Orientation Speaker Rebecca Vallas '09 Reflects on Career in Public Service

August 16, 2012

When Rebecca Vallas '09 was a student at the University of Virginia School of Law, she was president of the Public Interest Law Association, received the Pro Bono Award for completing the most pro bono service in her graduating class, and was named to the 2009 class of Skadden Fellows the most prestigious national public service fellowship for recent law school graduates.

Rebecca Vallas

Now, as a staff attorney with the nonprofit Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Vallas advocates on behalf of low-income, elderly and disabled clients facing difficult legal challenges.

Vallas will deliver the Class of 2015 orientation address on Monday at 10 a.m. in Caplin Auditorium.

She recently discussed her career, her time at the Law School and her advice for law students interested in following a similar path devoted to public service.

What is your typical day like at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia?

One of the best things about my job is that there is no such thing as a typical day. My title may be "staff attorney," but depending on the day, when I'm not being a legal aid lawyer, I may be a filmmaker, a community organizer, a teacher, a lobbyist, a policy advocate or a writer, and often several all at once. There is rarely a dull moment in this work — and I feel incredibly lucky to always be learning something new.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Saying "no." There is always far more work that needs to be done, people who need help, campaigns to get involved in, conferences to attend/present at — and never enough time to do a fraction of it, even if I were to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I've always been prone to over-committing myself, which can be a good thing — to a point. The hard part is deciding which opportunities to say no to, so that I don't end up with more on my plate than I cannot just juggle without going insane, but still do well.

How did your time at Virginia Law help prepare you for your career?

Hands down, the most valuable practical experience of my law school experience was participating in clinics. I nearly wore out my welcome with [Assistant Dean for Academic Services and Registrar] Cary Bennett, pushing to be allowed to take as much clinical coursework as I did. Clinics provide the unparalleled opportunity to take the substantive law and legal strategies you learn in the classroom into the real world, where you get to represent real, live clients facing real, live legal problems. There is also a tremendous amount to be learned from the wonderful clinical professors, many of whom served as role models and mentors for me.

You were named as a 2009 Skadden Fellow, one of the most prestigious public service fellowships available to recent law school graduates. How did that entry into a public service career affect what you are working on now?

For me, getting a Skadden Fellowship was like winning the job lottery. In the short term, it meant I had my dream job, right from day one. In the longer term, it opened the door for a career in disability advocacy and antipoverty work by helping me get my foot in the door at one of the best legal aid programs in the country. The fellowship project that Skadden funded me to do for my first two years at Community Legal Services focused on representing low-income recipients of Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. For this vulnerable population, these modest benefits almost always serve as their sole source of income — a loss of benefits can lead to eviction or foreclosure, utility shutoff, inability to access needed medical care and other serious hardships. The experience I gained representing recipients of disability benefits, the professional networks and advocacy circles I plugged into, the relationships with administrative agencies and Capitol Hill that I developed during my fellowship, and the example set by the incredibly talented and creative advocates at CLS all helped position me for the next chapter of my dream job — advocacy for better policies and programs for low-income people with disabilities, informed by the daily on-the-ground experience of direct client representation.

What advice would you offer Virginia Law students who are interested in public service careers?

Seek exposure to as many different types and areas of public interest/public service work as possible. And be open-minded. You may think you know exactly what you want to do — but I have plenty of friends who have their "dream jobs" and weren't even aware that they existed until they stumbled across them during law school. Talk to as many people doing work that interests you as you can. Hearing their stories of how they got where they are is incredibly helpful as you try to figure out how to get there from here.

Be persistent, creative and a little bit fearless. Public interest jobs don't just fall into your lap. You may need to find your own funding to get your foot in the door. It's never too soon to start researching and thinking about postgraduate fellowships — Skadden, Equal Justice Works, [Virginia Law's] Powell, Independence, Soros, Prettyman — make friends with [the career website] PSLawNet and the amazing UVA public interest advisory team pronto. Reach out to organizations that interest you and introduce yourself, even though they aren't hiring. Don't give up until you get the job you want. It may take some time, but it's well worth the wait. Don't sell yourself short; the best way to ensure you won't get the internship/fellowship you want is not to apply for it.

While at Virginia Law, you were known as a strong advocate of public service, and served as president of the Public Service Law Association. What drives your passion for public service law?

Friends like to joke that it was an accident of birth — I'm the child of two hippie sociology professors. And in truth, that did have a lot to do with it — most of us are, at least in part, products of our upbringing, and my own instilled in me a strong desire to work for equal opportunity and greater social justice. Early experiences teaching English to children of refugees, and working with survivors of rape and domestic violence and their children, left me energized — but also feeling strongly that a law degree was the tool I needed to really play a part in changing the underlying factors that lead to and perpetuate inequality. Now, a little farther down that path, it's the clients who inspire and motivate me to do this work.

When you come back to Charlottesville, what do you like to revisit/do?

Eat! I miss the bagel sandwiches from Bodo's, tapas from Mas, and craft beers and burgers at Starr Hill [now closed] more than anything. Other hidden gems: dumplings at Marco and Luca on the Downtown Mall, Thai [food] at Lime Leaf, tea and hummus at Twisted Branch [Tea Bazaar], and sandwiches from the Bellair Market. Grab fresh ingredients from the fishmonger, butcher and cheese-maker at the Main Street Market and de-stress through cooking. Take your folks to Zocalo or C&O when they come to visit. I also love going for beautiful runs around Grounds. But the best part is really catching up with friends, professors, administrators and the amazing folks at the Legal Aid Justice Center.

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