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What Public Interest Law Means to Me: Law Students Speak

What does public interest law mean to you? Maybe you see yourself fighting for social justice, defending survivors of domestic violence, protecting the environment, or serving indigent clients. One of the great things about public interest law is that it can take you in lots of different directions—just like it did for the recent law school grads below.

Keep reading for their thoughts on why they chose public interest law, what inspires them, what internship and clinic experience they pursued, and where they see their law careers going in the future. 

(If you're interested in learning more about public interest law opportunities at New England Law | Boston, check out the Pathway to the Profession here.)

Helping People in Need

Medya Aghaansari '17

Medya Aghaansari, Class of 2017

I decided to pursue a law career in order to help people who need it most. In my last year of undergraduate studies I interned for the Merced County Public Defenders’ Office, and I saw how dedicated they were, how they loved what they did, and learned that not everyone who is charged with an offense is guilty and that all are entitled to an advocate and a fair trial.

After graduation, I worked at an immigration law firm and enjoyed remarkable opportunities, including helping refugees and victims of domestic violence and other crimes obtain legal status and have a chance to achieve the American Dream. I decided to continue on this path when I came to New England Law | Boston.

From interning at a women’s shelter to helping refugees in detention centers with their asylum claims, it has truly been an honor and a privilege to serve the underrepresented and those who are in the most need. Knowing that I might have a small impact in someone’s life is rewarding, whether it’s helping them through dark times or in seeking shelter and opportunity in America.

Fighting for Fair Housing

Irene Chan

Irene Chan, Class of 2017

It was the fall of my 2L year, and I was interning for the housing unit at the Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), my placement in the Public Interest Law Clinic.

I was part of a legal team in the anti-gentrification project, where we represented approximately 50 indigent tenants against real estate developers and landlords. A week before Thanksgiving, I assisted in facilitating a move to a shelter for five families being evicted. They had been given 24 hours to move, and I spent the whole day cleaning, setting up cots in the shelter, and preparing a warm meal for dinner. I helped pack all of their belongings into my car, and it wasn’t much. I held a little girl’s hand and told her it’s going to be alright. But I felt completely helpless in that moment knowing I could only give words of comfort.

Working with the GBLS, we conducted legal research and created portfolios of real-estate development companies so we could get a better sense in predicting the outcome going into settlement talks and negotiations with their attorneys. We also combined forces with other legal aid services organizations in the greater Boston area, such as the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, to combat displacement and gentrification problems communities in Boston are facing.

Interning for GBLS was everything I imagined being an attorney would be. It was extremely rewarding to represent indigent tenants who were bullied, unjustly evicted, and denied due process. We worked closely with them and did our best to advocate for fair and just outcomes.

Defending the Elderly

Amanda Fernandez

Amanda Fernandez, Class of 2017

I became highly interested in family law after completing New England Law | Boston’s Summer Fellowship Program as a judicial intern in Bronx County Family Court.

Then, in the spring of my 2L year, the topic of elder law arose during a lecture, when one student shared that she and her significant other, who have children together, had taken precautionary steps to retain an attorney to draft their healthcare proxies, power of attorney documents, and wills. I had never heard of elder law, but I wanted to know more.

Elder law consists of family law, real estate, advance planning, and healthcare issues. I was fascinated to learn that most elders live alone or in nursing home facilities, about the process of guardianship and/or conservatorship, and about elders’ financial dependence on federal government funding such as Medicaid and Social Security.

New England Law’s clinics and courses allowed me to discover an area within the legal profession that I am passionate about. Today, when people ask me which area of law I intend to pursue, I proudly tell them it is elder law and I’m always pleased to explain what this field entails.

Protecting Survivors of Domestic Violence

Jennifer Howell, Class of 2017

Since age 13 I knew I wanted to become a lawyer to help people, and until my 2L year I was convinced that I wanted to be a district attorney. It wasn’t until I interned at Casa Myrna Vazquez, Inc., a domestic violence organization, that I discovered what I really wanted to do with my legal education: help domestic violence survivors. Little did I know the impact this internship would have on my future.

It was moving to speak with survivors and identify what legal services they needed and the best way to obtain them, always making sure their overall safety was top of the list. The first client I represented at a restraining order extension hearing was scared when she walked into that courtroom—but she left feeling protected. She thanked and hugged me endlessly.

But I also remember hearings that did not turn out in our clients’ favor, when the losing attorney’s eyes would begin to well up because she could not figure out how we did not win and where we went wrong.

Somewhere in between the joyous victories and crushing losses, I knew I had found what I am supposed to do with my future law career. This is the difference I want to make in people’s lives. This is how I can help people.

Providing Legal Advocacy

Diaghilev LubinDiaghilev Lubin, Class of 2017

Prior to law school, I was involved in public interest work ranging from assisting disadvantaged schoolchildren in Haiti to assisting the youth in Norwalk, Connecticut. When I enrolled in New England Law, I found it fitting to continue this work through public advocacy.

I signed up for the school’s Public Interest Law Seminar and Clinic in the fall of my second year. In the seminar portion, we discussed interesting and challenging issues that arise in the practice of law, particularly where people without power or financial resources have trouble navigating the legal system.

In the clinical portion of the course, I saw this all firsthand. As a student attorney (under supervision), I worked on domestic relations and government benefits cases. I learned a tremendous amount about the law, the legal system, and the importance of having good representation.

I continued to look for opportunities to work in the public interest and shifted to consumer protection issues. I eventually joined up with the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) to provide legal aid to unrepresented defendants in consumer debt collection cases. While I was able to assist the VLP lawyers, I learned that there is a need for more knowledgeable practitioners in consumer law.

My work in law school has proven that public interest advocacy is not limited to positions in the public sector. Regardless of where my law career takes me, I hope to assist people who desperately need help with their legal problems.

Taking Tough Cases to Trial

Kaitlyn Marinelli, Class of 2017

I was 12 and watching the People of the State of California vs. Scott Peterson trial when I knew I wanted to become a lawyer. I wasn’t sure how to get there, but I knew it was what I was meant to do in this life.

As a young, eager first-year law student, I focused on sports law, wanting to become the next Jerry McGuire. But it wasn’t until my experience interning with New England Law | Boston’s Summer Fellowship Program that I realized I needed to be in a courtroom.

In my second year I enrolled in the Public Interest Law Seminar and Clinic. I was accepted at Greater Boston Legal Services in the CORI & Re-Entry Project. There, I was able to represent and assist individuals in sealing their criminal records in order to obtain adequate housing and better employment, enabling them to become better and more involved parents and gain their freedom back. This experience really opened my eyes to the pros and cons of the criminal justice system and made me want to get more involved.

I also assisted in a mock trial workshop with young men serving time at a Department of Youth Services (DYS) lockdown facility in Boston. Along with other students, I helped teach these young men about the building blocks of a trial. They then produced their own arguments and argued their case in front of Chief Justice Roderick Ireland (Retired) of the Supreme Judicial Court.

My clinical experience, together with the many criminal law courses, solidified my decision to pursue a career as a prosecutor after graduation.

Fighting for the Underdogs

Michael MartinMichael Martin, Class of 2017

My law school journey started with a lot of uncertainty. I drove from Southern California to New England, where I didn't know a single soul and was starting out as a part-time evening student. I was interested in criminal law and litigation and knew that I wanted to be the type of lawyer that fights for the underdog.

During my 3L year, I started volunteering with the Center for Law and Social Responsibility’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) initiative. I learned to prepare petitions and affidavits to seal criminal records for citizens suffering from poverty. Meeting with clients in person and over the phone was probably the most important part of this program, and it showed potential employers that I had experience with direct client contact and was passionate about serving the indigent.

At the beginning of my 4L year, I applied for an attorney position with a public defender agency out west. I'm confident that I was hired because I took advantage of the excellent volunteer and clinical opportunities that New England Law | Boston has to offer.

Advocating for Children and Families

Amiee ParcoAmiee Parco, Class of 2017

It was about 10 years ago when I unexpectedly found myself seeking a divorce after less than five years of marriage. Because I could not afford a lawyer, I had no choice but to advocate for myself as a pro se litigant.

I taught myself how to file court documents, do basic legal writing, speak to a judge, and more. After winning sole custody of my children, I realized that what I wanted more than anything was to become a lawyer. I enrolled after New England Law | Boston offered me a scholarship.

In my second year, I took the Domestic Violence course and learned that it is not just physical abuse but a pattern of abusive behavior used to gain or maintain power and control. I discovered that the way my husband treated me during our marriage fit the definition and grew to understand that anxiety like mine was a common result of terrible experiences. This newfound knowledge allowed me to let go of guilt and feel brave enough to raise my children alone and attend law school.

That same semester I had the opportunity to put my class learning into practice. I signed up for the Public Interest Law Seminar and Clinic and worked with indigent clients in the law school’s in-house clinic, where I focused on family law and worked with women with legal struggles similar to mine. My supervisor helped me find a balance that allowed me to empathize while maintaining personal and professional boundaries. It was an invaluable experience, and the support that I received gave me a vision of the kind of attorney that I wanted to become.

Stopping Predatory Financial Practices

Clarice Sousa, Class of 2017

My initial goal in taking clinics in law school was simply to gain experience, not necessarily work in public interest law. But then I realized I was not only practicing law (with a supervisor) but helping people at the same time. Whether I was giving guidance to a woman seeking a restraining order or investigating a possible wrongful termination of an employee, I found myself making a positive impact on people’s lives.

It only made sense from that point to enroll in the school’s Public Interest Law Seminar and Clinic in my final year. I worked directly with clients through the Volunteer Lawyers Project’s bankruptcy division, helping them gain a footing in their financial lives. I was also going to court weekly helping clients battle debt collectors and protecting them from possible unfair practices.

Meeting with clients, even for a day, made the effect I was having on their lives clear. It's a rare thing to see someone leave a courtroom with a smile but that happened in a number of my cases, and I found the experience quite rewarding.

Getting Lives Back on Track

Dara Yaffe

Dara Yaffe, Class of 2017

At the start of my law school career, I associated public interest law with volunteer work. Although this myth was readily debunked by Professor Engler in my Public Interest Law Seminar, this notion prompted me to join the school’s CORI Initiative, where I dedicated my time to helping clients to seal their criminal records. The experience also changed my perception of how public policy and access to justice directly impact the work of attorneys in this area of the law.

Without the recent CORI reform in Massachusetts, many of my clients with extensive criminal backgrounds could not access steady employment, housing, and education; now, they are empowered to contribute to their communities and move forward with their lives.

During my time in the Public Interest Law Seminar and Clinic, I saw how public interest law includes not just legal advocacy but also cooperation with social service providers like social workers, interpreters, and other executive agencies, to help clients feel safe in and protected by their communities.

At my placement, I worked with clients to petition for divorces stemming from abusive relationships. The work was emotionally difficult and forced me to reconsider the role of the government and the courts in regulating spousal and familial relationships. More importantly, this experience reminded me again of the various resources that public interest lawyers pull from on their path to advocacy.

I am very excited to think about the work that New England Law students will continue to do in the area of public interest law, and where their interests and inspirations will take them in shaping the legal and social fabric of our community.

Learn More About Public Interest Law at New England Law | Boston