Reflecting on 10 Years of the Program in Law and Public Service
As a program officer for Borealis Philanthropy, Jeree Thomas ’11 works in what is, for her, a dream job. She gets to help resource and fund other groups working to decrease police violence and increase law enforcement transparency.
Thomas began her path in criminal justice reform as one of the first students in the Program in Law and Public Service at the University of Virginia School of Law. This school year, the program is celebrating its 10th anniversary launching students into successful and gratifying careers.
“I learned about what it means to be an effective community-oriented public service lawyer from my courses in the program, and most importantly as I've navigated my career, my fellow classmates have been among the first I’ve called on to partner with in the work,” she said.
The program is designed to provide a select group of students the opportunity to receive a tailored curriculum and intensive training that will prepare them for public service careers. Each year, about 25 first-year fellows are admitted to the program, and up to five slots are available for second-year applicants.
In December, Thomas joined program alums Melanie Smith ’11 and Aditi Goel ’12 for a panel at the Law School hosted by the program, part of activities honoring the decade milestone.
Smith is an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Texas, and Goel is a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s criminal justice clinic.
When UVA President Jim Ryan ’92 founded the Program in Law and Public Service in 2009 as a Law School faculty member, the program was small but ambitious. Students supported each other.
“The benefit of having a small community at the time was we all found each other,” Smith said.
In the years since, the program has initiated a number of ambitious programs, including an enhanced curriculum with experiential classes and a peer mentoring program. Fellows are required to spend at least one summer working in the field of public service, with funding guaranteed by the program subject to the law school’s pro bono requirements.
Goel, who is now in her third year of training law students at Harvard, cut her teeth as a public defender representing indigent clients.
She, like Thomas and Smith, didn’t sugarcoat a career in public service. The work is demanding, and the reward is often on the human level rather than financial.
“It’s very much about standing next to your client and putting up a fight,” she said. “There’s a lot of social work stuff that goes on too.”
The program also benefits from the support of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, and the numerous public service fellowship opportunities the center offers and provides counseling for. Graduates of the program are eligible for the school’s Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program.
Thomas began her career working directly with clients as a Skadden Fellow at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, then went on to be the policy director at the Campaign for Youth Justice. She said the program led to job connections.
“I’ve met not one but two of my employers at the law and public service conference,” she said. (Today, the conference is known as Shaping Justice.)
Goel said that faculty mentoring within the program was just as important to her career as the mentoring she received in the working world.
“It was only through this program that I developed a strong relationship with my program mentor, Professor Anne Coughlin,” Goel said. “She went to bat for me during my third-year job search process, and I landed my first job as a public defender in Boston because of her and the program.”
“When I was a law student here, I was part of a small minority of students interested in pursuing careers in public service upon graduation,” Shin said. “But Jim Ryan had a grand idea to change this reality and laid the roots for the Program in Law and Public Service.”
Shin said Coughlin cultivated the growth of the program by creating and teaching the innovative Law and Public Service course, facilitating difficult and interesting discussions, and inviting inspiring practitioners to participate.
“As co-directors of the program for several years, Anne and Josh taught courses within the program, implemented various programming, and helped raise the profile of the program both within and outside of our law school,” Shin said. “They laid the foundation for this program to become the robust and comprehensive program it is today, and they continue to be involved as instructors and mentors.”
Shin said the program has experienced record-high applications in recent years.
“We hear from numerous students that they chose UVA Law because of the Program in Law and Public Service,” Shin said.
And students’ participation in the program can pay off even before graduation.
Mary Maerz ’20 met PETA General Counsel Jeffrey Kerr ’87 while taking the first-year Law & Public Service class. Maerz worked for PETA during a subsequent summer and ultimately landed a job as PETA counsel, to begin after she completes a clerkship.
“I decided to attend law school only to pursue an animal rights career,” Maerz said. “At the beginning of my first year, I had professors and upperclass students say to me that one of the most difficult things to do throughout law school is to stay as passionate about something as you were when you started. The Program in Law and Public Service helped me stay connected to my big picture and the animal rights field. I am extremely grateful for the support that Professor Shin and the program gave me.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.