When Rachel Zemke, ’16, was a first-year law student, she knew she wanted to be a legal aid attorney—and she had her eye on landing a prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship.
This week, her dream came true when the public interest organization, which funds lawyers and law students working to provide equal access to justice, awarded her a two-year postgraduate fellowship to launch a program representing survivors of domestic violence who are facing debt collection, identity theft, and credit history issues. Her project will be based at LAF, the largest provider of legal aid in Cook County.
“A two-year post-graduate fellowship has been my dream job ever since I found about them in 1L, so it feels a little surreal to be starting one in the fall,” Zemke said. “Working on the intersection of economic issues and gender justice is a place that I find endlessly interesting and absolutely vital to changing endemic poverty in this city. I am humbled and honored to be working at a place like LAF where I have the opportunity to learn from legal aid lawyers who have an enormous depth of knowledge about poverty law.”
EJW, which awards between 45 and 55 fellowships annually, focuses on a wide variety of projects. They look for large-impact programs that can be replicated in other communities and create lasting institutions or programs.
Zemke said she saw a critical need in domestic violence advocacy and knew she wanted to develop a program to help. Consumer debt, identity theft, and bad credit pose a significant threat to survivors of domestic violence, she said. But despite the prevalence of economic abuse—in one study, nearly all survivors interviewed reported having experienced such abuse—many domestic services organizations lack the resources or expertise in consumer law to help.
“Legal representation for consumer issues directly addresses the fact that abusers often use economic means of abuse, such as forcing partners to take out debt, stealing identities, or interfering with their partner’s jobs,” Zemke wrote in her proposal. “Steady income and good credit are critical assets in forging a life for oneself and family away from an abuser.”
During law school, Zemke interned in LAF’s consumer and housing practice groups as well as at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services. She served as vice president of community development for the Public Interest Law Society, the pro bono chair for Law Women’s Caucus, participated in Spring Break of Service at the Mississippi Center for Justice, and earned an Equal Justice America Fellowship. She is also a part of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Clinic.
“With her curricular choices, clinical work, and student organization leadership while at the Law School, combined with her substantial community involvement outside of the Law School, Rachel systematically went about building herself into a legal aid attorney,” said Susan Curry, the Law School’s Director of Public Interest Law and Policy. “Her focus on client need is, and has been, laser-precise and I am so delighted to see her dedication rewarded with this prestigious honor. She will be a tremendous asset to the hard-working attorneys of her host organization, LAF.”
Zemke said her experience at the Law School has prepared her for her project, and for a career in legal aid.
“I am really grateful to everyone at the law school—professors, clinical supervisors, friends—who have taught me about how to be an attorney for people living in poverty. I am really excited to begin a lifelong career in this field.”