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Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: “Being Proximate— A Holistic Approach to Youth Advocacy

Shannon Johnson, BC Law '15Shannon Johnson, 2014-2015 Merit Distinction Honoree
(Photo courtesy of Boston College Law School)

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 2014-15 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, Alex Dutton, will publish his blog next week when he receives his award.) Today, we’re featuring Merit Distinction honoree and Boston College Law School student Shannon Johnson, a multi-talented advocate single-mindedly dedicated to immigrant youth and the inaugural student in Boston College Law School’s hybrid immigration and juvenile clinic.


Being Proximate–A Holistic Approach to Youth Advoacy
Shannon Johnson, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Merit Distinction Honoree, 2014-2015 (Boston College Law School)–

I will never forget the night I heard Bryan Stevenson’s keynote address at the “Rebellious Lawyering” Conference for aspiring public interest attorneys. (As you may know, Bryan Stevenson does prolific civil rights work in the south.) I was in my first year of law school and already felt alienated from my public service goals.  I had pursued a legal education to work with immigrant youth and domestic violence survivors. I hoped to grow into a community lawyer, but actually lost my community connections while shuffling from torts class to legal research seminars. In my disconnected state, I was still able to latch onto something Bryan said during his talk. He urged us to seek to be proximate to the communities that we desired to serve.  In other words, true social justice advocates must leave our comfort zones to meet community needs. We had to challenge the confines of prestige found even in the public interest community (i.e. the pressure to accept prestigious fellowships in world-class cities).

I internalized Bryan’s words.  What did it mean to be proximate to a community when I was immersed in a world that felt so alienating? I struggled with this understanding, especially after living and working as a domestic violence advocate in East Los Angeles.  There, I had an understanding of the community that was much deeper than my connections to my new home in Boston.    For me, it meant seeking to understand the community in which you wanted to work and not just look to be understood. It meant building personal relationships and partnering with communities.  It meant applying humility to advocacy and listening to what a community asks of you (if anything) rather than speaking to what you think a community needs.

I had to challenge my faulty assumptions that ample advocacy opportunities existed in my New Boston home. After working in Los Angeles, I thought that I was working on the forefront of issues facing immigrant teens and undocumented people. After hearing Bryan speak, I knew I needed to listen a little more closely. I knew that my job was to seek understanding of my new greater community, rather than to expect it to first understand (and embrace) me. And as I scratched the surface, I found equivalent concerns and need in Boston as existed in Los Angeles, especially concerning immigrant juveniles.

Since then, the stories I have encountered engaging in clinics and community work have since jolted me out of my first year slump:

A foster youth nearing 18 wants leave the confines of juvenile detention and enter a supportive home placement.  A teenager must decide whether to live with a guardian— a stranger to him—or reconcile with his abusive father in order to obtain a visa and subsequent green card. A young man flees his home country for the U.S., where he has no friends or family, in order to escape threats against his life.  An undocumented young woman survives rape in the U.S. and has the opportunity to obtain legal status and reunite with her family—but still needs to emotionally heal from her trauma in order to talk about her immigration case. An undocumented teen parent fights for more time with her son but fears entering family court because of her legal status.

As I engaged more with clinics and community work in Boston, scenarios like these made apparent to me the pressing need for holistic legal services to tackle the very adult concerns facing immigrant youth.  The youth I served must make very adult decisions while at a developmentally critical stage in life. Immigration concerns, such as being in removal proceedings, navigating life without legal status, or fearing the deportation of a loved one, only exacerbate their trauma.  Language barriers also prevent young people from accessing the help they need or effectively advocating for themselves. Many immigrant youth experience trauma from exposure to violence in the U.S. and their home countries or from unstable family situations or intimate partner relationships.  Youth also are vulnerable to sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

The challenges that many young people face—I quickly realized— required advocates willing to connect youth to supportive services, versed in immigration law, and informed about other civil legal systems.  Most importantly, systems-involved youth with immigration issues need advocates to foster a trusting relationship and provide client-centered services that educate and empower youth.

One of the ways that I was able to address young people’s need for holistic services was by  partnering  with Professor Mary Holper (Director of the Boston College Immigration Clinic) and Francine Sherman (Director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project) to develop an immigration and juvenile hybrid clinic.  The goal of this clinic, in part, was to provide holistic advocacy for systems-involved youth with immigration issues.

My goal for the clinic, developed with the mentorship of Professors Holper and Sherman, was to intensively work with young clients to 1) identify their ‘big picture’ goals; 2) counsel youth on their legal options and strategize with them the approach they wanted to take to solve their legal issues or achieve their goals; 3) empower youth by making them stakeholders invested in their case; 4) empower them through education on their legal options; and 5) connect youth with supportive services and collaborate with social workers as needed. Most frequently, the young person and I would navigate their immigration issues along with the family and juvenile court systems.  The hybrid clinic has continued this year, hosting two students representing young people in immigration and juvenile cases. My work in the clinic demonstrated the tremendous need for immigration reform, especially for young people. I also had the chance to engage in similar work during my summer internships and other volunteer work which confirmed this.

Taking a youth-centered and holistic approach to advocacy is also my way of growing proximate to the community.  It streamlines complicated processes, like family court, foster care, and delinquency proceedings, when one advocate understands the interplay between these systems. Moreover, working with service providers to ensure access to supportive resources stabilizes a young person’s life in order to successfully pursue legal forms of relief.

My experience has taught me the undeniable importance of legal status for systems-involved youth. Obtaining a work permit or Lawful Permanent Residency creates life-altering (and positive) changes in the life of a vulnerable young person.  Suddenly a young person can work and have access to income to support themselves of their families. A young person facing intimate partner violence might no longer fear calling the police during an incident of violence. College becomes a feasible goal because financial aid is available. A parenting teen can more confidently enter family court to request child custody or child support thereby creating a better life for the teen’s child. The options for youth to obtain legal status must continue to reach every young person.  Solving immigration needs, along with a holistic approach to youth advocacy, is one positive step in the direction of creating stable lives for systems involved youth navigating their complex lives.  It is being proximate to the realities facing this community.


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Get Free Help with Your Student Debt. Win $50. (That’s a win-win!)

From our friends at Equal Justice Works:

Get Free Help with Your Student Debt. Win $50. That’s a win-win!

Take Control of Your Future - A Guide to Managing Your Student Debt

Three lucky lawyers or law students who download Equal Justice Works’ comprehensive student debt e-book, Take Control of Your Future: A Guide to Managing Your Student Debt, before Friday, April 3 will win $50 Amazon gift cards. Just download your free copy today and you’ll be automatically entered to win.

Take Control of Your Future is a comprehensive guide to managing student debt, with chapters on understanding student loans and loan consolidation, planning before borrowing, income-driven repayment plans and a step-by-step guide to earning Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

One reviewer noted “This book is particularly helpful for anyone working in the non-profit field who earns a lower wage and has mounds of student loan debt.” 

And another said “I’ve been dealing with my student loan holder for the last three years on my past due account. It wasn’t until I read ‘Managing Your Student Debt that I discovered the loan holder wasn’t giving me all the options. By using the guide I’ve been able to work things to my benefit. I encourage everyone to read this book!”

 Upcoming Free Student Debt Webinars
Equal Justice Works will host the following free student debt webinars in March and April:

Our student debt webinars are tailored for law students and lawyers, but the information is applicable to anyone who needs help managing their student debt.

Keep Up To Date on Student Debt Issues
Make sure to follow our blog on the Huffington Post to keep up to date on student debt issues. We’ve been writing recently about Campus Debit Cards: Good for You or Your University?, Have We Already Solved the Student Debt Crisis? and 6 Reasons to Love (Okay, Grudgingly Accept) Your Student Loans.

Share and Get Involved
Please forward this e-mail to anyone you think might benefit.

Equal Justice Works is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to creating a just society by mobilizing the next generation of lawyers committed to equal justice. To stay up to date, follow us on Twitter (@EJW_org, #studentdebthelp) and on Facebook.

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Our Friends at EJW: New Student Debt Blog on the Huffington Post!

Take Control of Your Future - A Guide to Managing Your Student Debt

Our Friends at Equal Justice Works have some news they wanted us to pass along about their new resources to help public interest lawyers tackle their student debt:

We’re excited to announce that Equal Justice Works’ new blog on the Huffington Post is up and running. We’ll use it to provide helpful advice on managing student debt and in-depth analysis on what the latest developments in student debt mean for you.

Go here to check out our recent post, How Public Service Loan Forgiveness Helps Close the Justice Gap.

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You Need a Montage: Cover Letter Makeover Scene

Sam Halpert, 2014 – 2015 PSJD Fellow

So last week I confessed to you all that in my own job search, I’m figuratively far from a master. However I work a mere foot away from one. Christina Jackson, NALP’s Director of Public Service Initiatives and Fellowships, will be putting me through my paces for your benefit from now until next semester so you can see how PSJD’s 10-Step Program for keeping your job search warm over the holidays works in practice.

This week, I tackled the second half of Tip 1 (writing a cover letter). Specifically, I tried to express my interest in the Pro Bono Coordinator position I noticed last week on PSJD. I hate writing cover letters, but I felt a little more confident this time than I have in the past–mostly because I tried to keep in mind Christina’s advice from the resume makeover. I’ve repeated her first point from the first makeover post below; I tried to meet the goal she set out for us last week. In fact, all of last week’s advice carries over well; read the resume makeover post before continuing with this one.

* * *

Ready? Okay. I showed her the resulting cover letter, and it turns out I did alright. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have to rework significant portions of it, though. (Feel free to compare the letter before and after she critiqued it.) As with the resume makeover, I’ve summarized her strategy for each portion of the letter below, illustrating it where necessary with examples from my own efforts:

  1. YOUR GOAL (Redux): Speak the employer’s language. Your resume and cover letter are a one-two combination aimed to land you an interview. (To see the resume that would accompany this letter, check out the resume makeover post.) Between them, you need to fit as many of the position’s advertised responsibilities, duties, and qualifications as you can. Reorganize, rephrase, and rewrite your experiences so the employer sees you describe yourself in the terms they would use. Each cover letter will be different, but you may be able to recycle within categories of positions, based on the method of work you’d like to employ, the clients you’re seeking to serve, and the area of law you’d like to apply.In my first attempt,  I failed to fit in as much as I could:
Responsibilities: “Participate in program funding activities, including analyzing data and assisting with grant reporting.”

Before:  

[crickets]

After:  

“I’ve also developed internal data analysis tools to increase my accountability for…performance.”
  1. THE SALUTATION: Always be personal, even if you have to dig for a name. The job post I was working from asked me to send a letter to a catch-all institutional email. I wrote “To Whom it May Concern”–a HUGE mistake. You may have to do some research, but you should always be able to put a name at the top of your cover letter. For me, it was pretty simple. The post included the title of the person the Coordinator reports to; I just had to go to the employer’s website and find out who holds that title. If you’re stumped identifying your supervisor, try to find the most senior person in the department you’d work for. If the organization is smaller, you can write to the Executive Director. If you have no other option, you can use a person’s title for the salutation. But whatever you do, don’t use “To Whom it May Concern.”
  2. PARAGRAPH ONE: (1) Who you are and (2) why you’re writing them. I did okay with the first part, where I tried to describe myself using key nouns and verbs from the job post (see item #1). I was too implicit with the second part, though. Employers want you to tell them what they do, even though they already know. They don’t need to learn their mission from you, but they do need to see that you understand what it is:
Description: “Pro Bono Net…us[es] innovative technology to increase legal assistance for low-income and vulnerable individuals.”

Before:  

“Professionally, I am passionate about improving social outcomes for low-income and vulnerable individuals. Personally, I care about helping people better understand technology. I would love this job.”

After:  

“Professionally, I am passionate about improving social outcomes for low-income and vulnerable individuals. Personally, I care about helping people better understand technology. Pro Bono Net combines both my passions, deploying technology to help close the justice gap. I would love this job.”
  1. PARAGRAPH TWO+:

(a) DO tie your specific skillset(s) to the employer’s job description. As with the resume makeover (see item #3), Provide concrete examples of the kinds of work you’ve done in your various experiences–but be careful of clients’ confidentiality. Try to make sure your cover letter augments the information in your resume. For instance, for one position my resume describes what I did; my cover letter describes why I did it:

Description: “Liaise with national, regional, and local stakeholders…”
Qualifications: “…ability to make technology understandable to people without technical skills.”

Resume:  

“Interviewed students… Met with teaching staff…”

Cover Letter:  

“[M]y work…required me to explain…technological solutions to two disparate groups…”

(b)  DON’T include extraneous information. (If you’re curious what that looks like, check out the entire third paragraph of my original attempt.)

  1. LAST PARAGRAPH: Close simply and directly.
  2. A FEW NOTES ON GENERAL STYLE:
    • Research the employer to hit the right tone. Don’t treat my example as a general rule for what kind of language is acceptable. I played pretty close to the line for informal language in this cover letter, but I think I can get away with it based on the tone of the employer’s website. (For instance: “Passionate about public interest law? Love using the web? Consider joining our team!”) If the organization you want to work for (or you) are more straight-laced, find more professional ways to say the same thing:
Desired Message: “I am interested in working for you.”

Informal:  

“I would love this job.”

Formal:  

“This position is directly in line with my career goals.”
    • Avoid overstating your enthusiasm for entry-level work. I’m an effusive guy. I got away with “love,” but Christina drew the line at “thrilled.” (Avoid superlatives as well.)
    • Never run over a single page. (Oops.)

I’m not quite ready to hit send yet. When you think you’re done, wait until the next day whenever you can and look at the letter with fresh eyes. I’ll let you know how this resume-cover letter combo turns out. In the meantime, I’ll be working on a list of contacts for informational meetings (the next montage post).

Wax on, wax off.
-Sam

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Sam’s Soapbox: Detroit’s Water Crisis & What it Means for EVERY US City

Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015

First, the news:

One of the many community water stations that have emerged in response to the ongoing crisis in Detroit.
Citizens of Detroit: whistleblowers, not freeloaders.
(Photo: People’s Water Brigade-CC License)

Yesterday afternoon, two UN-appointed human rights investigators with mandates to understand and develop the human right to adequate housing and the human right to water (respectively) concluded their three-day investigation into Detroit’s ongoing humanitarian crisis with a press conference at the Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel.

According to their press release, the UN experts were “deeply startled” by the magnitude of people affected: “thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children.” As the UN News Center reports, the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water was particularly blunt: “It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.” The UN investigators called on the City of Detroit, the Federal government, and other lawmaking authorities to take a variety of steps to remedy Detroit’s problems and to protect against similar vulnerabilities elsewhere.

When people ask me what I would do if I could work on anything, I don’t blink: Water Affordability. This moment seems a perfect time to grab my first soapbox. Every once in awhile, I’ll take a break from more typical PSJD blogging to write about issues that matter to me personally as an advocate. This is a big one. The recent UN visit to Detroit invites a few questions which I’ll try to address in this post: First, is access to water for domestic uses a human right? Second, are thousands of people in Detroit really without the means to pay their bills? And third, why are some of the UN’s recommendations aimed at government actors generally—isn’t this a Detroit problem? In brief: yes, yes, and no.

The Human Right to Water – An Emergent Norm

Access to water for drinking and sanitation is a human right. It is explicitly mentioned in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has discussed at length the right’s implicit presence within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (ICESCR) “right to an adequate standard of living.” Within the last few years, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council have adopted resolutions formally recognizing the human right to water.

Granted, UN resolutions are not binding, and the United States has not ratified either CEDAW or the ICESCR. That’s likely why the Special Rapporteur’s comments yesterday were carefully shaded, discussing Detroit’s disconnections as “contrary to,” rather than “a violation of,” human rights.  That doesn’t make her wrong. The idea that human beings have a right to water for limited domestic purposes (drinking, cooking, washing, sanitation) and that states must progressively realize this right among the people they govern is an increasingly well-accepted international norm. Other countries may not have the means to provide water, but we do. And yet we do not. We are disconnecting thousands of people from water services for circumstances beyond their control, contrary to this emergent norm. Whether the United States has a legal obligation or not, it has failed its people in the eyes of the international community. That ought to be a big deal.

Water Affordability – A Nationwide Issue

So far, though, I’ve assumed that people losing access to water in Detroit have no control over their situation. As the Special Rapporteur said, disconnections are contrary to human rights only if the people disconnected “do not have the means to pay their bills.” How do I know that the residents of Detroit—half of whom were subject to disconnection notices this past summer—are actually that insolvent? It may be difficult to accept, but water is increasingly priced beyond the reach of many low-income families.

We’re used to thinking of water as inexpensive because for a long time the way we’ve managed it has prevented us from feeling the true cost of water service. For one thing, we’ve deferred maintenance on our water system for so long that estimates for the cost of renovations run from the hundreds of billions to the low trillions. Moreover, when we do pay up, it’ll be in a financial regime under which rate-payers are covering a much higher proportion of the tab than they used to. In previous phases of infrastructure development, state and federal governments would cover some costs in the form of grants. In the 1980s, we replaced these grants with loans, pushing water systems to charge their customers full-cost or nearly full-cost rates (see page 21). In the last 20 years, regular ratepayers have financed 90% of water and wastewater investments in the United States.

Logically, low-income households are the first to feel the pressure. The US Conference of Mayors and the American Water Works Association consider water to be “unaffordable” for households which must devote more than 2% of their monthly income to water bills. Little data available describes how many people in the United States live under these conditions, but what there is is discouraging. For example, the Pacific Institute recently estimated that over 100,000 households in the Sacramento region pay more than this 2% threshold. (Not people, households.)

As far as I know, most of these Sacramento households are still paying for water. The Pacific Institute’s study merely suggests they’re seriously struggling to afford their bills. Rules for how water utilities may proceed against customers in arrears vary from location to location, but many utilities will disconnect customers who fail to pay them. This measure might make sense in a system where water is cheap enough to be readily affordable for most people. In such a system, being disconnected would be a wakeup call to poorly-organized or dishonest individuals to take out their wallets and pay into the system. Disconnections would be brief, and would prevent anyone from freeloading.

But we don’t live in that system. When people genuinely can’t afford their water bills, they can’t simply pay up. Even if they find the money (and Detroit has had some success with collections through its shutoff campaign), qualitative research in Detroit and Boston suggests that families often turn their water back on by giving up prescription medications, food, or other essential goods also protected by human rights principles. If they can’t find the money, prolonged disconnections create severe consequences for affected families who find themselves unable to bathe at home (making it harder to stay employed), unable to cook or do laundry, forced to send children to live with relatives so child protective services won’t place them in foster care, and at risk of losing their homes entirely.

Struggling households aren’t asking for water to be free. Only for it to be affordable. If it were, some experts think water utilities might actually collect more revenue, not less. When customers genuinely can’t afford their bills, disconnecting them is more likely to result in default. The utility loses one of its customers, and must raise rates on every other customer in order to pay off the fixed cost of its infrastructure. If water utilities were to keep customers paying into the system at whatever rate they could manage (based on ability to pay), they would be able to put more toward these fixed costs than if they leave many former customers disconnected.

Looking Beyond Detroit

So far, much of the coverage of Detroit’s water crisis has assumed that the problem is specific to Detroit. I hope I’ve made the case it isn’t. As a nation, we’ve under-financed our water infrastructure and changed our finance strategies to rely on local ratepayers instead of state or federal tax dollars. As water becomes unaffordable for many Americans (just how many is hard to determine), the collections policies of many of our water utilities continue to assume it’s cheap. Detroit isn’t the only city where water disconnections are causing widespread human suffering: the problem is also significant in more prosperous cities like Boston. We don’t know how many such cities there are, and any city where large numbers of households struggle with their water bills is one economic shock away from the level of injustice and suffering that’s brought the United Nations’ humanitarian experts to Detroit’s doorstep. The citizens of Detroit who have been struggling to call attention to this issue for years are not freeloaders, but whistleblowers, working valiantly to inform the public of a hidden danger to us all.

I think the UN’s independent experts understand this. Speaking yesterday, they directed their recommendations not only to the City of Detroit but to the country generally. With one recommendation in particular, I think they’ve identified the smallest, simplest and easiest first step: They want federal and state agencies to deny funding and permits to water utilities that refuse to report annually on their water shutoff practices. From talking with non-profits focused on this issue, I’ve learned that the reason there’s little information about water affordability is because water utilities have resisted non-profits’ questions about their customer bases and survey methods like those used in Sacramento and Boston are difficult and expensive to implement. Tying utilities’ funding and development permissions to these reporting requirements would require only a small commitment from governments, but would generate the information we all need to truly understand the scale of this problem and –hopefully–will bring us one step closer to forming the political resolve we need to fix it.

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EJW Fellowship Deadlines EXTENDED for Animal Rights, Texas Orgs

Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015

If you’re not sure what to do with your weekend, here’s a suggestion: consider applying for an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Regular readers may recall that in my post on Project-Based Fellowships a few weeks back, I noted that Equal Justice Works Fellowships are about the most prominent (along with Skadden Fellowships). An EJW Fellowship is a fantastic start to a public interest career: By the organization’s own count, over 85% of Fellows are able to continue their careers in public interest. A number of them go on to become the Executive Directors of legal service organizations or found their own organizations themselves.

At this point, though, you may be confused. After all, the initial application deadline for EJW Fellowships was September 17th. But that’s why I’m excited: Equal Justice Works has extended the application deadlines for two subsets of their Project-Based Fellowships. Specifically, if you’re interested in working on a variety of legal aid issues in Texas or on Animal Law issues anywhere, you should strongly consider reaching out to organizations to create project proposals right now. In Texas, one foundation issuing EJW grants would like to see a larger pool of applications before it begins to evaluate its candidates. In the Animal Law field, it seems as though the overall demand was greater than initial interest. Either way, if you’re interested in these two areas its not too late to apply for an EJW Fellowship this year! Here’s how EJW explained their decision to extend these deadlines:

Texas Access to Justice Foundation Grantee Fellowships:

“We recently learned that Equal Justice Works’ applicant pool for the 2015-16 Class has very few applicants with [Texas Access to Justice Foundation] grantees as the host organization. While TAJF has made no decision regarding any current applicants, they have asked Equal Justice Works to re-open the application to diversity the pool. Again, the quality of the current candidates has not yet been reviewed or judged—this decision is about the total number of applications received. All applicants will be carefully reviewed once the pool is complete…The new deadline for these Fellowship applications is December 1, 2014 at 5:00pm EST. Should you have any questions please contact Carolyn Schorr at cschorr@equaljusticeworks.org or (202) 466-3686 ext. 137. To speak to TAJF about this opportunity, please contact Lisa Melton at ldmelton@teajf.org.”

EJW also directs potential applicants to this list of Texas Access to Justice Foundation’s grantees.

Animal Law Fellowships:

“Equal Justice Works is extending the deadline for applicants interested in working on Animal Law issues! There is a growing demand for strong candidates with top quality projects across the country. You now have until November 15th, 2014 to submit an application…If you have questions about Equal Justice Works Fellowships, please visit our website or contact cschorr@equaljusticeworks.org.”

Good luck with your project proposals!

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Winter is Coming: Homeless Advocates Prep for Cold Weather Services. Can You Help?

Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015

As I write, my co-workers are festooning my desk with plastic ghosts and rubber spiders. It’s fall. But while DC’s nights may only be beginning to bite, for homeless advocacy organizations it’s already time to start preparing for winter, when shelter can be a matter of life or death for individuals experiencing homelessness here and in cities around the country. In one way or another, volunteers are often crucial to helping their neighbors make it through the winter. If you want to be involved, the time to begin is now:

5391417848_7a451cba6e_z
Ameriqa [Zach Stern, 25 Jan 2011]
Limited License under Creative Commons

For example, in the District of Columbia formal responsibility for ensuring homeless individuals survive the winter lies with the city. DC’s Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005 provides that the District “shall” provide space indoors for homeless people when the temperature falls below freezing [§7(c)]. It’s one of the few cities in the United States that does so. But as DC’s homeless population has grown to include more families (who have an additional, more expensive right to separate facilities [§7(d)]), these families have become increasingly less welcome in District shelters. In recent years, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has found DC officials shutting the door on homeless families through “unlawful procedures that have created almost insurmountable obstacles.” According to the Legal Clinic’s 2013 report, DC officials have failed to call hypothermia conditions in a timely fashion after freezing forecasts, denied pregnant women and single fathers shelter placement, and threatened to expel families for unauthorized reasons. This is where you come in.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has responded by creating the Homeless Family Outreach Project. The project depends on law students and community members willing to serve as volunteers. These volunteers stand in front of the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, DC’s central intake center for families seeking shelter (920 Rhode Island Avenue NE). They pass out flyers and speak one-on-one with families about the family right to shelter under DC law and other rights crucial to survival under severe weather conditions. They provide families with contact information for local officials so homeless families can speak to decision-makers about their needs. Finally, volunteers connect families who believe they have been unlawfully denied shelter or who have suffered from other legal violations to legal counsel at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless so that an attorney can try to assist them.

The project itself won’t begin until next month: volunteer outreach runs Monday – Thursday from November 1st to March 31st in two shifts (8:00 – 9:30am and 3:00 – 4:30pm). But volunteers must attend a training before doing outreach. (For more information or to RSVP for a training, contact the Legal Clinic’s volunteer coordinator at Kaitlyn.uhl@legalclinic.org or call 202-328-1263.)

Homeless advocacy groups in other cities may not have as strong a legal hook to hang their winter efforts on, but there are groups across the country doing what they can within their own communities to help folks see another Spring. If you’re curious about what work is happening in your own area, you might try looking up the respondent organizations to the National Coalition for the Homeless’ 2010 Report on Winter Homeless Services. If you know what work is happening in your own area and you’d like to receive the same attention from PSJD as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, write to me at psjd@nalp.org and I’ll post your volunteer information as an update to this article.

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Starting your project-based fellowship proposal: Where and why lawyers give great ideas away

by Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow (2014 – 2015)

Those of you in your last year of law school are probably considering the variety of organizations offering themselves as potential partners for 2015’s batch of project-based fellowships.

If you haven’t heard about these entry-level opportunities, here’s the short version: they’re the most straightforward way to do what you are most interested in straight out of law school. You should read each fellowship’s application materials carefully before applying, but speaking loosely each follows a similar model: Prospective fellows partner with non-profit organizations to propose new projects that the hopeful applicant would undertake—projects which would expand the scope of the sponsoring non-profit’s work. Fellowship committees provide grants to their new Fellows to complete the proposed project at the host organization. In other words, successful fellowship candidates write their own job descriptions—not a bad first year as a lawyer.

The tricky part about getting a project-based fellowship is that you can’t apply on your own. You have to convince a non-profit to sponsor your application. You can find a sizeable number of non-profits looking for promising potential fellows to sponsor right now on PSJD. (Try searching for “Job Type: Fellowship – Legal: Project-Based” in the advanced search or searching for the keyword “Fellowship Sponsor” [in quotations].) Some of these organizations have project ideas already, and are looking for a 3L with the right experiences and skillset to successfully pull them off. Many, however, expect prospective fellows to bring their own proposals to the table.

This can be a daunting task. At the beginning of your third year of legal education, you may have been exposed to public-interest legal work through your internships or a clinic, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve observed some “group or issue not adequately represented in our legal system” and arrived at a clear idea about how to address the problem legally with the support of a host organization, to paraphrase the EJW Application Guide. So, as you set out to secure yourself a sponsor, you may be wondering, “Where do project ideas come from?”

In the non-profit legal world, there is far more work to be done than resources with which to do it. Mostly, this fact is discouraging. But students looking for project ideas should take heart: with a little research, you can find a plethora of already-identified legal needs begging for more attention.

Some of these issues are lucky enough to make the news. For example, last May NPR ran “Guilty and Charged”: a special series documenting at length its yearlong investigation into nationwide practices punishing impoverished defendants more harshly than those with means.  Among other resources, the series includes a state-by-state survey of costs courts pass on to defendants and profiles of a variety of individuals who suffered at the hands of such fee-based justice systems. If you’re interested in procedural due process or economic justice, check out the series and see what jumps out at you.

When reading NPR’s series, one thing you’ll notice is that particular legal organizations, such as the Southern Center for Human Rights, NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, and Arch City Defenders, drove NPR’s reporting. Many legal practitioners already know what they would work on if they had the resources and the manpower. Not all of them are fortunate enough to attract NPR’s attention. Look for organizations with missions related to your particular social concerns (try searching PSJD’s employer profiles) and see if they have white papers or reports about emergent issues they hope to address. For example, Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute funds a student-led fact-finding mission investigating an emerging human rights crisis each year. Each mission generates a report based on its research, but few of them attract enough resources to continue their work beyond their initial year. A number of these reports focus on human rights crises in the United States and would be excellent sources for a project proposal.

Once you find an idea that grabs you, try following up with some of the legal authorities behind it. An email or phone call might seem pushy, but these organizations will have unbeatable insight into what needs to be done next and will jump at the chance to help you convince a fellowship committee to devote resources to their issue. (Speaking personally, I would love to see my past work with Georgetown on urban water shutoffs receive this kind of attention from prospective project fellows.)

So remember, if you’re stuck: The proposal will be yours. The project will be yours. The inspiration doesn’t have to be. While you’ve been in school, some lawyer somewhere is already championing your particular interest. Find out what that person would do with enough time or enough money and begin your project proposal there.

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The ABA’s Steve Grumm Breaks Down New York’s New Pro Bono Scholars Program

During last week’s annual State of the Judiciary address, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced the new voluntary Pro Bono Scholars Program. This new initiative would allow 3Ls to study and sit for the February bar exam and spend the rest of their final year of law school completing pro bono work with an academic component.

Steve Grumm, friend of NALP and director of the ABA Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives, recently posted a few initial thoughts and reactions on the Program for the ABA’s Access to Justice blog:

  • How are we defining “pro bono”? Clearly academic credit is not a barrier b/c it’s a part of the Program. How about paid/stipended placements? Since the Program is connected with the 50-hour Rule, maybe the Program will use the 50-hour Rule’s broad definition of pro bono. [EDIT: a law school administrator friend weighed in: “The definition will need to comply with the requirements of participating law schools’ clinical/externship/academic programs. So it is not clear that pro bono work for which law students are paid will be allowed because the law schools will not be allowed to grant academic credit for paid pro bono work (even though certain paid pro bono work can count towards the 50-hour bar admission rule).”]

  • Can/will law schools reduce tuition on 3L spring semester?

  • Could a student participate in the Program without sitting for the Feb. bar exam?

  • To whom do 2Ls apply to participate in the Program? Their school, NY Board of Law examiners, NY courts? My guess based on the Chief’s announcement is that the schools will administer Program participation.

  • When will the Program roll out? Presumably this depends on the pace of the Advisory Committee and Task Force work, and the time law schools will need to create administrative structures.

To read the full blog post, including Chief Judge Lippman’s full address, head over to the ABA Access to Justice blog.

 

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Class of 2013 Skadden Fellows again a mixed group

The Skadden Foundation has listed its Class-of-2013 fellows.  Twenty-nine fellows, hailing from 16 law schools, will begin their projects next year.  Six schools had multiple fellowship awardees: Columbia (2); Harvard (6); NYU (4); Stanford (2); Georgetown (2) and Yale (3).  Other schools from which fellows come include Penn, Michigan State, University of Washington, Boston College, UCLA, UC Irvine, Washington & Lee, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, and University of Illinois.  The 2013 Class includes four additional fellowships funded in memory of Joe Flom and Peter Mullen.  The Fellows will work in 10 states and the District of Columbia, focusing on issues ranging from the harassment of LGBT students in rural, impoverished regions of New York State to the foreclosure of homes of working poor Los Angeles families.

For comparison’s sake, here’s how previous Skadden Fellowship classes looked:

  • 2012:  28 fellows from 16 law schools;
  • 2011:  29 fellows from 21 law schools;
  • 2010: 27 fellows from 20 law schools;
  • 2009: 28 fellows from 14 law schools;
  • 2008: 36 fellows from 16 law schools.

Congratulations to the Class of 2013!  The Fellowship is such a extraordinary honor, and we look forward to seeing the great things you will accomplish.

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