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Posted April 5, 2006

Caplin, Fairstein Fellows Rewarded for Public Interest Work

Law students Rachel Cella and Nicole Hancock, who both hope to become public defenders, have been named the 2006 Linda A. Fairstein Public Service Fellows, and Heather Axford, who will pursue a career in human rights advocacy, has received the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Fellowship. Each fellowship grants $5,000 annually for three years to a rising second-year student who is committed to pursuing a career in public service.

HEATHER AXFORD 2006 Mortimer Caplin Public Service Fellow

Heather Axford

“I would get these phone calls from people in desperate need of help but who were, for a variety of reasons, ineligible for the food stamp program. ... I got tired of doing nothing but giving them the 1-800 complaint hotline for the Food Stamp Program and the address for the nearest soup kitchen. As a lawyer I'll have a much bigger tool kit for helping my clients—I'll be able to recognize when someone's legal rights have been violated and seek redress. I'll be a more effective advocate for just public policy.”

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Undergraduate education and hometown:
I grew up in Albany, N.Y., and went to Vassar College for undergrad.

Public service activities at the law school/during summers:
In my first year at law school I got involved with the Legal Aid Justice Center—doing intake for LAJC at the U.Va. Pediatric Clinic, helping their immigration lawyer to extend Temporary Protected Status for Salvadoran refugees, and writing grants for the Just Children Program. I also got involved pretty early on with the Human Rights Program as a member of its student advisory board. This year I have done outreach with the Migrant Farmworker Project. I am also a membership director for the Public Interest Law Association Board and the vice president of the Human Rights Study Project.

I spent my first summer in Rome at the United Nations World Food Program, working on a report for their country teams about how international human rights law and international humanitarian law affect their work in the field. This summer I have accepted a position with Central American Legal Assistance (CALA) in Brooklyn, N.Y. CALA provides free legal services to refugees from Central America. The majority of my clients this summer will be Colombians forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict there. Over the past three years alone, over 3 million Colombians have been forcibly displaced because of the conflict—some of this is internal displacement but a huge number have been forced to leave the country completely. I'm looking forward to using what I've learned in my human rights and immigration classes to serve clients directly.

Public service activities/employment pre-law school:
When I graduated from Vassar, I accepted a fellowship from the Congressional Hunger Center to spend a year working with the anti-hunger movement. I spent my first six months in Tallahassee with an organization called Florida Impact where I did community organizing in rural counties to get the Summer Food Service Program started; the program provided lunch for low-income children during the summer. I also worked on their bilingual food stamp hotline, answering questions and addressing complaints from food stamp recipients throughout the state of Florida. I spent the next six months with the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C., writing reports for their advocacy efforts on food stamp outreach in the southeastern U.S. and on access to the food stamp program for Spanish-speaking clients.

What interested you in law and public service?
To be honest, I can't remember when I wasn't interested in a career in public service. I spent college trying to figure out what kind of approach I wanted to take in addressing the injustices experienced by people living in poverty. The idea that I should go to law school came over time, but I think the moment that I really became convinced was when I was working on the food stamp hotline in Florida. I would get these phone calls from people in desperate need of help but who were, for a variety of reasons, ineligible for the food stamp program. I would also get calls from people complaining about how badly they had been treated in the application process, overworked case workers who were completely unresponsive or didn't speak the client's language, and long delays or unexplained suspensions of benefits. I got tired of doing nothing but giving them the 1-800 complaint hotline for the Food Stamp Program and the address for the nearest soup kitchen. As a lawyer I'll have a much bigger tool kit for helping my clients—I'll be able to recognize when someone's legal rights have been violated and seek redress. I'll be a more effective advocate for just public policy.

Favorite public service-oriented class?
My most meaningful class in Law School has been participating in the Human Rights Clinic. I've gotten to work on two incredible projects on issues such as the right to health and corporate accountability for NGOs that I really admire. It has been so exciting to use what I've learned in prior human rights classes to contribute to the work of organizations whose work has inspired me throughout my time at U.Va. The co-requisite human rights advocacy seminar gives us structured time to process what we're learning and to discuss the challenges we've come up against and to put it all into a larger context—something that you don't often get to do when working with these organizations as an intern or staff member.

Best experience in public service?
My experience with community organizing around the Summer Food Service Program in Florida was probably the most difficult, but most rewarding work that I have ever done. On one hand, the day-to-day experience could be grueling. Trying to track down leaders in tiny, resource-poor counties that considered me to be the ultimate outsider was daunting. Trying to convince the few community leaders, who were already overcommitted, to take on a project as large as establishing a Summer Food Service Program was even more difficult. But once we actually pulled a community meeting together, the energy and creativity of the participants in terms of making the most of limited resources was amazing. Each of the counties I was working with ended up starting the program, so it was exciting to see the lasting and tangible effect of my work—something that you often don't get to experience when you are at a job for such a short amount of time.

What do you want to do after graduation?
On my research trip to China with the human rights study project I met a number of inspiring legal aid lawyers working to promote human rights protections for migrant women. Their advocacy efforts were passionate and their recommendations were based on the reality of migrant women’s daily experiences and challenges. While I would ultimately like to end up doing human rights advocacy, either with an NGO or an intergovernmental organization, I think it’s important for me to have this direct client interaction to work from. Because of this, I am drawn especially to organizations that do both litigation and policy advocacy based on that litigation, such as Earthrights International (which represents victims of human rights abuses in cases against corporations who were complicit in those abuses) or the asylum programs in organizations such as Human Rights First.

RACHEL CELLA 2006 LINDA A. FAIRSTEIN PUBLIC SERVICE FELLOW

Rachel Cella

"Through my work with public defender clients, I saw first-hand the power of the law to impact peoples’ lives in both good and bad ways. Our clients came to us with a specific legal need, but we often came to learn that they faced a host of legal problems. This exposure to the cross-cutting effects of the law helped me to realize that lawyers have the ability to help people put their lives back in order in so many ways, and I decided there must be a role for me to play somewhere along that spectrum."

Undergraduate/prior education and hometown:
I graduated from Northwestern University with a B.S. in Speech in 1999. I majored in theater and minored in French. I spent my junior year studying in Paris, France, at the Universite de Paris III.

I was born and raised in a small town in far western Kentucky called Murray. Some people might recognize the town b/c the Murray State Racers regularly make it into the NCAA basketball tournament.

Public service activities at the law school/during summers:
During my first year, I participated in a couple of different public service activities: I volunteered for the International Rescue Committee, which helps refugees who are resettled in Charlottesville to acquire their green cards; I did a research project for the Public Defender’s Office in Richmond; and I helped organize a workshop on International Public Interest Jobs for the 2005 Conference on Public Service and the Law.

Last summer, I worked in Lusaka, Zambia, with a nongovernmental organization called Justice for Widows and Orphans Project. JWOP uses human rights advocacy strategies from grassroots organizing to litigation to help protect the rights of widows and orphans whose property is often illegally ‘grabbed’ from them by their in-laws when the male head of a household dies. ‘Property grabbing’ from widows and orphans is one of Zambia’s most common offenses due to the high death rates associated with HIV/AIDS, and its effects are devastating to the livelihood of widows and orphans who are already some of the most vulnerable members of Zambian society.

As a 2L, I have served as one of the co-chairs, along with Alex Pyke, of the 2006 Conference on Public Service & the Law; I worked on a pro bono project for the Foundation for Human Rights under the supervision of Professor Deena Hurwitz; and I’ve participated in the U.Va. Law-Hunton & Williams Pro Bono Partnership as part of the Asylum Project. I’ve also been involved with an ad hoc group of students working to increase the public-interest related curriculum offerings here at U.Va. Law.

This summer, I will be working as a law clerk in the Fairbanks office of the Alaska Public Defender Agency.

Public service activities/employment pre-law school:
I worked in a range of positions prior to law school in search of my calling, most of which had some service-related bent to them. Immediately after college, I worked for the National Park Service as a park ranger at a small historical site in Sitka, Alaska. During the off-season, I cobbled together a life by working several jobs, including serving as a tutor at a local boarding school for mostly Alaska Native kids. When I left the Park Service, I took a position helping learning-disabled high school students. Eventually, I landed at the Alaska Public Defender Agency as a legal assistant and that position motivated me to apply to law school.

What interested you in law and public service?
My parents are both educators, and I credit them with instilling in me the importance of helping others. My impulse to help didn’t take the shape of a desire to utilize the law as a tool to effect social change, however, until I began working for the Alaska Public Defender Agency. Through my work with public defender clients, I saw first-hand the power of the law to impact peoples’ lives in both good and bad ways. Our clients came to us with a specific legal need, but we often came to learn that they faced a host of legal problems. This exposure to the cross-cutting effects of the law helped me to realize that lawyers have the ability to help people put their lives back in order in so many ways, and I decided there must be a role for me to play somewhere along that spectrum.

Favorite public service-oriented class?
On the more theoretical side, I loved Criminal Investigation with Professor Anne Coughlin. Her enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and it’s an area of the law where the Supreme Court is very active, so that keeps it interesting. I also liked it because students seemed to feel more strongly about the material than in some other classes I’ve taken, and that kept the discussion lively.

Of the practical offerings, I’m currently taking the International Human Rights Law Clinic with Professor Hurwitz, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount about human rights advocacy from that experience. I really value the opportunity to work on behalf of clients, and it is especially rewarding in the field of human rights where norms are not as clearly defined, forcing us to give content and hopefully some clarity to important legal standards.

Best experience in public service?
This is a tough question because I’ve valued all of my experiences for different reasons. In terms of the best outcome, we won asylum for our client last semester in the U.Va. Law-Hunton & Williams Pro Bono Partnership, so that can’t really be topped! I also loved working on this year’s Conference on Public Service & the Law because it involved so much teamwork. I cannot emphasize enough how rewarding it was to watch our grand schemes take shape in a form above and beyond our expectations as a result of the efforts of the many talented and dedicated students working on the Conference. Of course, it was thrilling to meet Senator Kennedy, too!

What do you want to do after graduation?
Immediately after graduation I hope to be working as a public defender in Alaska. Somewhere down the road, I’d like to take my skills abroad to practice international criminal law. By then, maybe the United States will finally have accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and if I am lucky I will be able to practice before that body. One of the things I learned from chatting with the many alumni who participated in this year’s Conference, however, is that you just never know what opportunities will arise, and I only hope that I will be pleasantly surprised!

NICOLE HANCOCK 2006 LINDA A. FAIRSTEIN PUBLIC SERVICE FELLOW

Nicole Hancock

“I decided to intern at the local public defender’s office for my final semester [at the University of Georgia], and after that I was hooked. As I learned about environmental problems and animal rights issues, it seemed like a natural leap to apply a legal education there as well.”

Undergraduate/prior education and hometown:
University of Georgia
Major: Criminal Justice, Sociology
Athens, GA

Public service activities at the law school/during summers:
My organizational activities are the Public Interest Law Association, the Virginia Animal Law Society (secretary), the Virginia Environmental Law Forum, and the Virginia Innocence Project. In addition, I’ve done pro bono research/work for the Virginia Prisoners’ Rights Handbook, a local attorney on a criminal case she was working for free, the Virginia Capital Representation Research Clinic, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Last summer I worked for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville in the Civil Advocacy program. We represented clients in landlord/tenant disputes and cases involving predatory lending and employment discrimination. In addition, we worked on educating the community about tenants’ rights and responsibilities and about what to look for in a good loan.

Public service activities/employment pre-law school:
I worked at the local public defender’s office during and after graduating from undergrad.

What interested you in law and public service?
I’ve always been interested in law and public service, but I just didn’t know it. Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be involved in criminal law in some aspect. This led me to major in criminal justice as an undergrad. However, I also majored in sociology and a lot of my classes in that subject matter discussed inequities and injustices both in America and around the world. I decided to intern at the local public defender’s office for my final semester, and after that I was hooked. As I learned about environmental problems and animal rights issues, it seemed like a natural leap to apply a legal education there as well.

Favorite public service-oriented class?
Capital Post-Conviction Clinic—this clinic works with the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, a local nonprofit which handles many Virginia capital cases through the appellate process. It is very fulfilling to work on real cases where what I do actually matters (and in an ideal circumstance would help someone avoid the death penalty).

Best experience in public service?
My favorite part about public service is the people—the clients you help and the other people you work with. I can’t think of one singular best experience because there have been so many, but I’ve really enjoyed working in an office every day dedicated to helping people—both last summer at LAJC and when I worked for a public defender. The work environment is hard-working, but also very fun, and the clients are usually so grateful for any help that you can give them.

What do you want to do after graduation?
For the years right after graduation I’d definitely like to work in a public defender’s office, or possibly even a prosecutor’s office. Later on I can see myself doing some environmental or animal rights work if I get burnt out on criminal law.

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