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July 14, 2008

UT Law Faculty Post-Graduate Fellowship

UT Law Faculty Post-Graduate Fellowship in Public Interest Law, financed by long-term commitments from the Law School’s faculty, enables new graduates to practice public interest law and helps bridge the gulf between the need for legal services and their availability.

Photo of UT Law faculty and fellowship recipient

Eden Harrington, clinical professor and director of the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law; Jordan Steiker, the Cooper K. Ragan Regents Professor; 2005 Fellowship recipient Bronwyn Blake, ’05; Gerald Torres, the Bryant Smith Chair in Law; William Forbath, the Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Law; Lynn Blais, the Leroy G. Denman, Jr. Regents Professor in Real Property Law; and 2008 Fellowship recipient Aaron Johnson, ’08

The Challenge

“Our country was founded on the principle of the rule of law. Every citizen has a fundamental right to equal access to the justice system. Yet here in Texas, our legal resources are stretched so thin that we are failing to serve more than seventy-five percent of low-income and poor people who require that access. That’s tens and tens of thousands of people in need, for whom the rule of law, in the absence of access to the justice system, is really nothing more than a meaningless abstraction.”

The voice of James Sales, ’60, rises as he expresses his frustration at the unavailability of counsel for the poor. As head of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, which was created by the Texas Supreme Court in 2001 to expand, improve, and implement civil legal service programs throughout the state, Sales grapples daily with the challenges of providing justice for all Texans. “These are people who have been cheated out of wages honestly earned,” he asserts.

“Veterans and elderly citizens denied crucial medical and disability benefits. People in need of protection from dangerous or abusive domestic circumstances. Real human beings with real needs for justice that the Texas legal system simply is not accommodating.”

“And for all we do to stretch the current resources, there’s only one real solution,” Sales continues. “We cannot rectify this shameful situation without more lawyers engaged in the practice of public interest law. It’s become my mantra here at the Commission and everywhere I go throughout the state: We must have more boots on the ground.”

The Law Faculty Responds

Thanks to more than fifty Law School faculty members who reached into their own pockets to make substantial long-term financial commitments, there are more boots on the ground in Texas today. In 2004 those faculty members created the Law Faculty Post-Graduate Fellowship in Public Interest Law, which each year provides $37,000—roughly the average starting salary for a public interest attorney in Texas—for a newly graduated alumnus to practice public interest law. The first fellowship was awarded in 2005 to Bronwyn Blake, ’05; four additional fellows have been selected since then (two fellowships were awarded in 2007).

Professor Eden Harrington, who administers the program as director of the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, lauds it for three principal reasons: “First, because the fellows arrive at their organizations with their salaries paid, the program actually adds to the number of available public interest attorneys. Second, the fellows are exceptionally skilled, and can start making significant contributions right away. In fact, many of them continue important and innovative work they began while in Law School. And third, the financial support from the faculty and the Law School demonstrate a remarkable commitment to encouraging our graduates to engage in public interest practice.”

Two Exemplary Awardees

This year’s awardee, Aaron Johnson, will work at the Equal Justice Center in Austin, helping low-income workers recover unpaid wages as he also initiates activities to discourage unscrupulous employers from future misconduct. Johnson’s commitment to this area of law arose from his experience at the Law School’s Transnational Worker Rights Clinic, where he has worked on cases ranging from claims on behalf of unpaid day laborers to a lawsuit against Target for hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid overtime. A sergeant in the Army reserve who served in Iraq before starting law school, Johnson expresses gratitude for the fellowship. “This work is fulfilling and aligned with my commitment to help America live up to all its promises,” he said. “It would have been hard for me to continue doing it were it not for the faculty’s generosity.”

Selina Llaguno’s 2007 Fellowship enables her to work at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in El Paso, expanding its program to provide legal services to immigrant victims of domestic violence. She is similarly appreciative. “To be able to return to the place where I grew up and do the work that is in my heart, and to have the impact I have dreamed of having—it has made all the difference in the world for me and I am almost inexpressibly grateful,” she said.

Bridging the Gap

Professor Jordan Steiker, who was among the core group of faculty initiating this fellowship (along with Harrington and professors Lynn Blais, Willy Forbath, and Gerald Torres), expresses satisfaction with its outcomes so far. “On a practical level we’ve made some opportunities available for a number of extraordinary graduates to do public interest legal work,” said Steiker. “That’s good for them and good for society. Some of them will continue along the path their fellowships permitted. Ultimately, though, more people have to become involved in helping create positions like these. The faculty’s great generosity doesn’t begin to bridge the huge gap between needs and services.”

Steiker observes that the five-year period funded by the faculty’s commitments now is entering its final year. He expects that the faculty will be responsive to a new request, and he, along with others, hopes that the new funding might be generous enough to permit the fellowships to underwrite two years of work instead of one. “Even these exceptionally able attorneys are not likely to fully find the rhythm of their work in the first year,” he noted. “A two-year commitment will more than double their impact.”

Elizabeth Wagoner, who began her fellowship after graduating in 2007, agrees with Steiker’s assessment. She returned to Make the Road New York, where she had worked as an intern the previous two summers, to establish a workplace justice project focused on women. Her participation in Make the Road’s outreach and community organizing activities led to a suit filed this past April against a dance club for exploitation of its female workers. The suit has earned coverage in the New York Times and other major New York newspapers, and it reached front-page status in New York’s Spanish-language press.

“It just takes a long time to win the trust of potential plaintiffs in a suit like this, and to build a solid case,” said Wagoner. “Now that we have taken such visible action, we are hearing from many, many more people who want our help. I’m hoping I’ll be able to stay on at Make the Road. A two-year fellowship is a great idea, I think, if it’s feasible, because it would allow the recipients to really hit their stride and then follow through.”

In awarding the fellowships, Harrington and a committee review project proposals submitted by student applicants. “The selection committee has a difficult time making a decision because there are so many outstanding applicants with strong credentials who are ready to work on innovative projects with legal service providers across the country,” Harrington said. Blake used her fellowship to build an innovative program for teenagers at the Texas Advocacy Project (then called the Women’s Advocacy Project), where she still works. The program serves young victims of dating violence by making them aware of their rights, providing advice, and representing them in legal actions. According to a 2006 study, seventy-five percent of Texas youth between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four have personally experienced dating violence or know someone who has.

Blake has also created distinctive outreach programs. “Young people are a different audience,” she said. “We’re still experimenting to find the best ways of reaching all the young women and men who need our assistance.” She speaks several times a week at high schools around the state and also conducts training for school officials, counselors, attorneys, and law enforcement personnel. Her program’s page at the Texas Advocacy Project web site is designed to appeal to the youth she serves and increase their awareness and access to appropriate services.

During his fellowship year at the Equal Justice Center, Allen Cooper, ’06, conducted a thorough analysis of the consequences for workers of employers’ decisions to opt out of Texas’s workers’ compensation system. From the four policy papers he wrote, he created model legislation to improve the system and advocated for the adoption of that legislation. Eight bills and riders were introduced in the legislature as a result of his efforts.

“In working on behalf of those bills, I learned a great deal about the political forces that have to be addressed to effect systemic change,” he recounted. “The experience gave me a great perspective about the complicated intersection where justice issues meet law-making realities. That will serve me well in my future advocacy activities.”

Justice for All

Through the Law Faculty Post-Graduate Fellowship in Public Interest Law, UT Law graduates are developing their own fundamental lawyering skills, embarking on possible public interest careers, and implementing innovative programs to help those in need. Assessing the significance of the program, Dean Larry Sager observed, “When I was growing up, we pledged allegiance in school every day to a republic that vouchsafed justice for all. There is much to be done to fully honor that pledge, but our extraordinary law faculty and the exemplary students they have supported are helping in important ways to make it more of a reality. This fellowship is yet another reason to be proud to be associated with UT Law.”