PILA Funds Record 52 Summer Fellowships
The Law School’s Public Interest Law Association (PILA) will fund a record 52 summer fellowships this year, 13 more than last year, thanks to an $18,000 boost from a variety of new fundraising efforts. The Law Foundation also matched the amount PILA disburses dollar for dollar this year, instead of its 50 percent match in previous years. As a result, $215,446 will go toward 19 second-year and 33 first-year fellowships.
”This is a pretty significant increase,” said PILA Disbursements Director Tiffany Marshall. The new callback voucher program, in which firms were asked to donate the cost of a hotel stay for students who stayed with friends instead, contributed about $5,000. PILA’s top fundraiser is its fall auction, which this year garnered about $41,000, and other sources of funding include donations from firms, public interest groups, and faculty.
Marshall, who has been named the new PILA president, said next year’s Board plans to work with other law schools that have similar programs to expand the voucher plan and raise awareness of the option among students. “There’s potential to raise even more money than we did this year,” she said. This year 102 students applied for the grants.
Reaching out early to the first-year class helped fundraising efforts as well, Marshall explained. PILA’s fall book sale boasted prized study guides, and throughout the year the organization hosted creative events such as the Alice in Wonderland faculty play-reading and the online love quiz, which “put PILA’s name out there in sort of a fun and unique way.”
PILA fellowship applicants are judged on their commitment to public service, pro bono work, how their proposed summer job fits into career plans, and financial need. This year first-year law students will receive $3,542 and second-year law students $5,903 to help fund a public-interest job. The amount of the fellowship may be offset by any salary the employer offers if the total is more than $5,000 for first-years and $8,000 for second-years. PILA fellows must also donate 20 hours to the organization’s fund-raising efforts during the next school year.
Fellowship Winners Have Diverse Goals
This year’s PILA fellows will journey as far as India in the east and Hawaii to the west to serve in a variety of public-interest fields. Close to a third of the students will stay in Virginia, many working for legal aid services in Charlottesville and U.S. attorneys’ offices, while 19 will work in other states and 11 will work abroad (full list).
First-year law student Meredith Horton earned a prized position at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City, after an intense phone interview that probed her knowledge of what she’ll be working on—education and political participation issues such as affirmative action and felon disfranchisement.
“The people that work for the Legal Defense Fund are very bright, dedicated, ambitious group of people….I would love to work there [full-time] at some point,” Horton said.
Before coming to law school, Horton worked for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in California; the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, an education reform group that sued New York—and won—over the unequal funding for students statewide; and the New York City Department of Education, where she served as a liaison to teacher unions.
“One reason I came to law school is to really understand how to use law as a tool for social change,” Horton said. She added that the PILA grant allowed her to follow her interests. “In the research that I’ve done it's harder to find money for internships that don’t provide direct services for the poor.”
Second-year Ryan Almstead is headed toward the opposite point of the country—Hawaii—but his summer will focus on a different side of paradise.
“Housing costs in Hawaii are over two and a half times the national average, while income levels are still below the national average,” Almstead said. The minimum wage earner would have to work 113 hours per week to afford the fair-rate two-bedroom apartment in Honolulu, at $915 per month. Public housing has a two- to four-year waiting list and “they’ve stopped taking applications for subsidized housing vouchers because the wait list is so long.” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has deemed the Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawaii one of the 186 “troubled” districts out of the 3,000 it oversees. Almstead will look at ways to work within current laws to provide greater protections for low-income tenants, without alienating landlords who may be tempted to sell their properties. He will also be “looking at ways in which other jurisdictions have instituted regulations that mandate more affordable housing.” Some municipalities require 20 percent of new housing developments to be affordable for low-income residents. Lastly, he will work on community outreach, persuading community members to pressure the government to create low-interest loan programs to purchase homes instead of throwing more money at the rising cost of rentals.
Almstead, who worked for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville last summer on a variety of cases, said he chose Hawaii because it also has a nationally renowned legal aid society, but with a different client community that has different problems at stake.
Seven students are headed to Africa with the help of PILA grants, including first-year law student Matthew Gessesse, who will work in Ethiopia, his parents’ homeland before they emigrated to the United States. Gessesse will spend most of his time in the research group of the Ethiopia Human Rights Council, a human rights monitoring organization, but will also work nights and weekends with Ethiopia’s Supreme Court on training judges and prosecutors on criminal and civil procedure.
Ethiopia’s national elections are May 15, and although the current government is expected to win, “the prospect of regime change is always a time when human rights claims go up.” Ethiopia’s ethnic divisions have caused tension in the country, which borders Sudan. The Gambella indigenous groups have been displaced in large numbers by a military unit that the government has failed to reprimand. Due process violations such as arbitrary detainment are common, and the government has targeted some opposition groups as terrorist organizations, he explained.
Gessesse is also a volunteer for Ethiocorps, a nonprofit that sends expatriates back to Ethiopia to fulfill their educational or career goals. The organization is launching a program for indigenous students to help acclimate them to working life after school.
Gessesse, who speaks some of Ethiopia’s native language, Amharic, said working there “will be a trial by immersion.” He wants to spend some time during his career on economic and rule-of-law development in Ethiopia, but also has plans to pursue a career as a public defender in Washington, D.C., his hometown. He’s honed his interest in public service by working with the International Rescue Committee to help immigrants in Charlottesville obtain green cards.
Closer to home, first-year law student Shannon Ross, a Baltimore-area native and Georgetown University graduate, will use her fellowship to work at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Maryland, in Greenbelt.
“I’m hoping to really learn what the U.S. attorneys do
on a day-to-day basis and how they fit into the larger law enforcement
puzzle,” said Ross, who said she wants to work for the federal
government after graduating, possibly as a prosecutor. Ross spent time
in Baltimore’s public defender office over winter break as part
of a pro bono project, and before coming to law school she worked in
the U.S. Senate’s Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee
on Capitol Hill.