Meet Four Public Interest Lawyers: Profiles

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Andy Williams
Skadden Fellow, the Bronx Defenders
The Bronx Defenders is a community-based, nonprofit public interest law organization that provides representation and legal counseling to residents of the Bronx charged with crimes.


After college I worked for the local housing authority in Mount Airy, North Carolina, running community programs. It was a small town that had a significant Hmong population, and through my community work I realized that the Hmong people were facing challenging and sometimes confusing questions about schools, immigration, citizenship, things like that. There was nobody to provide basic legal advice. I had thought aboutlaw school in the past, and Mount Airy reminded me why I had been drawn to it. So I went. ¦ Today, I do collateral consequences work in a public defender's office. When someone is arrested — not even convicted — it can lead to ancillary repercussions such as loss of housing or employment, complications with benefits, social security disability, and family law issues. I work with clients on all of these. ¦ The majority of my clients come through direct referrals from public defenders. Our offices are on Courtlandt Avenue in the Bronx, just down the street from the courthouses, near Yankee Stadium. We get a few walk-ins, although we deal with so many clients through criminal court that our ability to take walk-in clients is usually limited to brief advice and referrals. But I'll always try to sit down with someone and at least go over paperwork and answer their initial questions. ¦ I counsel my clients to a certain degree, but mostly I refer them to a social worker or client advocate in our office. Lawyers don't get formal training in social work, obviously, but the limited amount of counseling I inevitably provide is something I feel I got some training for in law school. It's what any lawyer does with any client. No matter who your clients are, if you listen to them, respect what they have to say, and talk with them about what's going on, it actually runs pretty smoothly. — As told to Charlie Hasbrouck

Laura K. Abel
Associate Counsel, the Brennan Center for Justice
The Brennan Center, named after the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Jr., is a public interest law group and think tank focused on issues of democracy, poverty, and criminal justice.


Think about the obstacles to a decent life for people who earn very little money. They struggle with how to put food on the table, how to house their families, and how to get medical care. And all of these problems have a legal component, which means that if you're trying to get Medicaid or Social Security benefits, even if you're eligible, it can be virtually impossible without a lawyer. ¦ Most of the needs of low-income or homeless people go unmet because they don't have a lawyer to help them. Their rights get trampled on. I try to expand the constitutional right to counsel in civil cases. The courts have said that this right exists in some civil cases. When we think it's appropriate and helpful to try to expand that right, we litigate. ¦ During my second year of law school, as I was representing a lot of lower-income clients, I realized that there's a huge need within this population for legal representation. I helped mothers get the social services they needed in order to get their families back together. What was shocking to me was how little I had to do in these cases just to make a difference. ¦ There was one case brought by a group of women in New York City, all of whom were survivors of domestic violence. They had had their children removed from their care as a result of the violence in their homes, and they sued the city in an attempt to get more adequate representation and to get their children back. They had been given lawyers, but the lawyers were doing very little for them. The district court found that the women did have a right to more adequate counsel. But it was appealed, and we're still waiting for final a ruling. — As told to Dimitra Kessenides

Kevin Bankston
Equal justice Works/Bruce J. Ennis fellow, the electronic frontier foundation
The EFF is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization devoted to protecting digital rights; its lawyers challenge legislation that threatens free speech and free communication online.


In college I read a book called The Hacker Crackdown, about the federal government's seizure of computer systems from a video game company in Austin. It was that case that the founders of EFF coalesced around a couple of years earlier, and they were mentioned in the book. I looked them up. ¦ After law school, I got a fellowship with the ACLU in New York City. I moved to New York on September 1, 2001. The office was only 10 blocks or so from the World Trade Center. You don't get over a first impression of a city like that. It changed my focus. Although I think maintaining First Amendment principles in the face of overreaching copyright holders is certainly important, preventing a police state is quite a bit more important. ¦ For the next two years, I'll be investigating post-9/11 Internet surveillance issues. It's a First Amendment fellowship, but we also deal with Fourth Amendment search and seizure issues and Fifth Amendment due process issues. ¦ The laws I'm concerned with stem from the USA Patriot Act, which, among other things, expands the government's power to surveil Internet speech. Ordinarily, to get a wiretap you need probable cause. But there are certain kinds of taps that don't require that. The Patriot Act has extended some of these taps to the Internet. Now the government can track our movements online in a way that's much more invasive than recording the phone numbers we dial. They can have details about our e-mail — when we send and receive, who we send to, who sends us mail. Even the Web pages we go to can be tracked. ¦ This, I would argue, violates the Fourth Amendment. Unless the information from the tap is introduced in a criminal trial, the target will never know he was tapped, which is also problematic. One of the things I'm doing is developing litigation to challenge that provision of the Patriot Act. — As told to Dimitra Kessenides

Dana Berliner
Senior Attorney, Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, libertarian public interest law firm based in Washington, D.C.


A friend of mine once was watching the news and called me to say, "I just saw something about some woman's house getting taken for a Donald Trump development! Doesn't that sound like something you'd be interested in?" I looked it up on Nexis. I thought, "This is crazy. I didn't know you could do something like that." ¦ Before law school, I believed the Constitution was upheld a lot more than it is. Law school was an eye-opening experience, a disappointing one. You go to class, get good grades, do a journal, get a law firm job — I almost immediately decided I was never going to go to a law firm and I didn't want to practice any kind of law that I thought was meaningless. Law school, in a way, made me want to do public interest law on constitutional issues. ¦ Now I'm doing exactly that. I help people defend their homes and businesses from being taken away through eminent domain, the power that the government has to claim private property for public use. These days, state and local governments routinely try to use eminent domain to take property for private business interests. That's when I litigate. Those interests are sometimes big box stores, sometimes they're upscale condos. Sometimes it's just a local business that the government happens to like more than the person or business who's already in a space. — As told to Alexsandra Vallejo
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