish writing and artwork from trans prisoners in our ‘zine publication Hidden Expressions. After moving to Chicago by way of Vermont in 2011, I became a TJLP Collective Member and have worked on various projects ever since.

Since joining TJLP, I have learned that lawyers can only do so much for criminalized trans people caught in an inherently violent, transphobic, and racist system.  While lawyers have an important role to play in reducing the harm that the legal system inflicts, I believe that the only long-term solution to mass incarceration is a grassroots movement to abolish the prison-industrial complex.

Prison abolition is a movement to dismantle all systems of incarceration, surveillance, and policing, and to build a world that has no need for prisons or police by eradicating the root causes of violence, inequality, and oppression in our communities. Instead of reacting to violence and conflict with more police and more prisons, which do not make society safer but rather cause more violence and poverty and racism, an abolitionist approach would address the root causes of violence by investing in free public education, community empowerment, reparations, healing and restorative practices, non-punitive drug treatment programs, open dialogue, accessible and affordable healthcare, and food justice. Rather than trying to reform an inherently violent system, like conducting police sensitivity trainings, I think the only way to actually make the world safe and affirming for trans people – and for all people – is to get rid of police and prisons altogether.

Prison abolition does not necessarily mean that I want to walk over to the nearest jail and let everyone out. Instead, abolition means recognizing the ways in which systems of racism and transphobia mutually reinforce and are reinforced by the prison-industrial complex, and then taking steps to eradicate them all. Rather than asking the penological question “what do we do with people who commit crimes,” prison abolitionists ask much more fundamental questions like “why do people commit crimes in the first place?” and “how can we prevent people from causing harm to others?” Prison abolition teaches that people often commit crimes because they are poor and need to survive, or because they are reproducing violence that was done to them in the past; they are trying to survive and cope in an oppressive world that criminalizes their existence, and therefore all systems of oppression must be dismantled in order to prevent harms. In the words of abolitionist Alexander Lee, “The absence of prisons is only one way of describing a society free of systems of inequity – white supremacy, male supremacy and the gender binary, capitalism, ableism, among other things – which produce violence, desperation, hatred, and suffering. Such a society would laugh off the outrageous idea of putting people into cages.”

Working with criminalized transgender people has convinced me of the necessity of prison abolition. In 2010, I started as an intern at TJLP. When friends would ask me what I was doing there, I would say “I’m working with trans people who have been wrongfully convicted.” Over time I saw that the reality of our clients’ lives was much more complicated – that regardless of guilt or innocence or whether someone “actually” committed a crime, their very survival was being policed, punished, and extinguished. Eventually it clicked that the term “wrongfully convicted” assumes that some people deserve to be punished and other people don’t, that guilty people deserve to be in cages and innocent people don’t. While many people are incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit – particularly in Chicago, the false confession capital – not every trans person is in prison because of police profiling. Yet regardless of what they may have done in the past, none of the people whom I have met in Illinois’ prison system deserve to endure the abuse, isolation, violence, and fundamentally oppressive environment of incarceration.

Seeing the harsh realities of incarceration for transgender people also challenged me to reframe my concept of community safety. The expansion of the prison system is often justified on the grounds of keeping people safe: the state builds new prisons, police are given tanks and assault rifles, neighbors call 911 when they see a “suspicious” person in their neighborhood – all in the name of community safety. While working with trans people in prison, I realized that we rarely think about the safety of people in prisons and jails; are they not also members of a community who also deserve to be safe? But when I tried to think of ways to make prisons safe for trans people – for example, housing trans women in women’s facilities – I realized that, while such reforms might reduce the harm in some ways, they wouldn’t actually help trans people live longer fuller lives, and they wouldn’t stop trans people from being arrested in the first place. Incarceration and contact with the police cannot be a safe experience for trans people because prisons and police are inherently violent, isolating institutions. How can you be safe when you’re locked in a cage, completely subject to the authority of people who hate you? At the end of the day, the safest thing for trans people – and for all people – is to be free from the threat of incarceration and policing altogether.

The current era of mass incarceration requires that we all ask ourselves fundamental questions about safety, punishment, race, gender, and oppression. Given the authority and knowledge that the legal system has granted to lawyers, we all have a responsibility to think critically about how we can contribute to a more just, safe, and affirming world for everyone whom the criminal legal system fails.


[1] The following story is being shared with permission, and the facts have been modified to protect anonymity.

[2] 735 ILCS 5/21-101 (2007).


Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Inspiration to Fight Evictions

Courtney Brown Picture
2015-16 Merit Distinction Honoree, Courtney Brown

Every year, we honor law student pro bono with the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award. Any 2L or 3L who attends a PSJD subscriber school and has significant pro bono contributions to underserved populations, the public interest community and legal education is eligible for nomination.

This week, the 2015-16 PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Merit Distinction honorees are guest blogging about law student pro bono and their public interest commitments. Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Golden Gate University School of Law student Courtney Brown, a multi-talented advocate dedicated to the eviction and housing crises facing San Francisco.

Inspiration to Fight Evictions
Courtney Brown, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2015-2016 (Golden Gate University School of Law)

Having a home is deeply rooted in one’s sense of stability and security; however, too often it can be taken away for the financial benefit of others, especially in San Francisco. San Francisco is currently facing the worst housing crisis in recent history. Here, income and housing inequality is growing rapidly. Increasing rents and evictions displace thousands of tenants, many of whom are low-income senior and/or disabled people. Eviction often displaces people from their long-term homes and San Francisco completely. With each eviction, San Francisco loses more of its culture and history.

Clients are the Inspiration

My clients’ desire and strength to fight for their homes and resist the most powerful eviction push in recent history inspires me every day to continue to do this work. Their inspiration is the driving force behind my late night study sessions, what gets me up in the morning after very little sleep, and what pushes me to stand up in front of often hostile judges to strongly advocate for my clients.

I am blessed every day to work alongside clients who have made San Francisco the city it is known to be. It is difficult to imagine the profound loss my clients feel when they lose not only their homes but also the communities in which they have lived for decades. I see just a fraction of the pain and stress in their eyes when they talk about leaving the community in which they grew up and raised their children and grandchildren. From artists and veterans, to seniors and people with disabilities, our city is being “cleansed” of everyone that gives this city the personality that makes it so unique. And yet, these people persevere in the face of struggle. And so do I.

As I continue my career in tenants’ rights law, I will continue to meet amazing people who helped build this city. While assisting clients in the battle to enforce their rights, I am inspired by their stories and their strength in the face of adversity.

One of my first clients was facing an Ellis Action eviction. In short, the Ellis Act is a California law that allows landlords to exit the rental business by evicting all of the tenants at the rental property. Unfortunately, this law that was put in place to assist “mom and pop” landlords, is now being abused by real estate speculators, who use the law to flip the rental property so they can make a profit. This client was a 69-year old Vietnam War Veteran who suffered from PTSD. Due to his condition, he was unable to leave the house for long periods of time, so when I needed to talk to him about his case or have him sign papers, I would always go to his house. He would tell me stories about the war and about the special unit he was assigned to, and no matter how many times we lost a motion in court regarding his eviction he was always looking for the bright side. Luckily, through our perseverance, the landlord, notorious in San Francisco for using the Ellis Act to flip properties, decided the fight was not worth it and dismissed the eviction action.

We Need You to Get Involved

San Francisco’s Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Ordinance regulates rent increases, evictions, and habitability standards to protect tenants from unlawful actions by their landlords. However, San Francisco tenants are unable to enforce the protections provided by the Rent Ordinance due to the lack of legal representation available for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. Few evictions occur because tenants lose an unlawful detainer action, but of the few, many are lost on procedural grounds. Instead, the vast majority of evictions in San Francisco occur because tenants are unable to find necessary representation when they are faced with eviction notices alleging false claims or when their landlords harass and intimidate them to leave without a fight.

Landlords in San Francisco have power due to income inequality, limited affordable housing, and lack of legal representation for tenants. The power differential allows landlords to use oral notices or serve eviction notices based on exaggerations and lies. For example, in San Francisco landlords have started using 3-day notices alleging nuisances to quickly evict tenants from their homes. The law surrounding nuisance evictions is very grey which allows for landlords to exaggerate allegations in the eviction notice. When tenants fight evictions through legal representation, they generally stop the eviction. However, many tenants are coerced through lack of resources into leaving their long-term homes without a fight. Additionally, many San Francisco tenants’ rights organizations do not provide tenants with the full-scope representation needed to fight these evictions, and instead provide limited-scope representation which has been found to be less effective in ensuring the tenants retain possession. Full-scope representation is when a client is represented throughout the entire eviction process, and the attorney handles every party of the case from the eviction notice to the trial or appeal of the case. Limited-scope representation is generally ghost-writing of documents for the tenants, including answers, and possibly attending a mandatory settlement conference with the tenant. Evictions can be dramatically reduced if more lawyers provide full-scope representation to low- and moderate-income tenants facing evictions.

There is a desperate need for law students and attorneys to provide full-scope representation to tenants facing evictions in San Francisco. The outcome differential between tenants provided with limited-scope representation and tenants provided with full-scope representation during an eviction is substantial. A study entitled In Pursuit of Justice? Case Outcomes and the Delivery of Unbundled Legal Services by Jessica K. Steinberg published in The Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law and Policy found that unrepresented tenants only retained possession 14% of the time and tenants who received limited-scope or unbundled representation only retained possession 18% of the time, while 55% of fully represented tenants were able to retain possession of their homes. The study also found that tenants receiving limited-scope representation did not secure more actual relief when fighting the eviction than the unrepresented tenants. To decrease the number of evictions in San Francisco, tenants must be provided with the full-scope representation necessary.

San Francisco continues to lose tenants every day as the city becomes more gentrified. These tenants want to stop this, and they have the desire and strength to push back against the evictions that are taking their homes. However, for them to be able to fully fight back and enforce the protections they are provided under the Rental Ordinance, they need attorney allies who can provide the necessary representation. Full-scope representation can only be provided if law students and attorneys contribute pro bono services in housing law.

Communities across the country need you to help us stop evictions and community fragmentation by getting involved with eviction defense work during law school. It will not only provide representation to someone facing eviction, it will also provide you with valuable experience, skill, and inspiration to carry forward into your career.