Public Interest Law Week Celebrated with Awards, Advice
The University of Chicago Law School celebrated Public Interest Law Week with speakers, accolades, and inspiration. Students heard from lawyers active in pro bono and nonprofit work, and two students who already shine in public interest law were honored.
Aimee Rodriguez, ’12, and Adrienne Young, ’13, were presented by Dean of Students Amy Gardner with PILS (Public Interest Law Society) Awards for their commitment to service at a Coffee Mess sponsored by law firm Goldberg Kohn on April 18. The awards were chosen by a panel of alumni coordinated by the Public Interest Law Society.
Young is a former Teach for America teacher who is involved in several service activities inside the Law School and in the community, with a special focus on low-income children and their parents. She worked as a family law legal intern at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, a law clerk at the Family Defense Center (advocates for families in the child welfare system), and a child advocate in the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. This summer, she’ll work for the Office of the General Counsel in Detroit Public Schools.
“It’s a great privilege to be honored for these commitments, opportunities which would not be possible without my education at the Law School,” Young said.
Rodriguez also focuses her service on education and low-income children. She worked in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Project within the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, and she has mentored Latino undergraduates, pre-law undergraduates, and high school students. Rodriguez also worked in education law at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago’s Children’s Law Project and at Equip for Equality's Special Education Clinic and Helpline. She will continue to work at Equip for Equality after she graduates on June 9, as the recipient of a Postgraduate Public Interest Law Fellowship.
“Adrienne and Aimee are great representatives of our many students interested in public interest careers, either immediately following graduation or in the future,” Gardner said. “It is wonderful to see their past efforts and future promise recognized in this important way.”
Public Interest Law Week, which ran from April 16 to 20, also featured several lunchtime speakers, including working lawyers who talked about how public interest law can be a substantial part of one’s work in the private sector. Law firm Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP sponsored that session.
One of the speakers, Jackie Pruitt, ’11, a first-year associate at Sidley Austin in Chicago, focuses on white-collar internal investigations and antitrust cases in her billable work. But she told students she also took on a federal pro bono civil rights case, centered on a paralyzed inmate who claims excessive force against Chicago police.
“I’m getting a lot of great experience a first-year associate wouldn’t get otherwise,” she said.
Similarly, Liz Austermuehle, ’10, practices corporate law at Skadden Arps, but her pro bono work is largely representing immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. based on religious persecution.
Also during the week, students heard from lawyers who talked about how performing community service in law school helped them continue service work in their careers. All the speakers offered some common advice: When you’re looking at firms, ask explicit questions about the opportunities you’ll have for pro bono work. Do service legal work in law school and you’ll be better prepared for all your work, billable and pro bono, as an attorney. And finally, figure out what you’re passionate about and look for others who feel the same.
Law students are encouraged all year long to “embrace a career that incorporates an ongoing commitment to public service work,” said Susan Curry, Director of Public Interest Law and Policy. But the beauty of a week dedicated to public interest law is that it shows it can be practiced across sectors, from nonprofit organizations to the government to law firms, large and small.
“Public interest law week gives us a chance to showcase the expansiveness of public interest lawyering,” she said.