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Expanding Philly’s Public Interest Footprint

Expanding Philly's Public Interest Footprint

Teeming with immigrants and plagued by struggling schools, lackluster job growth and one of the highest big-city poverty rates in the U.S., Philadelphia possesses a mountain of unmet legal needs.

With skill and resolve, the Kline School of Law and its alumni are chipping away at that peak.

“There’s a great need in Philadelphia by people who are poor and don’t have access to legal services,” said Juan Baez, ’10, deputy managing attorney for the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

Promoted to that post from staff attorney in December, Baez is among a growing number of alumni pursuing public interest careers in Philadelphia with nonprofit organizations, city, state and federal agencies and even big law.

“We encourage our attorneys to find something they feel passionate about and make sure they have support they need to find the work they want,” said Krystal Kane, ’13, who arranges for partners and associates to tackle worthy cases as Blank Rome's full-time pro bono coordinator.

Blank Rome’s Philadelphia-based attorneys put in 8500 hours of pro bono service helping senior citizens, veterans and other under-represented groups in 2014 and will log more hours in 2015, Kane said, since the firm now requires partners and associates to provide pro bono service. 

Alumni have made their presence felt both as public-interest fellows and attorneys, said Judith Bernstein-Baker, the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania.

HIAS hired Maanda Makwarela, ’14, who’d been working as a fellow, to fill a critical temporary opening when an attorney went on maternity leave, Bernstein-Baker said.

“We needed someone to assist survivors of torture – we could not have a break,” Bernstein-Baker said. “Maanda is extremely skilled. The transition has been smooth.”

Alumni like Erica Briant, ’14, who got their start with HIAS as pro bono students have continued to make a powerful impression, Bernstein-Baker said.

Now a fellow at Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania, “Erica has become a real leader in the public interest community,” Bernstein-Baker said, noting her efforts to share information of interest widely across the public interest sector.

Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia Executive Director Peter Hileman said the organization was able to build and expand its expungement program into seven of the city's poorest neighborhoods, through the passionate commitment of Jaimee Moore, '10, the legal director.

"Having grown up in circumstances similar to our clients, she has enabled us to be particularly effective and compassionate in meeting their legal, personal and spiritual needs," Hileman said. "Jaimee has an effervescent faith, which draws people to want to join our cause. I don't know what we would do without her."

Esquires working in the Philadelphia Solicitor’s Office include Eva Miller, ’11, Scott Molski and Rosa Parks, both ’13, and Jon Wheeland, ’12, while state agencies that have employed alumni include the Department of Environmental Protection, which nabbed Bobbie Schena, ’13, and federal agencies like the Department of Veteran Affairs hired Alison Debes Jerista, '10, to tackle congressional and legislative affairs in the General Counsel Office and the Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights recruited Jamie Rahn Ballay, '09, to investigate civil rights and health information privacy complaints.  

Public-interest minded alumni have also adopted entrepreneurial strategies to advance the common good.

Karla Cruel and Eddie Kang, both ’13, have teamed up to launch the Legal Empowerment Group, a firm that provides education and community outreach as well as legal assistance.

The new enterprise offers clients targeted guidance so they can handle tasks on a pro se basis where possible, Cruel said, though Kang is available to represent them in court when necessary. Cruel is also going to offer classes in churches and schools to explain and demystify the legal system.

“I truly believe part of the reason our legal system does not function the way it should is that people don’t understand how it’s supposed to work,” said Cruel, whose operations are located in the offices of the Tenant Union Representative Network.

Shana Weiner, ’13, recently launched Dinah, which provides legal assistance to Jewish victims of domestic violence.  Jews are as likely as any other population to experience domestic violence, Weiner said, yet studies show that they are more likely to stick with abusive partners. 

New York, Boston, Baltimore and other major cities have attorneys who fill this need, yet Philadelphia has been lacking, Weiner said.  Until now.

Veteran public-interest attorneys voice gratitude for the school’s respected Pro Bono Service Program, which delivers some 14,000 hours of legal service every year.

“I love to see that people get the spirit of pro bono and public interest when they’re law students,” said Wendy Bookler, legal director of the SeniorLAW Center.

Students working with the Homeless Advocacy Project have been enthusiastic in their efforts to expedite Social Security disability applications on behalf of youths aging out of foster care and juvenile facilities, said staff attorney Laura Kolb.

Praising Baez’s work ethic at the AIDS Law Project, Executive Director Ronda Goldfein said he demonstrates a rare ability to balance his clients’ needs for support and independence.

“There’s something very practical about the Drexel students, maybe that’s the beauty of Drexel,” Goldfein said. “They’re eager to get to work on things. They’re eager to meet with clients and eager to see how it all plays out and how they can be of assistance.”