Crying like John Boehner

I have tears in my eyes from reading the “About” page on Equal Justice Works.

So many folks in law, and outside of law, fail to understand let alone realize what it is to want to be a public interest lawyer. To want to represent the un-represented and under-represented. People outside the disciplines that make up the legal system read the sensational stories everyday and maybe have been or are parties in cases themselves. And they imagine either scruffy, aggressive underdogs or finely-suited dripping with big words tort or corporate lawyers.

But I’ve wanted to work in this field all my life, literally all my life, and the tears come from remembering the crusades – literal crusades – those of us in law school who believed in public interest law had to fight and follow to describe the desire to others, not to mention: find jobs that would keep us clothed.

Think I’m being dramatic? Read this. People do not get why anyone would turn down money, egads.

I remember going to Washington, DC for my first National Association for Public Interest Law conference (NAPIL is now the Equal Justice Center). I went with another law school student and former law school instructor, Paula Klausner. Paula had been a a nurse before going to law school (she’s married to professor Jonathan Gordon for those familiar with Case’s law school). And it appears as though she’s gone back to nursing as well.

When I’d been accepted to Case’s joint degree program in law and social work in early 1988, I visited Cleveland to check it out. Case set me up with Paula for a day. Obviously the experience stuck with me and I chose Case. But then, when I started school, I continued to follow this public interest law (not to be confused with public law, which has to do with municipal ordinances etc.) track. At the time, Paula and a few others were working with the school and the Biskind family to create a fellowship program for students who wanted to do summer work in public interest law and also to create a bona fide loan forgiveness program such as those that other law schools had created.

NB: The Skadden Fellowship, based at the NYC law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meacher & Flom, is the most well-known and possibly oldest assistance program for law school grads who want to work in the public interest.

NB2: Mass. Senator Ted Kennedy is championing the Student Debt Relief Act which includes a loan forgiveness provision for college graduates who work in the public interest; so far, it’s only been introduced.

NB3: I knew about the Skadden initiative because I’d been working at the Yale Development Office for the years before I moved to Cleveland. Part of my job was to read 10-30 magazines a week and search for Yalies with money or positions we didn’t know about. The initiative was big news in those periodicals and got a lot of play partially in reaction to conservatives and Ronald Reagan’s attempts to eliminate all legal aid assistance for Americans.

NB4: One of the most memorable arguments I ever had with my father was over why oh why did I have to take the least paying public interest law work possible instead of pursuing the $5000/week NYC big law firm summer internships where you did nothing but schmooz (that was a big thing in the late 80s and 90s, when first year law school pay was out of control). I obviously won that argument.

NB5: I’ve mentioned this once or twice before, but the only race I’ve ever run was for Case law school’s student public interest law group. I didn’t need consolation for losing to Mike Benza (not Benz), even though we tied twice, and then he won by one vote, because he is a fantastic, life-long public interest law person too and had the edge of being in school with everyone on a consistent basis. A lot of folks didn’t know me because I was over at the social work school during their entire 1L year – a lot less bonding.

Just how fantastic is this guy? He was the law school’s teacher of the year this year. Congrats, Michael. So completely worthy, I’m sure. Very, very neat. Oops – I’m crying again. (And here’s just a bit more on him – ever get the feeling of how lucky you are to even say you know someone?)

An attorney and educator, Mike brings a broad knowledge of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. He teaches criminal procedure as an adjunct professor at the Case School of Law and practices privately in the areas of criminal law, death penalty defense, and habeas corpus litigation. Prior to his current roles, Mike served as a Biskind Fellow in South Africa, as an assistant public defender in the Capital Defense Unit of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, and as an assistant counsel with the Cleveland Bar Association.

See see see? That public interest thing? Biskind thing?

Anyway, lucky for Case law students that he is an adjunct professor there now – death penalty is one of his classes, too, plus mock trial team advisor (I was only an alternate on the team when I was there and didn’t go too far with that).

But back to the story:

We succeeded (really, Paula, Mike and the Case law school administration) in getting the Saul S. Biskind Public Interest Law Fellowship established and it continues to fund students who work in public interest law. Funny note: when it started in 1990, the summer stipend was $400 max. Now, according to the website, it’s $3,500. Whoa.

With my joint degree in social work, I focused on children and families but had considered pursuing a job in women’s corrections after graduation. I ended up at Bellefaire JCB as its first (and only) ombudsman. During the grad school summers, I worked in numerous capacities at Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court (paid) but had considered work at legal aid offices in Toledo (ABLE), Philadelphia and San Francisco. Chicago was also well-known for public interest law opportunities with kids. By my second summer, I had to do a zillion field placements and during the summer between my third and fourth year, I worked for a couple of domestic relations attorneys downtown, mostly writing briefs (one which actually won the case for the client and has gone down in Ohio’s history with me on the page as Jill Zion – I’ve never bothered to go through the steps to correct that).

But throughout my time in grad school, I went to every career fair I could (which was only one or two a year at that time, but it’s where I first
saw the Capital Steps) and I browsed the lame career placement office offerings on public interest law (contained in one simple three-ring binder in the library), desperately looking at the same few opportunities, the raw truth being, students with an interest in public interest law were nontraditional and had to make the opportunities happen. When the postcards started to go up for intern and job interviews, you rarely if ever saw one that had to do with public interest law, except for the very occasional public defender job. (Prosecutors haven’t been considered public interest, historically.)

That kind of pluck probably characterizes a lot of folks who go into public interest law. We’re looking to be plucky and pluck the system for people who otherwise can’t pluck for themselves. That’s always been attractive to me.

And so, to come full circle, when I saw that there is this fabulous, extensive website to help students and others interested in public interest law find an employment match, my eyes actually started to well up.

For every person who wants to argue with me til there face turns blue about legalizing gambling, regulating strip clubs, arming every man, woman and child, that’s how I will argue that if you want to do public interest law, don’t tell me you can’t afford it.

One thought on “Crying like John Boehner

  1. (Prosecutors haven’t been considered public interest, historically.)A very telling remark. When I used to try to counsel my young apprentices who almost invariably were facing serious criminal prosecutions, or skirting the edge, I told them the biggest problem they would face is that once you are in the system, you are a second class citizen.For every well-intended and erudite practioner in law and law enforcement for the poor, upstream of actual field officers, there are hundreds of incompetent low performers at best, sadists at worst.Justice and rehabilitation are empty words, it is just a job with benefits.I take a systems approach to deciphering things I know little about, and it occurs to me that the revolving door of juvenile through adult reprobation through the courts is an industry fueled in large part by drug money, a defacto laundering scheme.This is very encouraging to see your report that the economic barriers to pursuing real social litigation are being addressed.

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