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April 30, 2009

UT Law’s Jessica Cassidy, ’09, awarded Equal Justice Works Fellowship to practice public-interest law in Austin

Photo of Jessica

	 		    Cassidy
Jessica Cassidy, ’09

Jessica Cassidy, ’09, has been awarded an Equal Justice Works Fellowship to work with Austin-based nonprofit legal-services organization Texas Advocacy Project. Cassidy will use the two-year fellowship to help survivors of domestic violence and their children achieve economic self-sufficiency. Cassidy hopes to meet this goal through three strategies: enforcing child support payments for domestic abuse survivors; helping survivors repair bad credit; and providing economic empowerment training.

“Improving outcomes for battered women and children is one of the reasons I went to law school,” Cassidy said. “It’s super gratifying that Equal Justice Works is letting me pursue this work.”

Cassidy said survivors of domestic abuse, most often women and children, are often prevented from leaving dangerous situations, even when they want to, by economic circumstances. For example, their husbands or boyfriends might control all their property, bills, and bank accounts, which makes it difficult for the survivors to achieve the economic self-stability required for independence. “Women can experience trouble staying away from an abusive situation when they lack financial access and information,” Cassidy said. Additionally, failure to pay child support is an incredibly common crime in Texas. Close to one million cases are generated every year, too many for the state Office of the Attorney General to address comprehensively. “Withholding child support is a tool that abusers commonly use to control their victims,” Cassidy said. “Legal services make a difference in this environment.”

In addition to legal action on behalf of clients to secure child support payments, Cassidy will educate them about economic basics, teaching financial literacy classes on everything from using a calculator to longer-term financial planning and strategies, all in the hope of empowering them to support themselves and their children independent of their past abusers.  Toward the end of the project, Cassidy, who will also graduate this year with a master of public affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, hopes to use her fellowship experience to educate Texas legislators and policy makers on additional child support enforcement tools and legislation the state could incorporate. The Texas Legislature will meet in the spring of 2011, perfectly timed for this last advocacy phase of Cassidy’s project.

While studying at the Law School, Cassidy was copresident of the Public Interest Law Association for two years; co-treasurer of Texas Law Fellowships; and a member of the student advisory board for the Law School’s William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, where she co-organized two pro bono trips to Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina relief work. She also worked with the Domestic Violence Clinic; the Capital Punishment Clinic; and the Criminal Defense Clinic. She worked during her summers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. In 2008, Cassidy received the state’s first law student pro bono award for her demonstrated commitment to public service. She is the recipient of the Class of 2009 Equal Justice Scholarship, a scholarship covering all tuition and fees that was created in 2005 to increase access to justice for Texas’s underserved communities.

“Jessica’s post-graduate fellowship project is exactly the kind of work her Equal Justice Scholarship was intended to foster,” said Eden Harrington, director of the Justice Center, which administers the Equal Justice Scholarship program. “Jessica has been a force for justice as a law student, and we look forward to seeing her career unfold.”

Cassidy, who lives in Austin with her fiancé, Jeff, also worked with the Texas Advocacy Project representing survivors of domestic abuse during the spring of 2008, and said she is eager to continue her work there. “I’m excited about returning to the Texas Advocacy Project,” she said. “Getting to do this work for the next two years is a big honor.”

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.

Related Links:

Texas Advocacy Project: http://www.women-law.org/

Equal Justice Works: http://www.equaljusticeworks.org/

Contact: Julien Devereux, UT Law Communications, 512-232-2442, jdevereux@law.utexas.edu