Archive for Uncategorized

Job’o’th’week (Entry/Experienced Edition) – National Juvenile Defender Center

Help Wanted Photo: Brenda Gottsabend – CC License

Attention: Multiple OpportunitiesThe National Juvenile Defender Center is looking for 2 Project Attorneys to work in a partnership with the Civil Legal Service Initiative Coordinator, to engage in a blend of practice and policy initiatives designed to provide the field with critical support to ensure the development of cooperative juvenile defense and civil legal services at the local and national level. The Project Attorneys will be engaged in cutting-edge, multi-faceted work, providing research, legal advocacy, policy development, and direct services.

If this sounds like something for you, check out the full post on PSJD. (Application Deadline: November 1, 2015)


Job(s)’o’th’Week (Experienced Edition) – Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)

Help Wanted Photo: Brenda Gottsabend – CC License

Attention! Multiple job opportunities! The Southern Poverty Law Center is looking for two staff attorneys, one in Miami, Florida, the other in Jackson, Mississippi and a senior staff attorney in Montgomery, Alabama. The Southern Poverty Law Center is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. Their legal department focuses on cases and campaigns involving the rights of children, prisoners, immigrants, the LGBT community, victims of hate crimes, and people living in poverty.

If any of these positions sound like something for you, check out the full postings on PSJD:
Staff Attorney (Miami) | Staff Attorney (Jackson) | Senior Staff Attorney (Montgomery).

(No Application Deadlines Specified)


Job’o’th’Week (Fellowship Edition) – Natural Resources Defense Council

Help Wanted Photo: Brenda Gottsabend – CC License

It’s the beginning of the school year which means that Fellowship season is officially upon us! This week we feature a fantastic fellowship for those of you environmentally inclined. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is seeking a recent law school graduate to serve as the Charles Koob Environmental Litigation Fellow, to begin work starting in September 2016. The Koob Fellow will be based either in Washington, D.C. or San Francisco, CA and will focus on litigation to redress environmental and public health harms, air and water pollution, climate change, threats to endangered species, environmental injustice, and exposure to toxic chemicals.

If this sounds like something for you, check out the full post on PSJD. (Application deadline: September 25, 2015)


NALP Conference Sneak Peek: The Low Down on Low Bono

PSJD has pulled up stakes this week and decamped to NALP’s Annual Education Conference. At the moment, we’re preparing for the arrival of our conference participants on Wednesday. (We hope to see you there!) In particular, I’m excited for the large number of public-interest-oriented meetings taking place over the course of the conference. To kick your week off, here’s a piece from Niloufar Khonsari, the founder of Pangea Legal Services and a presenter at the conference. Enjoy, and remember–if you’re attending the conference you can follow-up about affordable fee work with her in person on Friday!

The Low Down on Low Bono:
Identifying a Need and Starting up a Nonprofit Organization

While the government funds many important pro bono programs in the United States, low-income communities are still underserved in many legal service areas: housing, family, criminal justice, public benefits, immigration and more.  This article focuses on the gap in immigration and removal defense services in Northern California and how nonprofit organizations can sustain themselves while filling some of that gap.

More than 29,000 immigrants currently find themselves in court proceedings at the San Francisco Immigration Court.[1]  Nationally, there are over 431,000 immigrants in court proceedings. With increased deportations nationwide, there is a clear need for court and immigration defense services. Immigrants in removal proceedings need a lawyer because of the complexity of immigration law and the negative consequences of deportation. Also, many immigrants in the court process are eligible for relief or protection under existing laws, and they may have a pathway to citizenship.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of immigrants have immediate access to legal counsel.  Private immigration attorneys can be prohibitively expensive. And most nonprofits, even in San Francisco, do not represent clients in complex removal proceedings. The key to this gap is providing access to counsel.

Pangea Legal Services (Pangea) is one example of an organization that was created to help bridge the access gap. While it hasn’t come without its challenges, Pangea created a low-fee, sliding-scale model that grew to five full-time employees between January 2013 and December 2014.  Low bono, or affordable fee models similar to Pangea are growing around the country in various areas of law, creating a financially viable avenue to fill the justice gap.[2]

Be Entrepreneurial and Find the Gaps.  You don’t need decades of experience to start an organization. As Steve Jobs said, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you.  And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”  The entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley tend to have three things in common: 1) identifying a solution to a problem, 2) pursuing that solution proactively, and 3) committing to creating social value.  Pangea was able to identify that within the area of immigration, deportation defense was significantly underserviced by the nonprofit community. This discovery was made by volunteering in the immigration nonprofit community, participating in policy advocacy work around immigration issues, and surveying senior advocates in the field about the needs within immigration legal services.  Identifying this gap and focusing on creating a solution for it was central to Pangea’s startup.

Get a Mentor, Ask for Advice.  Founder of ZenPayroll, Joshua Reeves, said that not having industry experience can be a real asset, as long as you recognize what you don’t know.[3]  Identifying what you don’t know then can be addressed by seeking guidance and mentorship in that field. The legal field is vast and complex and so is the world of human resources, employment law, finance, and nonprofit governance. There are many online resources and listservs, but personal relationships with experts in the field are the most helpful.  Many practitioners and experts are open to meeting with and advising nonprofits; connecting can be as easy as making a phone call or sending an email.  For its governance structure and compliance efforts, Pangea is currently in the process of building a team of advisors with expertise in areas such as finance and employment law.  For its legal services, Pangea has a network of at least a dozen senior attorneys from whom attorneys seek mentorship regularly. The organization has a weekly one-hour mentorship session with rotating senior immigration attorneys to consult on legal strategy, procedural questions, and complicated immigration cases.  The key to successful mentorship and seeking advisors is identifying your needs and organizational gaps.

Create Partnerships, Learn from Other Nonprofits.  Nonprofit organizations often collaborate with other nonprofit organizations on advocacy efforts, direct actions, clinics, and other projects.  Join their circles and learn from them!  This can be viewed as an extension of your organizational efforts to seek mentorship and formal advisors. Networks and partnerships with other organizations are essential to strong advocacy and quality legal representation, as they offer many tools, lessons, and resources for your organization.  Your local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) could be a great starting point.  Pangea staff began participating in advocacy coalitions and learning from other nonprofits through the local NLG-Bay Area immigration committee and the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee (SFIRDC).  Many of Pangea’s cases would not be successful, but for the strong partnerships, friendships, guidance and support from partner groups.

Obtaining 501(c)(3) status is not hard.  Registering a 501(c)(3) is logistically easier than you think.  You will need a Board of Directors, Articles of Incorporation, and Bylaws.  The instructions laid out in Form 1023 specify that you should set aside approximately ten hours to prepare and assemble your IRS filing.  While you can do it yourself, there are many pro bono attorneys at law firms, nonprofit organizations such as The Foundation Center, or low fee attorneys that can help you prepare your 1023.  Pangea received guidance from individuals who previously registered organizations, and we prepared our own forms without formal legal assistance.  This IRS process is more straightforward than one might believe; the key is to just do it.

Go Low Bono.  Low bono is an alternative to the corporate method of hourly billing at market rates.  Low bono could mean offering your legal services at below-market rates and allowing clients to pay through a low fee payment plan. The IRS has no cap on fees for services or products for nonprofit organizations, so the only restriction is the ability to pay of the community you seek to serve. There are very indigent clients who cannot pay any fee and require pro bono services.  However, there are also many hard-working low-income and moderate-income individuals who are more than willing to pay relatively small fees in increments (a few hundred dollars a month).  Many clients actually prefer to pay a small fee and invest into their case.  Pangea’s current low bono model is one that has a set fee for service, with a sliding scale monthly installment plan. Organizationally, finding the right balance between being sustainable and accessible can be challenging, and it is a continual trial and error process. While there are ongoing fee adjustments and necessary revenue diversification efforts in place at Pangea, the sliding scale low bono structure has created a starting point to create greater access to counsel for low-income immigrants.

Financial Assistance for Student Debt.  If you are going to hire lawyers straight out of law school and retain them, or, if you are in debt yourself, going low bono in a private practice will likely not pay your student loans. Fortunately, federal loan payment and forgiveness programs exist, and many law schools provide loan repayment assistance to attorneys working in nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Thus, incorporating as a nonprofit organization can provide critical financial assistance to your likely indebted staff.[4]

Scale-up with foundation support and grants.  Foundation and other grant funding is important to help you build capacity, scale up efforts, diversify the revenue pool, and increase pro bono services.  It can also support your engagement in non-revenue producing work such as legal empowerment, education efforts, and policy advocacy work. Starting with a sliding-scale fee structure can make your organization sustainable while leveraging foundation support for expansion efforts. There is a worry that this may reduce the funding pool for already existing free legal service providers; however it is possible that low bono structures will attract a new set of funders that previously did not exist, thus increasing the funding pool for all.  Funders prefer organizations that have diverse sources of revenue and are not solely reliant on one funding stream.  A low bono model allows you to create a consistent revenue stream of funds enabling you to do your work as you build on your organizational mission and vision; it creates a viable platform for funders to see your potential as a partner. For Pangea, the revenue brought in through low fees has leveraged additional resources (from the San Francisco and Silicon Valley Community Foundations) to go further than a new organization could if it were seeking funding from point zero.

Be Excellent.  This means working hard, focusing on thoroughness, addressing all issues and questions head-on, not leaving any pages unturned, and submitting timely products. It also means reacting to developments quickly, going the extra mile, and delivering for the community. Recognition of quality work happens quickly in the nonprofit community and building credibility is vital to a strong foundation. In the long term, the combination of dedication to excellent services and accessibility through low fees is a guaranteed recipe for success.

The nonprofit low bono model is an important capacity builder in developing access to legal services.  It is efficient, sustainable, and scalable. By creating organizations based on the low bono model, the legal needs of our low- and moderate-income communities can be increasingly met to create greater pathways to relief and safety.


Niloufar Khonsari is an immigration attorney and the founder of nonprofit organization, Pangea Legal Services, available at nilou [at]

[2] See, e.g. Open Legal Services,

[3] Joshua Reeves, “A Marathon, Not a Sprint,” Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Podcast, Feb. 25, 2015.

[4] It should be noted that many low bono private practice attorneys can use “Pay as you Earn” to pay back their student loans, which caps their payments based on their income and provides loan forgiveness after 20 years.



Spotlight on Student Public Service & Pro Bono: Restorative Justice at Strawberry Mansion High

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.

Today, Christina is in Philadelphia presenting the Pro Bono Publico award to our 2014-15 recipient, Alex Dutton.  Alex, a student at Temple University Beasley School of Law, receives this year’s award for his work supporting Youth Court programs throughout the city of Philadelphia, beginning with his involvement at Strawberry Mansion High School. 

Restorative Justice at Strawberry Mansion High
Alex Dutton, PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award Recipient, 2014-2015
(Temple University Beasley School of Law)–

Strawberry Mansion High School, “Mansion” as it’s known in the community, is a behemoth of a building that consumes several city blocks at the corner of 31st Street and Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia.  Across the street are abandoned rowhomes, collapsing in upon themselves.  Students, dressed in collared shirts and khakis, scurry over jagged sidewalks under the shadows of the school’s immense façade.  Walking past the police car eternally parked on Ridge Avenue in front of the school, they file in through the front doors.  They wait to be screened by the metal detector.  Some of the students make it to the courtroom on the third floor on time, others straggle in late.  Always, the law students and attorneys are there, waiting, in this gem of a room (fitted with a jury box, witness stand, and bench) in the corner of a forgotten school in a forgotten neighborhood.  From the jury box, one can just barely make out the top of the William Penn statute that stands atop Philadelphia’s City Hall.  Eventually, a diminutive young lady, cloaked in a long black robe, adjourns the court.

No Right to Be Heard: Suspension Law and Due Process

Pennsylvania law provides effectively zero process for students suspended for three days or less.  In contrast, state law, pursuant to the Federal Constitution, requires school districts to provide formal process to students at risk of expulsion. 22 Pa. Code § 12.8(b).  In Philadelphia, a consent decree compels the School District of Philadelphia (“the District”) to provide similar procedural rights to students at risk of transfer to a disciplinary school. Dunmore v. School Dist. of Philadelphia, No. 72-43 (E.D. Pa, Feb. 14, 1973).  That same consent decree requires the District to hold a conference with students suspended on a short-term basis.  This conference is meant to provide staff, by speaking with the student, an opportunity to identify the student’s problematic behaviors and implement corrective techniques.  (Recall: this is still more than most students get in Pennsylvania, because of Dunmore.)

There are nearly 200,000 students in Philadelphia.  Cuts at the state level critically reduced funding for educational support staff, including guidance counselors and conflict resolution specialists.  As a result, these student conferences are perfunctory, if they are happening at all.  (I’m careful not to place blame with the District here; the District has done—and continues to do—a tremendous job reforming the process it provides students who are at risk of disciplinary transfer.)  Most students are just sent home with suspension paperwork and told to come back in a day or two.  In addition, many students are constantly funneled through in-school suspension—as damaging as a traditional exclusion—without any meaningful process or opportunity to be heard.

While this gap in due process may seem insignificant, it means schools suspend significantly more students than they might if each case were more carefully considered.  Research has long demonstrated that students who are suspended fare much worse than their peers.  Short-term suspensions are the entry point to the school-to-prison pipeline.  Suspensions lead to more suspensions, which precipitate expulsions and dropout, eventually pushing students into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  What’s more, recent research posits that students who remain in the classroom when their peers are suspended are worse off, too.[1]  Youth courts purport to fill this gap in due process, staffed with the greatest resource in the District: students.

Youth Courts and Restorative Justice

There are various models for youth courts.  Some use a traditional adversarial approach, assigning students to the roles of prosecutor and defense counsel.  Others use restorative justice techniques.  Restorative justice de-emphasizes school exclusion and challenges students to think constructively about conflict resolution.  At Strawberry Mansion, we used a restorative model.

When we first introduced restorative justice principles, our students were lost.  During a “mock” hearing, the jury wanted to force their peer “respondent” to clean the bathroom with a toothbrush for talking back to a teacher.  This, coming from students whose families had been ripped apart by the criminal and family justice systems?  (Just weeks earlier a student told a federal prosecutor that “all prosecutors and judges should burn in hell!”)  I couldn’t believe it.  I took a step back and thought to myself: Alex, you’re so naïve.  How could you ever expect anyone to respond in any other way other than what they’ve been taught, what they’ve learned through experience?  Our students were raised on punitive discipline.  In school, they were suspended and expelled.  On the streets, they were arrested and sent away.  So when we elevated our students to figures of authority, they reflected these punitive inclinations.

It was up to us to help our students question their assumptions about justice and conflict resolution.  We pressed our students to think about the impact of rules and the policies behind them.  Specifically, we encouraged them to consider the purposes of punishment, with a sharp focus on rehabilitation and restoration.  Why is making a student clean the bathroom an appropriate punishment for acting out in class?  How does the punishment relate to the harm the student caused to his classmates?  They applied these concepts in the hearings.

Our far-reaching goal is that students will apply these principles to their daily lives, in school and in their communities.  In the meantime, the youth court provided an opportunity for student-respondents, previously silenced under more primitive discipline regimes, to be heard.  In addition to providing process, the youth court destabilized the school-to-prison pipeline at Mansion: if the respondent completed his restorative assignment, the offense would be wiped from his record.  More importantly, he stayed in school.  Rather than being alienated from his peers, he engaged with them.

A Day in the Life of the Strawberry Mansion Youth Court: Lawyering Skills Alive in the Classroom

Student-respondents who appear before their peers must admit responsibility for violating the school code.  (And, really, these are minor infractions: cell phone use, uniform violations, talking in class, walking the halls, refusing to do school work, arguing with another student, arriving late to class.)  Effectively, the youth court process is a dispositional hearing; peer questioning exposes facts relevant to determining an appropriate punishment—the restorative assignment.

Prior to the hearing, the respondent meets with his “youth advocate,” a high school student trained to defend him.  With the assistance of a law student, the youth advocate interviews her peer-client.  She listens to him.  She inquires as to his motivations and what he thinks the appropriate punishment should be.  She levels with him when he is unreasonable.  Then, she presents this information to the jury: an opening statement.  Through this process, students learn crucial listening skills and gain exposure to public speaking.

Next, the judge opens the floor for questions from the jury.  To facilitate greater class participation, the jurors ask their peer-respondent questions.  The jurors proceed, guided by the Mansion Court’s mantra: FACTS.  HARM.  FIX IT.  Through questioning, the jurors attempt to uncover the facts of the case, the harm caused to the community by their peer’s conduct, and possible constructive solutions.  By uncovering the facts of what happened, the students assessed his culpability.  By inquiring into harm, the jurors determined the segments of the community that were affected and ripe for restoration.  As they go, the students fill out charts labeled: FACTS.  HARM.  FIX IT.  Their questions forced their peer to critically examine the consequences of his actions and included the him in the restorative process: “now that you have identified the harm caused, if any, what can you do to repair that harm, to restore our school community?”

We provided the high school students with the skills they needed to conduct this process.  We trained them in questioning techniques: open-ended and closed-ended questions, funneling, etc.  We exposed them to principles of restorative justice.  And we trained them to be good listeners.  (These are all skills that are often overlooked in law school.)

Youth Court at Strawberry Mansion HighTogether, the students guide their peers through the restorative process, making objections and requesting sidebars–concepts the Youth Court program staff never taught.
(Photo courtesy of Alex Dutton)

Together, the students guide their peers through the restorative process.  Every now and then, the youth advocate stands up: “Your Honor, they keep asking my client the same questions; make them move on to a solution.”  An objection!  The foreman disagrees: “we are trying to get to the bottom of what happened.”  The judge is concerned: “can you two come over here to talk with me.”  A sidebar!  We never taught these concepts.  The students, empowered with the skills to resolve disputes, improvised.  Advocates called out unfairness; jurors objected because they were untangling important and difficult aspects of the case; judges adjusted to ensure civility and efficiency.  All of this to ensure that their peer received his day in their courtroom.

Eventually, the jury returns a verdict: a parent conference so that the school knows the student’s father plans to call the school in the morning to make sure his daughter arrived safely.  Why?  She had been stepping out of the classroom each morning to pick up her father’s call.

Final Remarks

Of course, youth courts are far from the only solution to the school pushout problem.  In my view, school districts should adopt a variety of interventions—some restorative, some not—that would collectively transform schools from punitive institutions to compassionate, empowering communities.  Our schools expend so much energy excluding students from school, just to kick the can down the road—to another school, or worse, to our public dependency systems, including prison.  Why not spend this energy empowering our students?

My charge to future law students and lawyers is this: be creative, be bold!  Youth courts provide a platform for young people to reform their schools; a legal education is your platform to improve your community.

[1] Brea L Perry & Edward W. Morris, Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools, 79 No. 7 American Sociological Review 1067 (December 2014).


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.


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.


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.


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.”




“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.”


“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.”


“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.”

(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.”


“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.
    • 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.”


“I would love this job.”


“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’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.