Three recent Suffolk Law graduates are devoting their talent and passion to improving access to justice for their clients. Recent alumae Deena Zakim, Amy Willis and Jessica Youngberg were each selected for competitive, two-year public service fellowships after graduating, and are now working on the front lines of legal services.
Unfair termination of Section 8 housing
Deena Zakim, JD’14, who will soon start year two of her Equal Justice Works fellowship, works at Greater Boston Legal Services, where she designed and is implementing a program to provide legal representation to families and individuals with disabilities who face eviction and homelessness.
Zakim’s project has already made an impact, saving the housing subsidies of more than 24 families. She recently represented a family who sought legal assistance after having been evicted from their apartment for nonpayment of rent. Because of the eviction, the family lost their Section 8 Voucher, which helped them cover their rent expenses. The family then tried to access services from a homeless shelter, but they were turned away, again because of the eviction.
As Zakim prepared an appeal to the housing authority, she learned that the eviction was the result of a downward spiral of mental health that began with the son’s debilitating depression and anxiety. He couldn’t go to school and his mother, who also struggled with mental health, became consumed with caring for her son, causing her to fall behind in rent. The parents lived on the street, while shuttling their son from friend to friend.
Zakim built a case and convinced the housing authority to reinstate the section 8 Voucher. The family was admitted into shelter based on the same issues, and set off to use their voucher to secure new, stable housing.
Hardships--after returning from war
Through her work at Veterans Legal Services (VLS) in Boston, Skadden Fellow Jessica Youngberg, JD’13, provides direct legal assistance to low-income veterans on a broad range of civil legal issues. “Many veterans have already endured physical, emotional, and sometimes financial hardship in serving their country, and they often face preventable legal hardships after their service ends,” says Youngberg. “With high rates of homelessness and disability, often at the same time, the veteran population is one of the most vulnerable,” she adds.
Youngberg notes that low-income veterans living with physical and mental disabilities connected to their military service, including Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, often face the most serious legal barriers. “Many times these veterans lack awareness of their legal rights, and perceive asking for help as an indignity—and that means they end up foregoing assistance until their legal issues are at a crisis level.”
VLS provides legal services in areas such as government benefits, family law, financial protection, consumer law, disability law, and elder law, serving approximately 550 veterans’ cases annually—the majority of which involve veterans who are disabled, homeless, or at risk of homelessness. Services are for veterans whose gross income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level (in 2016, this equates to $1,980 per month for a single individual).
Because of the high demand for services and limited resources, VLS has often been forced to focus on the most exigent of cases. Through her Skadden Fellowship, Youngberg seeks to focus on strategic and early legal intervention to assist veterans in identifying and mitigating the impact of common legal issues.
Fighting impacts of gentrification
Amy Mei Willis, JD’15, an Equal Justice Works Fellow, works at the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless, where she helped establish an “attorney for the day” program that stations an attorney at a busy courthouse in Atlanta to educate low-income tenants and the homeless on their rights and help defend them in housing cases.
Willis says that low-income families and individuals continue to be displaced because of the rapid pace of gentrification in the metro Atlanta area where she is working. Instead of ignoring the multiple factors that lead to homelessness, the attorney of the day program educates and empowers tenants to take on these challenges and defend their legal rights.
Skadden and Equal Justice Works Fellowships
The Skadden Fellowship Foundation provides fellows with full legal services salaries and benefits, including law school debt service, while they create and implement their dream jobs representing low-income clients. The prestigious program, described as "a legal Peace Corps" by the Los Angeles Times, was established in 1988.
Each year the Equal Justice Works Fellowship competition selects “passionate lawyers who have developed new and innovative legal projects that can impact lives and serve communities in desperate need of legal assistance.” Fellows receive a salary, loan repayment assistance, and additional support during their two-year tenure.
“Fellowships exist to train the next generation of leaders in public service law,” says Sarah Bookbinder, the Associate Director for Public Interest Advising and Pro Bono Programs at the Law School and herself a member of the Equal Justice Works class of 2007. “They offer funding, training and lifelong networking opportunities.”
Bookbinder encourages law students committed to careers in the nonprofit sector to begin exploring these opportunities in their first year. She and Suffolk Law Clinical Professor Sarah Boonin, a member of the Skadden class of 2005, advise potential fellows on applications and interviews. For more information, contact Bookbinder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-573-8093.