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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

Upcoming Events

The Center for International Law and Policy hosts several events each year, including film screenings, speaker panels, and symposia (see examples below). Many are open to the public as well.

For more information about CILP events, including submitting talk proposals, please contact center director Lisa Laplante.

Past Events

Human Rights Film Screenings

Documentaries help to highlight and bring to life pressing international issues which otherwise often seem remote and abstract. Each fall semester, the law school and CILP organize a film screening to foster dialogue and raise awareness of pressing human rights concerns. These events often include a panel or guest lecture.

2017 

The-Uncondemned-posterThe Uncondemned: Making its first public screening in Boston, this documentary tells the story about the litigation strategy devised by a young group of lawyers working for the International Tribunal for Rwanda to prosecute the crime of rape as a part of an overall charge of genocide—the Akayesu case was the first of its kind. Filmmaker Michele Mitchell then gave remarks and answered questions after the film. Community partners included Komera, Peace is Loud, and the MaranyundoInitiative.

 

the-man-who-mends-women-posterThe Man Who Mends Women: This International Women’s Day film screening featured a documentary about Dr. Denis Mukwege, renowned doctor and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who dedicated his life to repairing the bodies of women who were raped during the 20 years of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This event was organized in collaboration with United Nations Association of Greater Boston's Global Women's Circle and Harvard School of Public Health.

2016

price-we-pay-posterThe Price We Pay: This award-winning Canadian documentary revealed how large corporations use tax havens to escape paying taxes. We also featured guest speaker Gillian Caldwell, CEO of Global Witness, one of the organizations that helped to uncover the Panama Papers, which helped to reveal the vast corruption with secret tax havens. The film was screened during an event titled Shady Business: The Offshore Industry of Tax Havens, Shell Companies, and Crime.

2015

First Light: This film provided an overview of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the first such body for Native Americans in the United States. The TRC uncovered the discrimination experienced by the Wabanaki children and families involved with the Maine child welfare system. The film’s director, Adam Mazo, and activists featured in the work joined us for a panel discussion after the screening.

2014 

Co-Exist. This film was screened during an event entitled Healing After Genocide: Stories from Rwanda, which was in recognition of the 20 years that had passed since the genocide in Rwanda. The documentary is about the difficult healing process after the genocide. The law school and CILP were fortunate to be able to organize the event in coordination with the NGO Coexist Learning Project. One of the activists featured in the film, Solange Nyirasafari, traveled from Rwanda to join us.

2013 

granito-posterGranito: How to Nail a Dictator. This film provides a captivating tale of how a small international legal team managed to bring former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt to justice. During his brief leadership in the early 1980s, General Ríos Montt orchestrated a brutal government policy that led to the massacre of many Mayan villages. The film is produced by Pamela Yates whose 1983 film When the Mountains Tremble helped inform the world of this horrific tragedy. This film is her latest documentary and narrates how she was approached to be a witness against the General and how her incriminating footage from her earlier film became critical to the litigation strategy.

Guest Speakers and Panels

These events bring practitioners and academics working on important legal issues in international law to share their expertise with the New England Law | Boston community.

2018

Lorianne-Updike-Toler-posterLorianne Updike Toler, “Constitution-Writing at Home and Abroad”: Constitutional legal historian and President of Libertas Constitutional Consulting, Toler shared her years of research studying the process of constitution writing.

 

 

Colombia-Expert-Meeting-posterPanel, “What’s Business Got to Do with It? Peacebuilding in Colombia”: Luis Fernando Angulo, executive director of El Centro Regional de Empresas y Emprendimientos Responsables (CILP’s partner organization in Colombia), and German Zamara, senior research director with CREER, provided an insider’s view of Colombia’s recent peace agreement and how the government has been seeking to involve the private sector in the peace process it spearheaded.

2017

Viviana-PosterViviana Krsticevic, “Assessing the Impact of Human Rights Litigation in the Americas”: Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law, Krsticevic has been a human rights litigator in the Inter-American Human Rights System for over two decades, and CEJIL is one of the leading non-governmental groups to bring cases to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. She shared some of her first-hand accounts of litigating in a regional human rights system while also offering her assessment of the direct impact of this work.

Panel, “Combating Corruption in a New Global Reality”: This panel discussed recent developments in the field of international corruption law. It featured Anthony Mirenda, Partner, Foley Hoag; Michael Granne, Associate, Zuber Lawler & Del Duca; and John Sherman, General Counsel, Shift. Boston Bar Association co-sponsored.

2016

Zhiyuan Guo: CILP collaborated with Center for Law and Social Responsibility to host this prominent Fulbright scholar and professor at China University of Political Science and Law. This daylong visit included activities for faculty and students and aimed to build our institutional relationship with a major Chinese law school.

Panel, “Human Rights Day: A Poignant Discussion on Female Genital Mutilation”: This panel featured alumna Katie Cintolo and New England Law Professor Dina Haynes, who had recently testified on Beacon Hill about a new bill on FGM.

2015

Hon. Ganna Yudkivska, “The Impact of the European Human Rights System on Democratization in Eastern Europe”: Judge Yudkivska, who sits on the European Court of Human Rights, shared some of the recent developments of the rulings of the international human rights court in Europe. Boston Bar Association co-sponsored.

Panel, “Human Rights and Corporate Liability: What You Need to Know”: This panel shared useful knowledge regarding the evolving international legal and policy framework that may impact how legal practitioners work with corporations of all sizes. Panelists included John Sherman, general counsel and senior advisor, Shift; Tyler Giannini, clinical professor of law and co-director, Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program and the International Human Rights Clinic; and Amanda Werner, legal and policy fellow, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable. Boston Bar Association co-sponsored.

Panel, “Justice Defenders: Who Defends Those Who Defend Human Rights?”: This panel highlighted the work of lawyers working to protect and defend human rights advocates. Panelists included Priscila Rodriguez Bribiesca, founder and legal director, Mexican-U.S. NGO Strategic Defense and Communication for Change (SAKBE), and Fergal Gaynor, counsel for victims in an ICC case, Prosecutor v. Uhuru Kenyatta.

Dustin Lewis, “Anti-Corruption and Counterterrorism Measures: An Overview for NGOs and Corporations Operating in Insecure Environments”: Lewis, a senior researcher at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, explored the issues and concerns that arise for NGOs and corporations operating in armed conflicts and other humanitarian emergencies such as what due diligence and risk mitigation would entail for organizations working in relation to Syria or Somalia. Boston Bar Association co-sponsored.

2014

Panel, “Terrorism and the Material Support Statute: A Panel Discussion on the First Circuit’s Decision in United States v. Mehanna and Related Issues”: The panel explored the various issues and debates stemming from the First Circuit’s decision in November 2013 in which the Court affirmed the conviction of Tarek Mehanna, a 30-year old pharmacist from Sudbury, Massachusetts, for material support for terrorism. Panelists included Professor Andrew March, Yale Law School; Professor Peter Margulies, Roger Williams School of Law; and Sabin Willett, Bingham McCutchen LLP. Boston Bar Association co-sponsored.

Panel, “International Disability Law: Opening Doors for Access and Inclusion”: This event featured both out of state and local speakers discussing the effectiveness of international conventions regulating disability law, and identify the next steps in addressing the needs of the international disabled population. Speakers included Daniela Caruso, Professor of Law, Boston University; Eric Mathews, Advocacy Associate, Disability Rights International; and Diana Samarasan, Founding Executive Director, Disability Rights Advocacy Fund & Disability Rights Fund.

2013

Julia Rogers, “One Seed at a Time: The United Nations, Food Security, and Development”: As a legal consultant with the United Nations and other international organizations, Ms. Rogers advises developing countries on legislative reforms to strengthen their agriculture sector and promote food security. Her work has taken her to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, East Timor, Angola, and Tanzania to hold in-depth dialogues with key stakeholders–from government officials to farmers associations. She provided her personal reflections on the challenges of engaging in legal work to support countries on the path to development.