Expert Opinion: an Interview with Alejandro Reyes of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
[Editor's note: "Expert Opinion" is a weekly feature which offers insight , opinion, and career advice from attorneys in a broad array of public interest positions. This week's post is an interview with Alejandro Reyes that was conducted by PSJD's Summer Publications Coordinator, Maria Hibbard. In the interest of full disclosure, Alejandro has bought your PSJD blog editor some great Thai lunches over the years. Next one's on me. Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom, Alejandro!]
An Interview with Alejandro Reyes….
Alejandro Reyes is counsel at the Laywers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., where as a member of the Legal Mobilization Project he works on civil rights issues related to fair housing, voting, and immigrant rights. After hearing him speak on a panel at the Washington Council of Lawyers’ annual Summer Forum, I sat down to talk with him more about his path to becoming a public interest lawyer. After graduating from the Howard University School of Law, he went on to complete an Equal Justice Works fellowship with Gulfcoast Legal Services and then worked as an attorney with Florida Legal Services.
Can you give us a brief outline of how you advanced to the job you are in today? Was this position what you originally planned on doing, or was your career trajectory part of an evolving process?
No career is a straight line–although I started law school wanting to be a public interest lawyer, and specifically an immigration lawyer. I was teaching ESL classes in D.C., and one of the main problems that I saw among the individuals I worked with was that they were paying huge sums of money to firms to solve their immigration issues, even when they didn’t have cases. That’s when I started thinking about going to law school and getting more serious about the process. In law school, I did two summer internships that were immigration related and one civil rights policy internship, and they really solidified my interests. When I was getting close to graduating law school, I was pretty sure I wanted to pursue a fellowship–specifically an Equal Justice Works fellowship–and I started talking to my internship host at the time (Gulfcoast Legal Services) about the possibility of being a fellowship sponsor.
How did your contacts with previous employers, professors, and colleagues influence your job search, if any?
Talking to my supervisor at Gulfcoast Legal Services and others that I met through the organization helped define what my fellowship project would look like. Even though they had just secured another immigration-focused Equal Justice Works fellow and didn’t think they could sponsor another one, I was eventually introduced to the idea of doing a fellowship proposal based on farm worker and migrant rights. Even though it was not what I was originally focused on, it was related, and it allowed me to do a fellowship at an organization where I wanted to be.
Generally, if you try hard enough, and you care about your work, you will succeed in public interest. The most important part, though, is to have advocates who have seen your work product, who care about you, and want you to succeed. Someone once told me to “walk away with powerful advocates” at every chance you get–so you need to find ways to have meaningful, continuing contact with your previous supervisors, professors or colleagues. Since the public interest law world is so small, you can’t do it alone–you need the support of others.
What experiences or internships did you complete in law school that helped prepare you for your work today?
Although I came to law school knowing what I wanted to do, I was inspired by studying the work of Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston in school. My internships in law school during both the summer and the school year shaped me more than anything else, though–there I was able to really see the work that I wanted to do in action and develop relationships. Going to law school, passing the bar, etc. were just requirements that were part of the path for me.
If I had the chance to go back, I wish I would have known how important it is to build quality professional relationships
Would you change your preparation for this position in any way if you had the chance?
If I had the chance to go back, I wish I would have known how important it is to build quality professional relationships. The advantage of reaching out to someone who works in an area in which you want to work is that they’ve done this before, and they therefore have years of experience in the area, so that they know how things work.
I also wish I would have better understood how legal services funding works. Where the funding is coming from, and how much is there, can really affect your ability to do your job–determine if your job even exists. Because of this funding uncertainty, there really is a lack of job security that is not there in private practice or in the federal government. You have to have very good reasons for going into this type of work–otherwise, there’s too many unknowns.
What advice would you offer to law students seeking a position in your area of practice?
There’s many schools of thought on this: the first says that you should develop a practice-specific resume, focusing intensely on one area so that you are the clearly the best candidate for a job. The second says that you should diversify and gain a wide variety of experiences. I’ve seen that a person who diversifies has to be a lot better at articulating a compelling story as to their motivations and goals, especially in interviews–otherwise, the individual who has focused on one area may come across as the better candidate.
[Ed. note: Alejandro mentions the importance of professional networking as well as the value that his Equal Justice Works fellowship had in helping him carve out a career path. Don't miss PSJD's resources on professional networking and postgraduate fellowships. And email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with suggestions on how we can be most helpful to you.]