Leading the Legal World Toward Public Interest: Equal Justic

by Vault Law Editors | February 23, 2011

  • My Vault

Need a reason to celebrate Equal Justice Works aside from the fact that it has employed 170 law fellows across the country this year or that it will provide public interest projects to 700 law students this summer? How about a quarter century of public interest work? This year marks the public interest powerhouse’s 25th anniversary: 25 Years of Working Toward Equal Justice for All.

“Equal Justice Works is committed to making legal assistance available to those who need it most and expanding public interest law opportunities for students and lawyers,” says David Stern, Executive Director of Equal Justice Works. Equal Justice Works achieves its goals by offering attorneys and law students public interest training and experience, working with law schools to develop public interest programs, gathering support from the legal world and working toward debt reduction for those pursuing public interest jobs.

Equal Justice Works’ legal fellowships—the Equal Justice Works Fellowship program, the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship Program and the Summer Corps program—are at the heart of the organization’s mission. Through the Equal Justice Works Fellowship program, recent law school graduates are paired with public interest organizations for two years during which they have the opportunity to create their own legal projects. The AmeriCorps Legal Fellows program subsidizes one-year fellowships (with an option to renew for a second year) that focus on underserved communities, including victims of foreclosure and at-risk veterans. Summer Corps offers law students opportunities to work in a variety of public interest law areas over the summer (both the AmeriCorps Legal Fellows program and Summer Corps program are sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service).

And Equal Justice Works is outdoing itself this year by adding yet another fellowship program: Public Defender Corps, which will launch in the fall of 2011. Public Defender Corps fellowships will last for three years and “will begin to address the public defense crisis in this country,” says Mr. Stern.

As a leader in public interest law, Equal Justice Works attributes its success to its range of projects and its supportive network of law schools, law firms, corporate entities and nonprofits. But the organization’s success also stems from its focus on the next generation of attorneys—Eequal Justive Works was founded by law students, and law students continue to sit on the Board of Directors. According to Mr. Stern, law students “keep us connected to what’s happening and changing on campuses with regard to public interest law, and what students need to succeed. Their feedback is tremendously valuable and helps us gauge how we’re doing and what new initiatives we may want to explore.”

Also key to Equal Justice Works’ success is its flexibility. “This organization prides itself in being agile, and we regularly evaluate our programs and develop and adjust our programs as needs and demands change,” says Mr. Stern. This open mindedness has allowed Equal Justice Works to evolve and expand from catering solely to “die-hard public interest law types (who are only three percent of law school graduates), to focusing on making sure that all law school graduates have a commitment to public service and giving back,” says Mr. Stern.

Couple the above factors with a leader like David Stern, and you’ve got one serious public-interest dynamo. With almost 30 years of public interest law experience, Mr. Stern is fiercely dedicated to legal aid. As the Executive Director of Equal Justice Works for the past 15 years, he has “quadrupled the size and impact of Equal Justice Works.” Mr. Stern’s commitment to the underserved began at an early age. “I grew up in a family that cared about righting injustice. It is ingrained in me. Still to this day my blood boils when I see injustices, and I am determined to fix them. I am drawn to systemic change versus the ‘band aid,’ quick fix to an individual's problem,” says Mr. Stern.

His focus isn’t just on the underserved but also on the attorneys who will serve them. Mr. Stern offers the following advice for lawyers and law students interested in pursuing public interest careers right now: “a public interest career is feasible in this economy thanks to the many law school and employer Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) as well as federal and state loan forgiveness programs. In 2008, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) was passed, providing for income-based loan repayment and eventual loan forgiveness for anyone pursuing a career in public service.” Mr. Stern’s advice isn’t just talk—Equal Justive Works is an advocate for student debt relief and dedicates an entire page on its website to the issue.

As an organization committed to building up the legal profession to help those most in need, Equal Justice Works has been a shining example in the public interest realm. Congratulations to them, and here’s to another 25!

Equal Justice Works 25th Anniversary Press Release
Equal Justice Works site
David Stern’s Bio
Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program
AmeriCorps Legal Fellows Program
Summer Corps Program
Equal Justice Works Student Debt Relief

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