Audrey Gilliam, '12, Earns Prestigious Public Interest Fellowship

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
December 12, 2013

Audrey Gilliam, ’12, wanted to be a Skadden Fellow so she could help people like “Janelle,” an 18-year-old client of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) in Chicago. From ages 8 to 16, Janelle was enslaved in a suburban home, forced to cook and clean and denied an education. Originally from Zambia, Janelle had been sold into this life by her family.

Janelle had escaped that hell by the time she met Gilliam, who interned at NIJC in the summer of 2010. The lawyers there had helped her get a visa, find an apartment, take college entrance exams, and plan for a career in nursing.

Gilliam was inspired by children and adults like Janelle; now she has the chance to help many of them. She has been awarded a 2014 Skadden Fellowship, a prestigious program that supports the nation’s top public interest law graduates as they serve the most disadvantaged populations of the United States. Gilliam will work at NIJC for two years starting in September. Now, she’s a law clerk for the Immigration Court in El Paso, Texas, as part of the U.S. Department of Justice Attorney General’s Honors Program.

Gilliam has been ecstatic about the fellowship since Friday, when she heard the news. “The program gives attorneys the chance to design their dream job, and then do it,” she said. The fellowship was established in 1988 by the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, the philanthropic arm of law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom.

“It’s an amazing opportunity, and I came to law school knowing I wanted to do immigration law,” Gilliam added. “Immigrants are a great population to work with. You can really make a difference in each individual person’s life.”

Each Skadden Fellow applies with a specific project; Gilliam’s, at NIJC, will address the legal needs and human rights of immigrants trafficked for work or sex. She will represent victims in matters such as deportation hearings and educate them in their rights under the law, as well as find attorneys to take their cases pro bono. She will train law enforcement and social service providers in how to identify trafficked immigrants and work on community-wide responses to trafficking. And she will develop litigation strategies to expand protection for trafficking victims and other survivors of gender-based violence.

Gilliam is one of 28 Skadden Fellows in the 2014 class. The director of the Skadden Foundation, Susan Butler Plum, said about 250 students and graduates apply and virtually every one of them is very qualified. The application process is self-selecting because you have to find an employer willing to hire you before you apply, she said. Then, the Skadden Foundation funds the best applications. Butler Plum interviewed about 100 candidates this year, and said she was quite impressed by Gilliam.

“I thought she was exceptionally bright. Her face kind of radiated intelligence. She was a nice combination of head and heart working together,” Butler Plum said.

And experience, too: Gilliam, besides her work as an NIJC intern and an immigration court law clerk, has held several jobs related to immigration law. She was a law clerk focused on immigrants’ rights at both the Legal Assistance Foundation in Chicago and the ACLU of Southern California, in Los Angeles.  She has worked abroad; in South Korea, she interned at People for Successful Corean Reunification, and in Tanzania, she participated in the Paralegal Aid Program of the Abbott Fund. She spent a spring break in Jammu, India, investigating the ongoing plight of the Kashmiri Pandit refugees, and another in Belize, filing an asylum application on behalf of a Salvadoran refugee.

While in Law School, Gilliam worked in a clinic run by the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. Gilliam, like other students in the clinic, served as a child advocate for immigrant children who had come to the U.S. without their parents or guardians. These children are placed in detention facilities, and the child advocates are tasked with advocating for their best interests on all issues related to the child’s detention and long-term safety, including care, custody, release from detention, legal relief, and safe repatriation.

Maria Woltjen, Director of the Young Center, said Gilliam “excelled in every aspect of lawyering, from her dedicated work with clients to her outstanding writing and advocacy.” In one case, Woltjen recalled, Gilliam was appointed as the child advocate for a girl who was a victim of trafficking and sexual abuse. She fought to make sure the girl didn’t get transferred to adult detention on her eighteenth birthday, and she submitted a “best interests” brief successfully arguing that immigration authorities should reopen her case because return to her home country posed grave risks to her safety. On both fronts, Audrey made compelling arguments about the child's best interests applying principles from U.S. and international law, Woltjen said.

“Audrey demonstrated an exceptional ability to establish rapport with the children we serve,” Woltjen said. “At the same time, she could hold her own with federal authorities and other stakeholders involved in the children’s cases.”

Susan Curry, Director of Public Interest Law and Policy, agreed that Gilliam was “the whole package, in terms of public service. I am delighted to see her dedication rewarded with this prestigious honor.”

Curry is also happy to witness the Law School’s second Skadden Fellow in two years. Last year, Casey Potter, ’12, earned a fellowship to work at Cabrini Green Legal Aid. Gilliam is now the fifteenth Chicago Law recipient of the award.  

Maria Woltjen
Susan J. Curry