Adriana Rodriguez, ’11, and Michelle Smith, ’11, awarded Equal Justice Works Fellowships
Adriana Rodriguez, ’11, and Michelle Smith, ’11, have been awarded Equal Justice Works Fellowships to work for nonprofit legal organizations after their graduation. The Equal Justice Works Fellowship program provides recent law school graduates with two-year fellowships to work on specific projects at public interest law firms and nonprofit organizations to provide legal representation and access to the justice system to underrepresented populations.
Rodriguez will work with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid on a project to partner with Laredo’s Casa de Misericordia to provide legal representation and access to services for undocumented Laredoans who are victims of intimate partner violence and who suffer from mental illness, including substance abuse.
“The fellowship sets out to support a particularly vulnerable group, immigrant survivors of abuse, in Laredo, a geographically isolated and under-resourced city along the Border,” Rodriguez said. “During my time interning for various organizations in Austin and as a student attorney in the UT Legal Clinics, I realized that Travis County had a great network of support for immigrant survivors of abuse. I compared the services in Travis County to those available along the South Texas Border. I got to thinking that some of the best practices here in Austin could be replicated in Laredo, my hometown.”
Rodriguez participated in the Domestic Violence Clinic and Immigration Clinic while at the Law School, and also worked with fellow students as a client liaison on the Domestic Violence Survivor Support Network, which raises funds to support domestic violence survivors with short-term emergency assistance for bus tickets, utility bills, housing, and childcare. She also served as codirector of Street Law, a student organization committed to informing middle and high school students in Austin about the law so that they may make more informed decisions, and was a member of the UT Interscholastic Mock Trial Team, competing at regional and national competitions. She is a graduate of Rice University.
Rodriguez said her education at the Law School had provided excellent preparation for her project in Laredo. “I learned about the dynamics of family violence and the devastating effects of abuse as a student in Professor Sarah Buel’s Domestic Violence Class,” she said. “I felt for these vulnerable men and women and the impact of abuse on their children. Professor Justin Driver’s Race and the Law Seminar also helped me understand how our laws affect men and women of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The course pushed me to consider the long term effects of our collective policies and practices. Professors Jeana Lungwitz, Denise Gilman, and Barbara Hines taught me how to be an advocate. As a student attorney in their clinics, I learned how to navigate difficult legal issues and how to empower clients. Being a clinic student has been my favorite part of law school.”
After her two-year fellowship, Rodriguez said she hoped to continue working with undocumented survivors of abuse. “The work is important to create stability and peace for survivors and their families.”
Michelle Smith’s Equal Justice Works Fellowship project will be with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), working on prisoners’ rights cases. Smith said Texas has the most prison deaths due to illness and accident in the United States, and Smith said she hoped to “provide prisoners, many of whom are unable to or afraid to speak out, with desperately needed support. This will be the first project in Texas to offer outreach and education to the detained about their rights to health and safety, identify and address the causes of the ‘Accidental Death Penalty,’ and stop unnecessary deaths while creating better safeguards and security.”
Smith completed a summer clerkship with TCRP after her second year of Law School, and worked on a prisoners’ rights case while there, inspiring her to apply for the Equal Justice Works Fellowship. “TCRP has a huge need for attorneys to do prisoners’ rights litigation,” she said. “Very few people in the state take these kinds of cases. TCRP receives hundreds of letters from inmates that go unanswered because of a lack of resources.”
While at the Law School, Smith participated in the Transnational Workers’ Rights Clinic, the Children’s Rights Clinic, and the Mediation Clinic. She was a member of the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society, where she served as secretary, Ashaki co-coordinator, and 1L mentor and coordinator. She was also a co-coordinator and participant in the William Wayne Justice Center’s Pro Bono in January service trip and a staff member of the Texas Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy. She also participated on intramural teams and the Interscholastic Mock Trial Team, including on the American Association for Justice mock trial team, which competed in Houston in March 2011.
Smith was born in Barbados and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. She received her undergraduate degree, with a double major in Spanish and sociology, from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. She said her experience with Law School clinics and seminars were formative in preparing her for her fellowship project. “The Public Interest Lawyering seminar with Eden Harrington, the Transnational Workers’ Rights Clinic, the Children’s Rights Clinic, and the Constitutional Litigation seminar with Jim Harrington—the founder and director of TCRP—all helped me choose the organization and the project,” she said. “I first heard about the work that TCRP does, and problems with Texas prisons in the Public Interest Lawyering seminar. I learned more about those problems and the work that TCRP does in the Constitutional Litigation seminar. In my clinics I worked with and represented clients who have had run-ins with the criminal justice system, and hearing their stories inspired the project to a degree. I also learned a lot of skills in my clinics that will aid me in my fellowship.”
Smith said she is not sure yet what she plans to do after her fellowship ends, but hopes to continue with a public-interest legal career. “After the fellowship is over, I hope to continue providing direct services to underrepresented populations, and representing clients in litigation,” she said. “I do not know exactly what I will be doing, as I am interested in many areas of practice, but as long as I continue helping people, I’ll be happy.”