For Sara Cullinane, one of 50 new Equal Justice Works fellows across the country, waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act was a particularly nail-bitting experience.
In September, Cullinane will begin a fellowship with Make the Road New York, where she will help low-income immigrant New Yorkers navigate the new health care law. Noting that a ruling repealing the law would have made securing coverage for those families that much harder, she said she was “relieved” by the high court’s decision.
Sponsored by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, Cullinane will represent those wrongly denied coverage because their immigration status is misread or because of issues with documentation. She will also do community outreach to educate immigrants about their rights under the new law and do policy advocacy work.
“I’ve seen how not having access to high-quality health care can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for immigrant families,” said the 2012 graduate of New York University School of Law, who worked with Make the Road prior to law school and has seen first hand the strain hospital bills can have on families without insurance. “I want to help people at the critical junction before they get sick.”
Cullinane is one of nine new Equal Justice Work fellows who will begin working in public service organizations throughout New York City in the fall. Launched in 1992, the two-year fellowship program teams up with law firms and corporate sponsors to support nearly 100 public service fellows throughout the country each year.
Each new fellow receives a salary of $41,000 from Equal Justice Works, with some receiving supplemental income from their host organization, as well as loan repayment assistance. This year, the organization received 360 applications from “diehards who are really committed to doing public interest work,” according to David Stern, executive director of Equal Justice Works.
Three other fellows in the New York area will be advocating for immigrant populations, Stern said.
Michelle Mora Rueda said she views the opportunity to work with immigrant victims of gender violence facing deportation as a chance to serve the community she came from. Her mother, who was originally from Colombia, was granted amnesty in 1986, giving Rueda a chance at the American dream.
“My mother was able to obtain relief years ago and because she received that help, she was able to stay here and give me a great life,” Rueda said.
Rueda, a 2012 graduate of American University Washington College of Law who is sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, will work at inMotion, representing victims during removal proceedings in immigration court and train other pro bono attorneys to do the same.
“Having someone represent you, someone who knows what immigration court is like, and having an avenue for relief, that can really make a difference in changing someone’s life,” Rueda said.
Laura Huizar, a 2012 graduate of Yale Law School, will work with LatinoJustice PRLDEF to represent low-wage immigrant workers who face abuses by employment agencies that often charge high fees to guarantee jobs that either never materialize or are with companies that violate labor laws.
“It’s an opportunity to address the types of injustice that keeps immigrants and their families from thriving and taking advantage of what this country has to offer,” said Huizar, who moved with her family from Mexico when she was 8. She is sponsored by Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.
Representing unaccompanied immigrant youth in family and immigration court will be Brett Stark, whose project with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York is sponsored by Ropes & Gray and Pfizer. The 2012 Harvard Law School graduate will also create a network of medical and social service providers to offer care to these youth.
Two other fellows in New York will focus on education initiatives. Ifetayo Belle will work with the New York Civil Liberties Union to provide free representation to black special education students at suspension hearings.
Belle, a 2010 graduate of Northeastern School of Law, is sponsored by an anonymous organization.
Meanwhile, Ashley Grant will work to abate the “school push-out” problem, where struggling students are pushed to either transfer to GED programs or drop out. The 2012 graduate of New York University School of Law will work with Advocates for Children of New York to help students get the support they need to stay in school.
“This is a program which clearly filled a compelling need,” said Philip Horton, a litigation partner at Arnold & Porter, which is sponsoring Grant. An appealing part of the project, Horton added, was the opportunity for young attorneys from the firm to get involved in direct representation of the students.
Jessica Weidmann, working with the Center for Family Representation, will represent young parents who were formerly in foster care and face losing their own children because of poverty or a mental health diagnosis.
“The child welfare system often aims to separate even with the best of intentions,” said the 2012 Columbia Law School graduate, who is sponsored by ALM, the New York Law Journal‘s parent company. “The project really is about helping young parents who are struggling because of their histories to try to keep their own families intact so we don’t keep repeating history.”
Colleen Manwell, a 2012 graduate of The University of Michigan Law School, will work with the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem to represent the organization’s mentally ill clients with civil problems like housing, employment and public benefits.
“People with mental health issues that are not getting appropriate treatment can get caught up in the criminal justice system and be harmed in a way that is disproportionate to whatever they may have done wrong,” said Marjorie Lindblom, a corporate litigation partner with Kirkland & Ellis, which is sponsoring Manwell. This is the first year the firm is working with Equal Justice Works, and Lindblom said the firm is looking for ways to collaborate with Manwell on her project.
Rounding out the 2012 New York fellows is Kathryn Kliff, who will work with the Legal Aid Society to help homeless families secure housing under the city’s right-to-shelter law.
Claiming that homeless families are facing a “crisis situation” because housing subsidies are being cut, the 2012 graduate of New York University School of Law said the increase in the number of families turning to the shelter system is “overloading the city, which is trying to keep people out because resources are limited and families need a voice to fight for them so they can be safe.”
To apply for shelter, Kliff noted that families must list every place they have slept in the last two years and why they cannot return. Many are denied, she added, because an adequate investigation is not done or families do not have the documentation needed to prove why they cannot return to a previous housing arrangement.
Kliff is sponsored by both Sidley Austin and KPMG, two of a growing number of law firms and companies that Stern said are teaming up to sponsor a fellow.
In addition to encouraging co-sponsorships, Stern said Equal Justice is working to ensure that sponsors have a positive experience so that they will continue to participate and also working to bring in new sponsors. Noting that only 31 of AmLaw 200 law firms sponsor fellowships, Stern said “there are a lot of firms that should be sponsoring fellowships that aren’t.”
William Silverman, a litigation shareholder at Greenberg Traurig, said the firm has spent $7 million to sponsor 112 fellows since 1999. To support the program, money is taken out of paychecks of every partner and associate who volunteers to help fund the fellowships.
The firm’s expertise is in corporate work, not public interest advocacy, and Silverman said, “having someone on the ground doing it full-time and helping us develop opportunities for our attorneys we have found to be an extremely effective tool in running a pro bono program.”
In addition to helping people, Silverman said doing pro bono work is a “great way” for young attorneys to get experience that can “carry over into your billable matters as well.”
@|Laura Haring can be contacted at email@example.com.