First Class of Public Service Program Participants Looks Back
Three years after the launch of the University of Virginia School of Law's Program in Law and Public Service, the first class of students who joined as first-years is preparing to graduate, better prepared to work for the public good.
The program is designed to offer a select group of students a chance to receive specialized training that will prepare them for careers in public service, including prosecution, public defense, government, legal aid, international human rights and other nonprofit organizations.
The program's overarching aim, program director and law professor Jim Ryan said, is "to prepare students for a career in public service that they can start on day one after they graduate or finish a clerkship."
Each year, up to 20 first-year students are admitted to the program, along with up to five second-year students. Last year, five students who joined as second years graduated, notably including Jeree Harris, who received a prestigious Skadden Fellowship to work with the Legal Aid Justice Center's JustChildren Program to help ensure the education rights of incarcerated youth in Central Virginia. (More)
This year, 23 of the program's participants will graduate, including those who joined the inaugural class as first-year students.
Aditi Goel, a third-year law student who joined in her first year, said the program was most valuable because it allowed her to gain a mentor in Professor Anne Coughlin, who helped Goel obtain internships, select pro bono projects, and ultimately land a job as a public defender.
"She was with me every step of the way during job recruitment — from reviewing my applications to putting me in touch with practicing public defenders for mock interviews, to making phone calls," Goel said. "Providing support to students entering the public sector is meaningful to the mentors and the students they mentor matter to them. I am convinced that if it weren't for this relationship, I would not be working as a public defender in Boston after graduation."
Prior to law school, Goel worked as an investigator for the public defender's office in Washington, D.C., and knew she wanted to become a public defender herself.
With Coughlin's help, Goel secured winter break internships in the public defender's offices in San Francisco and San Diego. During the summer break after her second year, Goel worked at Seattle's public defender's office, called The Defender Association.
"There were six interns for the summer and every intern did their own jury trials," she said. "You basically owned the case, from client interview to pre-trial motions to verdict.Â I was lucky in that I got to do three jury trials that summer, all misdemeanor cases — assault, [a] minor in possession of alcohol, and property destruction. This experience was necessary when it came to finding a job post-graduation."
For Goel, along with many other participants, the Program in Law and Public Service was especially attractive because it offered a chance to join a network of other law students interested in public service careers.
"If you're going to pursue a public interest career, it's important to be around a public interest community," she said.
Laura Jolley, another participant who is set to graduate this spring, said the program paid off almost immediately. Her experience in Coughlin's seminar on law and public service in the spring semester of her first year prepared her for her first summer internship at SECTION27, a South African public interest law organization that promotes human rights.
"At SECTION27, we did impact litigation cases, which I had just learned about in Professor Coughlin's class," she said. "The class became invaluable when the SECTION27 attorneys were discussing what you want to consider when picking a plaintiff for a case you think will go to the Constitutional Court — I knew exactly what they were talking about."
During her second summer, Jolley worked in the Office of Chief Counsel at the Food and Drug Administration. She said she hopes to eventually return to work as a government lawyer.
Ryan and Jolley's mentor, Dan Nagin, also supported Jolley's proposal to spend the fall 2011 semester working in an externship. As part of the externship, she worked in the legal services program of Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, D.C., where she conducted a study on the unmet legal needs of HIV positive and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors.
"We found a lot of confusion around the difference between health insurance and long-term care insurance. One of the major concerns the study highlighted is how HIV-positive seniors will pay for their long-term care," she said. Â "In the long-term care insurance industry, there is currently a blanket exclusion for HIV-positive people trying to purchase individual plans."
Under the program, each participant is expected to conduct an independent research project. During her second year, Jolley explored how, if at all, a constitutional right to health might influence access to health care. With Nagin's guidance, she undertook a comparative analysis on a legal right to health and access to HIV treatment in South Africa and Virginia.
"It was an interesting and unusual comparison," she said. "South Africa has fewer resources, but they have a right to health care. Virginia has many more resources, but doesn't have a right to health care."
Many Virginians face financial access-to-care problems, she said. For example, Virginians struggle with how to pay for their HIV medicine prescriptions, whereas many South Africans face physical access-to-care problems, such as finding transportation to a clinic, where they also may face potential shortages of antiretroviral drugs.
Following graduation, Jolley will clerk for Judge John Gibney of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
The Program in Law and Public Service is continuing to evolve and improve, Ryan said. For example, in the past year, the program offered new short courses focused on the right to education and innocence cases, both taught by practicing attorneys. "We hope to continue to offer short courses and to bring in high-profile, experienced attorneys who will both teach the courses and share their knowledge and expertise with students in the program outside of class," he said.
Also in the past year, he added, the program's participants volunteered at a Habitat for Humanity site as part of a service day organized by second-year law student Megan Coker.
Third-year law student Sarah Johns said the program helped her decide to pursue a career in higher education law after exploring other areas of law.
During the summer of her first year, Johns worked at the Immigration Court in Arlington as a Department of Justice intern.
"It was a great experience," she said. "Applying the immigration statute and regulations to the facts of a specific case helped me realize that I wanted to practice regulatory law."
She initially thought she might like to focus on K-12 education law, having worked as a French and Latin teacher at St. Anne's Belfield School in Charlottesville prior to enrolling at the Law School. But she switched to a higher education focus after doing pro bono work in the field, as well as a stint working in the general counsel's office at the University of Delaware.
"That's a strength of [Ryan] as a mentor, and really of the program as well, in that it gave me the opportunity to determine what I want to do after law school."
For her independent research project, Johns explored how disability laws impact the use of technology in college classrooms. While the law requires colleges to provide accommodations for students with disabilities, questions remain about how the law might apply to emerging technologies such as text-to-speech and e-readers.
By helping her figure out her preferred career path, Johns said, the program helped nudge her return to an original goal, set while she was an undergraduate at UVA. At the time, she was a resident adviser and wanted to go into higher education administration, possibly one day as a dean of students. Her mentor was Patricia M. Lampkin, UVA's vice president and chief student affairs officer.
"I was a fourth year and I was talking about maybe getting a Ph.D. when she said, 'You know, if I had it to do over again, I'd consider law school because so many decisions I make involve the law,'" Johns said. "That was years before I entered law school, but those words have been in the back of my head ever since. Down the road I'd like to go into higher education administration, and I think coming at it from the law is a good way to do it."
After graduating, Johns will clerk with Judge J. Frederick Motz of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.