Student Posts

Amicus Advocacy: An Alternative Path in Impact Lit

Many of us in the LPS community are interested in impact litigation – indeed, analyzing how to construct an impact lit campaign was a centerpiece of Professor Coughlin’s Law & Public Service class for fellows this past spring. While affirmative litigation remains the focus of organizations like the ACLU, NAACP LDF, and the Brennan Center, amicus brief writing has become an important part of the practice, particularly when seminal cases reach the Supreme Court. These briefs provide the Court with extra-legal arguments and important real-world data that may not have been raised in the trial record.

As part of my 1L winter break pro bono, I was able to work on an amicus brief for the Supreme Court case of Zubik v. Burwell. That case involved a religious non-profit’s challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, which required that employers provide contraception coverage without cost sharing to their employees. The non-profits argued that this violated their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. The lawyers I was working for were writing on behalf of numerous church-state scholars who sided with the government, arguing that providing a religious accommodation impermissibly shifted burdens onto non-adherents, violating the Establishment Clause. (If this has really piqued your interest, you can read the brief here.) Much of the pro-government amicus effort was coordinated by the ACLU, ensuring that the dozens of amicus briefs filed were not duplicative for the court.

While Zubik involved a brokered settlement by the court, likely to avoid a 4-4 split, amicus briefs in a number of other cases have been cited approvingly by the court, providing important facts for the majority opinion. (See, for example, the recent abortion decision Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the majority cited to nearly half a dozen amicus briefs showing that the Texas regulation at issue imposed an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion.)

I found the amicus process to be a great way to get involved with a litigation campaign in law school, even (especially!) as a 1L. A lot of the faculty, particularly in the civil rights/civil liberties domain, work on briefs regularly and can use research support. The topics are usually fairly narrow, since they seek to expand upon the issues that were either not addressed or were only cursorily mentioned in the parties’ briefs, so you can get up to speed on the subject matter fairly quickly. The process is relatively short, so I was able to see the whole brief from beginning to end in just a few months, whereas a full piece of litigation can take years. For future litigators with many different practice/topic interests, the amicus system is a great way to get exposure to a lot of cutting-edge issues in the law. I never expected to work on a reproductive rights filing in the Supreme Court in law school – especially after just one semester here – but I’m so thankful that I did! The experience has really colored my elective choices and gave me an invaluable look to what an impact litigation career (or an impact litigation facet of an academic career) would really look like.

img_2692George is a 2L from New Jersey. He graduated from Duke University in 2013 with a degree in Economics, and hopes to become a federal prosecutor after law school. This past summer he interned at the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, and he is a member of the UVA Innocence Project Clinic. In his free time, George likes to play tennis, root for Duke basketball, struggle through the New York Times crossword, and watch stand up comedy.

Student Posts

Why Environmental Law is Public Service Law

Public Service Law is not a field whose boundaries can be cleanly demarcated based on the subject matter addressed, the type of client represented, or the policy positions taken by its practitioners. This much is obvious to members of the public service legal community, which includes prosecutors and defenders, government agencies and nonprofits, client-focused work and impact litigation.

What baffles me is that, despite this diversity, environmental lawyers are often considered public service lawyers as something of an afterthought, if at all. Environmental advocacy is ineligible for many public service grant and fellowship programs, and environmental lawyers are selected by the programs for which they are eligible relatively rarely, compared to lawyers from many other fields. As the single 2L member of the Law and Public Service Program planning to practice environmental law, I even feel a little out of place in our own program at times.

I have noticed two main reasons why the public service community has ignored environmental concerns. The first is that environmentalism has the reputation of being a cause for people who are out of touch with real, urgent problems like oppression, injustice, and poverty. Anyone who thinks he has time to worry about polar bears when people are losing their rights, livelihoods, and lives must be blinded by his privilege at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. I think this is a not-unwarranted, but serious and dangerous mischaracterization of environmentalism. Don’t get me wrong, I like watching nature documentaries and hiking just as much as the next Chaco-wearing hippie, but that’s not why I’m studying environmental law. I consider myself an environmentalist not in spite of or instead of, but because of my commitment to helping combat the oppression, injustice, and suffering experienced by so many of my fellow humans.

What the public service community must realize is that social injustice and environmental injustice often stem from the same sources, have the same consequences, and share the same solutions. The same greed and shortsightedness that wrecked the world’s economy in 2008 is on track to wreck the world’s climate in the coming decades. The consumerist impulse to seek, accumulate, and exploit ever more is just as damaging to the planet as it is to those who struggle to pay their bills and meet their basic needs while the one percent continue amassing wealth. Failing to consider the impact that our lifestyles have on our limited resources is like failing to consider the harm that our words and actions can cause, or the forms of privilege we enjoy, or the oppressive forces present in our culture. Tragedies like Flint, Michigan (which are far too common) highlight the connections between environmental, racial, and economic injustice, and these connections run much deeper than environmentalists or social activists typically acknowledge.

The second reason public service ignores environmentalism is that environmental harms seem attenuated, diffuse, probabilistic, and difficult to quantify or compare to other priorities. The result is that public interest lawyers focus all their efforts on addressing injustices that seem more urgent and directly felt. This problem is compounded by the frequently protracted nature of environmental litigation.

I understand that making environmental concerns a priority involves difficult choices and tradeoffs. My hope is simply that the public service community can come to see the costs on all sides of these tradeoffs with clear eyes. These include not just monetary costs, but ecological and human costs as well. There is no one right way of measuring and prioritizing these costs, but we must acknowledge them and begin to grapple with them.

To my mind, the most accurate and useful way to define public service law is in terms of the community of public service lawyers. We are fortunate to have a thriving public service community here at UVA Law, one small part of which is represented by the Law and Public Service Program. This community would be far stronger and better equipped to serve the public interest if it made environmentalism one of its core features. Of course, the reverse is also true. Environmental lawyers have a lot to learn from the broader public service community, and especially from groups that are in better touch with those experiencing oppression, poverty, and injustice, because this is exactly who environmentalists should strive to serve.

dennison-headshotJim is a 2L from Logan, Utah. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2013 with a degree in philosophy. He has done pro bono with Western Resource Advocates in Salt Lake City, Utah and spent the summer of 2016 working for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Birmingham, Alabama. Next summer, he will work for Environmental Defense Fund in Boulder, Colorado. In his spare time, he likes to climb rocks, ride his bike, and cook veggies on the grill.

Student Posts

My Public Service Identity (Crisis?)

If you’re reading this “Law and Public Service” blog, I imagine you came to law school, or are currently considering law school, because you believe the law will equip you with a powerful tool for social change. While that wasn’t the only reason I came to law school, it was certainly the driving force. I spent four years after college weaving my way through various public service jobs in an effort to figure out how I could use my particular skills and interests to “best” contribute to the world. While I wasn’t always sure where I would end up, and I often felt driven but directionless, I could at least identify strongly as a public interest-minded person. That was the link that tied my professional pursuits together, and that was the chain that led me to law school.

A little over two years later, now in my final year of law school, I question whether I can still claim that identify. When I graduate, I will be working at a large law firm—the type of place where, during a ten-week summer stint, I earned what I used to earn in a year. The type of place where I generally won’t be fighting for the underdog, or what we think of as social justice. The type of place where I’ll often be representing companies whose values I disagree with. The type of place where money, rather than fairness, may take priority. And you know what? I’m looking forward to it. I even liked working at the firm this summer. A lot.

I liked the complexity of the cases I worked on. I liked the attorneys I worked with. I liked the wining and dining. I liked being able to afford a nice gym and expensing my Uber rides. I liked the vast pro bono opportunities. I liked not worrying about money for the first time in my life. And I liked having seemingly infinite resources to help me produce the best result for our clients.

But what does this mean for my identity? Am I still a “good” person? Will I stick with my plan of transitioning back into public service after a few years of hard work and long hours at the firm? Or will I wake up one day wondering how I got so far off track? Even more frightening, will I become perfectly content with the corporate high life and settle into its golden handcuffs?

My answer is this: I’m still the same person I was two years ago. I still want to devote my career to public service. I still believe that the law provides leverage for social justice. I am still conscious of and infuriated by the injustices I see every day. I still recognize my privilege and am driven to use it in a way that hopefully benefits others. That said, I also still have a lot to learn. So I’m taking a job that will not only help me pay down my loans, but that will prepare me for the complex civil rights litigation I want to do in the long-run. A job that I will give my all to, but that will not define me. Our work does not have to define any of us. What defines me is my perspective and values—both of which will infuse my work and interactions with the world around me.

This of course is not the only path or by any means the selfless path, but it’s the path that is right for me right now. Regardless of my job title, I am confident that I will stay me, that I will continue to question whether my actions reflect my values, and that my commitment to public service will lead me in the right direction.

head-shot-2Claire is a 3L who grew up in South Pasadena, California. She majored in International Development Studies at UC Berkeley and then went on to work for four years in various non-profit and community organizing positions. She dabbled as a union organizer, a reproductive health educator in South America, a paralegal at an immigration law firm specializing in asylum and deportation defense, and a research assistant at the International Budget Partnership in Washington, D.C. She loves being back in school, and like Goldilocks, thinks law school is just right (for her). She especially loves using law school’s long winter and summer breaks for traveling!

Interests: Civil Rights Litigation; Impact Litigation; Government; Criminal Law; Public Policy.

Student Posts

The World’s Largest Democracy

This past summer I had the privilege of working for the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) in New Delhi, India. Having previously studied abroad in India during my undergraduate career I had a strong desire to return to the world’s largest democracy with some legal knowledge under my belt. After receiving an offer to work with Ravi Nair, the Director of SAHRDC, and speaking with several past interns who thoroughly enjoyed their time under Ravi’s mentorship I applied for a work visa and upon receiving it bought a plane ticket. Overall the experience was remarkable. I learned so much working with Ravi and I was humbled to assist him in fighting for human rights, a fight Ravi has participated in since the 1960s.

Going into the summer I felt like I had a pretty solid handle of ongoing human rights concerns in India, but that could not have been further from the truth. My prior knowledge was focused on concerns regarding women’s rights, lingering elements of the caste system, and poverty, but I had never heard of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), anti-conversion laws, the insurmountable judicial delay plaguing the court system of India, the impunity government officials are granted under Indian law, the excessive use of force displayed daily in Kashmir and Northeast India, or Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s association with the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, which occurred under his watch as chief minister. I learned about all of these issues as I prepared reports to submit to the United Nations in preparation for India’s third Universal Periodic Review with the United Nations Human Rights Council. In addition to an official report submitted by the state itself, NGOs are also permitted to submit reports on a country’s human rights record to increase transparency.

By writing several of these reports in addition to various articles, I learned that although India is the largest democracy in the world, on the ground the country is anything but free or fair. Ravi had known this for a long time, and although he realizes he can only live to see so much change in his country he has dedicated his life and his personal inheritance to fighting for every bit of change he can achieve. Previously, Ravi received funding from foreign investors to support SAHRDC, but to receive this type of funding an NGO in India needs a license: a license that is issued by the government. Thanks to Ravi’s great work, the Indian government has rewarded him by taking away this license, which has left Ravi to use what he has left of his mother’s inheritance to run the organization. SAHRDC used to be housed in an office building, and Ravi used to have 10-15 employees. Today the SAHRDC is located in what is essentially two storage units and consists of Ravi, an assistant, and the interns who funnel in and out every couple of months. Ravi is one of the few brave individuals fighting for systemic change in the largest democracy in the world and I could not have been more honored to help him in this fight.

nicolelawlerheadshotNicole Lawler is a member of the Class of 2018 from Orefield, Pennsylvania. She graduated from King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA, in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Political Science, Theology, and Economics. This past summer Nicole worked at the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre in New Delhi, India. Previously, Nicole has interned at the Defenders Association of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in Philadelphia. Nicole enjoys playing softball and traveling in her spare time.

Conversations with Practitioners

Vivian Kim

Conversations with Practitioners is our ongoing series in which we ask current practitioners about their careers.

1. What do you currently do?

I am an Assistant United States Attorney at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia. Our office is a little different from other U.S. Attorney’s offices. Since there is no D.A. in the District, the office also handles local crime. I specifically handle domestic violence misdemeanors in D.C. Superior Court.

2. What does your job entail?

I’m more like a local prosecutor than a federal prosecutor. I am in the courtroom almost every day in the mornings, handling status hearings, detention hearings, motions hearings, arraignments, sentencings, and trials etc. If there is a trial, I will be there all day. If not, in the afternoons I spent a lot of time talking to witnesses and victims. Because of the work I do, I encounter a lot of people who are in vulnerable and tragic moments in their lives; it is crucial that I take the time and care to speak with respect and clarity during this time. I also spend the afternoons gathering evidence, investigating, turning evidence over to defense counsel, getting ready for upcoming trials, and negotiating plea deals with defense counsel.

My job involves a lot of jugging talking to different people: the court, defense counsel, witnesses, and law enforcement officers.

3. What drew you to doing this kind of work?

I have been focused on this kind of work for a while. Straight out of college, I worked as a paralegal at the Manhattan D.A.’s office in the sex crimes unit. In law school, I was in the Prosecution Clinic where I handled domestic relations misdemeanors in Albemarle County.

A big part of being a prosecutor is connecting with people in difficult, tragic moments in their lives. This includes victims, victims’ families, and even the defendant. There is something about the deep personal level of domestic violence cases that draw me to them. As a prosecutor, I want to bring about the best resolution to a case and for all those involved: whether that is by dismissing a case, getting the defendant help, or incarceration, if the case warrants that. The discretion you have as a prosecutor is incredibly intimidating – there is a lot of responsibility there that you have to take seriously – but you have the freedom to know that this is where you can use your intellect, training, and heart to hopefully find a way to resolve what is happening.

4. What did you do in law school or immediately after law school that has helped you develop your career?

During law school, I was part of the first class in the Law and Public Service Program which played a great part in developing my passion for public service. The classes, especially the practical skills classes were great. I also appreciated the community of other like-minded students in the program who were committed to public service.

I also participated in the Prosecution Clinic. If someone wants to be a prosecutor, they should absolutely do it. It is an amazing clinic and you will get experience working one-on-one with great attorneys will take the time to train and mentor you. And it was my first opportunity to experience being a trial attorney, in the courtroom, advocating for victims as a lawyer.

After law school, I went to a firm for three years. If you go to a firm with the idea that you one day want to go into public service, be very intentional, which can be hard to do. I sought out white collar work, criminal investigations, opportunities to go to court, pro bono, and deposition experience to round out my trial skills and criminal law knowledge. It’s crucial to go to the firm with an eye to grow and learn – seek out mentors and assignments that will challenge you and help you become a better attorney all-around.

5. Do you have any advice for current law students who are interested in working in your industry (or law students in general)?

You should take as many practical skills classes as you can. I took Practical Trial Evidence with Judge Crigler, which I still use every day in court. I regret not taking any of the public speaking classes with Professors Saylor and Shadel. You want to practice oral advocacy in front of your peers, so when you’re in court you can walk in with more confidence and gumption. I also recommend taking courses that teach you how to tap into your heart in conjunction with your brain. It’s easy in law school to feel that you have to take all the legal theory courses – the “meat and potatoes” bar exam courses. That’s certainly true, and it’s good advice. But personally, I found the most rewarding courses were the ones where I was encouraged to consider human perspectives foreign to my own life experience and to tap into my empathy and compassion as well as my intellect and legal skills to truly advocate – courses like the Human Rights Clinic, Poverty and the Law, and the Prosecution Clinic.

Vivian KimVivian Kim is an AUSA in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia. Prior to that, she worked at Morgan, Lewis and Bockius in New York. Vivian graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 2012. She did her undergraduate degree at Princeton University.

Student Posts

A Common Bond

Most often what attracts us to different things – people, places, jobs – is a common bond. For me, I definitely share a common bond with the work that I want to do as an attorney. As the daughter of a biracial couple, I found myself naturally drawn to civil rights work. After all, it was civil rights litigation that allowed people like me to enjoy the freedoms that we now do. I find myself drawn to careers of fighting for the under-championed cause – not because I enjoy the fight but because I know the fight is worth it.

This common bond or shared interest definitely fuels my fire. I want to work through the hard parts or long hours because my identity is tied to those I want to help. And yet, there is a cost to that common bond. You’re not only dealing with your own issues – you’re also taking on the issues of others.

My two summer jobs during law school have both dealt with racial justice and civil rights. Both summers also had their fair share of tragedy for the Black community. It is an incredible privilege to have participated in civil rights work, and yet, it was flat out exhausting at times. Work wasn’t just about thinking about reforms and the best ways to do justice. In the background was the hurt of wondering how members of my family might be treated one day and the feeling of security slipping away.

So why do it? Why work in an area that is so closely tied to who I am? It’s not just about having the extra passion to get through the day. I could probably find another motivation to do my job. For me, it comes down to a combination of stubbornness and impatience. If I am unhappy with parts of the world we live in, I’m not going to wait for the change. I’m going to find a way to make the dream a reality.

And with perhaps foolish naïveté, I march on. The hard days aren’t any easier, and the hard days will come. But realizing why I want to do this work gives me the freedom to actually do the work. Part of the work is recognizing that I do share a common bond with the issues. Sometimes that means taking a little extra time to sit with things and to actively carve out space to process what’s happening around me. Sure, that adds another step to the process, but it’s worth it.

If there’s something that lights your fire – some common bond – don’t be afraid to make that your career. We need more people at the table who can shed light on reality. When you chase those passions, remember that work won’t just be a job. It’ll be a part of you, so make the time to take care of yourself. Let’s make change happen, and not wait for it to unfold.


Amber Strickland is a 3L from Centreville, Virginia. After spending her undergraduate years enjoying small town America in the cornfields of Ohio, she joined the fight to end bonded labor in India while interning with International Justice Mission. When not reading for class, she can be found procrasti-baking or cooking.

Student Posts

A New Sense of Community

The sense of community at UVA Law played a huge role in my decision to come here. I wanted to learn from and make meaningful connections with my classmates. For me, the relationships I was going to build outside the classroom were as important as the professors teaching the classes. As I began 1L last year, I expected to feel integrally connected to the UVA Law community. Coming back for 2L, on the other hand, I knew I was going to feel out of place.

My next two years of law school will be fundamentally different than the vast majority of my classmates. Most 2Ls have locked down firm jobs for next summer—jobs that will almost definitely turn into $180,000 salaries after they graduate. It’s been fun to listen to my friends talk about flying all over the country, staying in fancy hotels, and sampling the lavish lifestyle at different firms. And don’t get me wrong—every time I hear about my classmates getting a callback or accepting an offer, I’m thrilled for them. But I’m an outsider during those conversations. I don’t relate, I can’t tell my own OGI stories, and all these firm names mean nothing to me. I don’t share these experiences with them.

When they ask me how my job search is going, it gets even more uncomfortable. Because as little as I know about OGI, I might know even less about my career search. Sure, I have a go-to answer to get myself out of the hot seat. I don’t really know what I’m doing though.

Thankfully, I’m not the only person at UVA braving the public service route. Recent conversations with my “no-G-I” friends and other LPS classmates have restored my sense of community and comfort. Our public service community is small, but strong. We are all venturing down very different paths, but we share a sense of solidarity. Importantly, I’ve been reminded that for some that path will include OGI and a short stint at a firm. I’m excited to continue to build relationships with my LPS peers, and I can’t wait to see the incredible things they’re going to do.

In the end, and thanks in large part to LPS, I know I have people supporting me, and people who I will support. My sense of community at UVA may have faded, but it has resurged different and more meaningful than before.

jbennie-headshotJeremy Bennie, a 2L from central Massachusetts, graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park. While there, he created his own major, called Leadership in a Diverse Society. Jeremy has interned with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Central Virginia Legal Aid Society, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Human Rights. He loves distance running and is currently training for his seventh marathon.