How a Law School Fellowship Program is Helping Six Alumni Launch Public Interest Careers

A Q&A with the 2021-2022 Postgraduate Public Interest Fellows

Every year, the University of Chicago Law School awards $50,000 fellowship grants to graduating JD students who develop public interest projects with public sector host organizations. The Postgraduate Public Interest Law Fellowships, made possible by alumni funders, are part of a suite of programming that supports students entering public service jobs after graduation.

Since the program began, 50 graduates have completed fellowships, and 96 percent have remained in public service.

This summer, as they prepared to begin their fellowships, the six 2021-2022 recipients took a few moments to discuss their projects, what drew them to the work, and how their experiences at the Law School helped prepare them for careers in public service. 

Daniel Abrams
Office of the Illinois Attorney General, Environmental Bureau
Chicago, IL
Daniel Abrams

1. What drew you to this organization and to this area of law? The Illinois Attorney General's (AG) Environmental Bureau is working on important environmental issues at the state and national level. I am excited to work for the AG for the opportunity to get immediate and substantive litigation experience involving important environmental statutes like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

I am interested in environmental law because of my firm belief that climate change is the existential crisis of our time, and environmental attorneys have the ability to help shape the future. We only have one planet Earth!

2. What do you hope to learn and accomplish in the coming year? I want to continue to improve as a writer. I'd also hope to gain substantive litigation experience, writing complaints, briefs, motions, etc.

3.  How did your time at the Law School help prepare you? I cannot speak highly enough about the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the Law School and Professors (Mark) Templeton and (Robert) Weinstock. I have been doing this work for the last two and half years because of the clinic. I am ready to step right in and continue as an advocate for the environment.

4. What is one piece of advice you have for law students—or future law students—interested in pursuing a career in public interest law? Remember why you came to law school. It is easy to take the path of least resistance. Stick to your convictions, stay grounded, and follow through! You can do it!

Michael Belko
Innocence Project of Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh, PA
Michael Belko

1. What drew you to this organization and to this area of law? I have always viewed the criminal legal system as severely unjust, and I think exoneration work really highlights how broken the system is. While the Constitution affords criminal defendants numerous protections and convictions are supposed to rely on proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” tons of people in the US are nonetheless locked in cages for crimes they had nothing to do with. Often, these people lose a decade or more of their lives to prison despite never have committing the crimes for which they were charged. Moreover, the majority of those falsely accused and convicted are people of color, revealing the active role racism plays in the penal system. I was drawn to working with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project because I want to assist in their efforts to free the people who never should have had to enter the penal system in the first place. I cannot imagine how devastating it is to be imprisoned for something one has never done. I wanted to be a part of efforts providing hope and freedom for those in that position.

 2. What do you hope to learn and accomplish in the coming year? I really hope to meaningfully contribute to efforts that lead to both exoneration of currently incarcerated individuals and prevention of more false convictions happening in the first place. I also hope to become more knowledgeable on and adept at litigating within the criminal system and all of its complexities. I have knowledge and passion, so I’m looking forward to putting it all together in practice.

 3. How did your time at the Law School help prepare you? The faculty at our law school are incredible, and I feel really confident that my education has prepared me to tackle the complex and challenging litigation. But specifically, my time in the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic with Professors (Alison) Siegler, (Erica) Zunkel, and (Judith) Miller was monumental in sharpening my skills, deepening my knowledge, enhancing my work ethic and invigorating my passion for criminal defense work. The professors are brilliant, passionate, and tremendously supportive of all of their students. They continuously find amazing, interesting, and important projects for their students to be a part of. I am incredibly grateful to have spent this past year working with these amazing professors and students in the clinic. It is easily the most meaningful and impacting part of my law school experience.

 4. What is one piece of advice you have for law students—or future law students—interested in pursuing a career in public interest law? Find the professors and students who are passionate about the similar areas and issues you are interested in. In my experience, the professors who are passionate about public interest law have a strong commitment to investing in their students who similarly share a dedication for public interest work. You will likely gain invaluable knowledge, skill, and understanding of that area of law from their guidance. Taking their classes and, especially, participating in their clinics will also be a great way to test whether you want to pursue a specific path or try something else. Just follow your interests and try out whatever fits them!   

Christy Crouse
Bogotá, Colombia
Christy Crouse

1. What drew you to this organization and to this area of law? Dejusticia is a Colombia-based NGO that works in the region on projects dealing with all types of human rights issues (e.g. climate change, the right to protest, anti-discrimination). I did a Fulbright year in Colombia prior to law school and had heard of Dejusticia’s work. My first summer of law school, I interned at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice in New York City. I met a Colombian law student who also recommended Dejusticia as a pillar of human rights advocacy and scholarship in Latin America. Based on my own research and all the recommendations, I decided to pursue a fellowship with them.

During my undergraduate studies, I spent a summer in Geneva, Switzerland interning at an international non-governmental organization. I had a blast—met the coolest people from all over the globe, learned about interesting and important issues, and felt like I’d found my place. At a conference at the United Nations that summer, an international cybersecurity lawyer impressed me by reasoning through difficult questions about cross-national cyber law and human rights. I wanted to develop those same skills, so I chose to go to law school and study international human rights law. 

 2. What do you hope to learn and accomplish in the coming year? For this year, my goal is to work with the largest variety of people and on the largest variety of projects that I can. My focus in law school was on migration, but I hope that my work will span even more thematic areas as well as the intersection between migration and discrimination, inequality, climate change, and fundamental rights. I also want to see how different advocacy strategies bring different outcomes through domestic litigation, claims in front of international bodies, engaging the UN system, and working directly with affected communities. Most of all, I want to learn best practices in this field from human rights practitioners at Dejusticia. All of this will help me know in which areas I want to deepen my expertise as I continue my career.

 3. How did your time at the Law School help prepare you? The two years I participated in the Global Human Rights Clinic under Professor Claudia Flores most prepared me for this fellowship and my chosen career. We worked with clients across the world, including UN Women, the International Labour Organization, and activists in Myanmar, overcoming cultural and language differences in the process. Our research centered on human rights law and the status of those rights in specific country contexts. Classes with Professors Flores, (Adam) Chilton, (Aziz) Huq, (Tom) Ginsburg, and (Eric) Posner were also integral in giving me a knowledge base to pursue international legal work. 

 4. What is one piece of advice you have for law students—or future law students—interested in pursuing a career in public interest law? Do not be afraid to be different. Choosing a path that is not paved for you is undeniably hard. But it can also be seen as an opportunity to challenge yourself and others. If you dig deep into the university’s network and your own, you can find a lot of amazing routes to continue doing work that impacts the world positively and that fuels your passions. Finally, try to push against the tendency to become jaded and hopeless—even though public interest legal work is “messy,” it’s vital. We need you!

Kyle Benjamin Kent
Federal Defender Program, Northern District of Illinois
Chicago, IL
Kyle Benjamin Kent

1. What drew you to this organization and to this area of law? While I was away at college, my oldest brother was shot and killed here on Chicago’s South Side. His death cemented my interest in criminal law, and I ultimately focused that interest on federal indigent defense through a series of internships and volunteering opportunities. Specifically, I participated in an undergraduate internship program with the Champaign County Public Defender’s Office, a 1L summer internship with the Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee office, and a year-long internship with the Federal Defender Program here in Chicago.

As for why I chose to work with the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois, I had three main reasons. First and most importantly, the office is nationally recognized for its dedication to training its attorneys, fellows, and interns. Relatedly, everyone on the staff here is completely committed to providing the absolute best representation possible, and that shared commitment makes the office an ideal environment for new attorneys. Lastly, the opportunity to stay home and serve my community is greatly important to me.

2. What do you hope to learn and accomplish in the coming year? Going into the fellowship, I’m most looking forward to receiving a world-class, hands-on training as a public defender. Also, I’m excited to continue some of the work I’ve started as an intern, such as an appeal I’m working on, as well as entirely new tasks, including plea negotiations, trial appearances, and independent client interviews.

As for what I hope to accomplish, it’s my goal to prepare an article organizing the stories of our clients who possess firearms even though prohibited by law. This article will hopefully shed some light on the nature of unlawful firearm possession and the inequitable burdens imposed by so-called “felon disarmament” statutes.

3. How did your time at the Law School help prepare you? While at the Law School, I was able to take several classes directly relevant to federal indigent defense, including the following: Federal Criminal Law; Federal Criminal Practice and Issues; Criminal Procedure I, II, and III; Constitutional Law I, II, and III; Evidence; Immigration Law; Cybercrime; and the Law, Politics, and Policy of Policing. Of those, Professor (Michael) Doss’s Federal Criminal Practice and Issues, Professor (Emily) Buss’s Evidence, and Professor (Adam) Mortara’s Criminal Procedure III: Further Issues in Criminal Adjudication best prepared me for practice by incorporating experiential modules and extensively covering certain topics. Most importantly, I participated in Professor (Herschella) ConyersCriminal and Juvenile Justice Project Clinic from my 1L summer to graduation. Professor Conyers’ mentorship was invaluable, and that clinic greatly developed my motion practice and client engagement skills.

4. What is one piece of advice you have for law students—or future law students—interested in pursuing a career in public interest law? My advice would be to not fear skipping out on on-campus interviews (OCI) and pre-OCI. Those interested in doing so should reach out to the Office of Career Services and to practicing attorneys and legal professionals in their desired area of law. There’s an extensive public interest community in just about every geographic area and practice area that you can imagine, and nearly everyone is willing to meet with interested students and help them out. The same goes for professors and instructors at the law school as well.

Emma Sperry
Idaho Conservation League
Boise, ID
Emma Sperry

1. What drew you to this organization? I was drawn to the Idaho Conservation League (ICL) because of its focus on advancing renewable energy in Idaho and the West through both litigation and policy. In particular, I was interested in ICL's work advocating for electric utility reform in front of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission and its work pursuing creative legal and policy strategies for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

2. What do you hope to learn and accomplish in the coming year? I am hoping to expand my understanding of legal, policy, and scientific mechanisms for reducing carbon in the atmosphere and remedying the effects of climate change. I am also looking forward to improving my litigation and legislative skills in the renewable energy space.

3. How did your time at the Law School help prepare you? In my experience, being a good lawyer requires three skills: 1) a substantive understanding of the law; 2) excellent writing ability; and 3) an intuitive sense of how to approach and solve legal and policy problems. The only way to develop these skills is to immerse yourself in the law by reading cases and other legal documents, practicing writing, and articulating, defending, and evaluating legal arguments. Every class and clinic that I took at the Law School gave me the opportunity to develop these skills and to learn from expert professors as well as classmates. In addition, my clinic work gave me practical experience as an attorney and allowed me to increase my substantive knowledge of environmental and utility law.

4. What is one piece of advice you have for law students interested in public interest? Don't give up. It is challenging to stay on the public interest path when most of your classmates are hired at firms after their second year of law school. It can also be challenging to navigate the public interest job market. I spent an entire summer and academic year on the job market applying and interviewing, and I did not know where I was going to be working until April of my last year. If you decide after 1L that pursuing a job at a firm is the best choice for your career, go for it. But, if public interest work right out of law school is still your dream, don't let these challenges keep you from pursuing that dream. Many of us have successfully followed this path and you, too, will find a great job in your field of choice. 

Anna Ziai
Sierra Club
Washington, DC
Anna Ziai

1. What drew you to this organization? The Sierra Club was my goal organization because they take a multifaceted approach to our pressing environmental problems, including policy initiatives, litigation, access to national parks, and combating environmental racism, just to name a few. I was initially attracted to environmental law because I want to help create cleaner, safer environments for people and animals to breathe and live in. 

2. What do you hope to learn and accomplish in the coming year? I hope to have a better understanding for how litigation can be used to further the purposes of legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. I also want to learn more about protecting national parks and marine protected areas for future generations to enjoy.

3. How did your time at the Law School help prepare you? UChicago Law helped me prepare for this position in large part through my clinic and classes. The Abrams Environmental Law Clinic especially introduced me to the legislation I’ll be working on at the Sierra Club. I also worked on briefs, discovery, etc. for one of our clients, Soulardarity, to bring their community solar initiatives before the Michigan Public Service Commission. 

4. What is one piece of advice you have for law students interested in public interest? Try your hand at as many opportunities as you can. Even if you’re sure of the general area that you want to go into, find opportunities that give you ways to make different impacts, which will help you see what fits your interest the best.