Desire For Social Justice Fuels Young Attys' Career Paths

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Morgan Humphrey has worked in various capacities at the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office, Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, Drug Policy Alliance in Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union — and she only just graduated from Rutgers Law School this year.

And she's showing no signs of slowing down. Instead, she's planning on taking the skills she's learned at each of her past positions to pursue a career in the public interest and give back to those in need — and her career choice is among a growing trend in law students, according to experts.

Public interest jobs remain well under 10% of the jobs secured by law graduates, but the number has been edging upwards over the last four years, according to data from the National Association of Law Placement.

In 2016 there were 2,156 law graduates hired at public interest jobs; in 2017 there were 2,161, then 2,220 in 2018 and 2,387 in 2019, according to the association.

Even so, Executive Director James G. Leipold said it is important to note that the numbers were not as high as in past years. For example, in 2012, 2,705 law grads found jobs in public interest. That number slowly declined until the increase starting in 2016.

The renewed interest in public interest work has not gone unnoticed by New Jersey's social justice organizations.

Rhea Beck, the legal department manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said she saw applications from law school students nearly double last year.

"We've seen a notable increase in internship and fellowship applications over the last several years, and I believe it reflects the urgency of social justice work at this moment," she told Law360. "In 2019 we had 10 fellowship applicants, and about 25 the previous two years, but in 2020 we had 44."

The same trend was noticed by Philip Webb, chief operating officer at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

"We are definitely experiencing piqued interest in social justice work among young attorneys. Anecdotally, we have had far more inquiries about openings from law students and recent graduates," he told Law360. "Our applications for summer legal internships were up 42% over the summer of 2020, leading us to a 3% acceptance rate for interns this summer."

Beck said this indicates that law students are feeling "an especially deep calling to public interest advocacy."

She said the contributing factors to this are "immigrant children separated from their families, violence against Black and brown people at the hands of police with little recourse, and insurmountable hurdles to reproductive care, just to name a few."

"It's heartening to see a new generation of attorneys who want to dedicate their careers to making our society more just for future generations," Beck said.

Humphrey, who is a law student clerk this summer at the civil rights firm of the Law Office of Amy Jane Agnew PC and will begin a clerkship in August under New Jersey Appellate Division Judge Thomas Sumners, said she knew early on that she wanted to serve those in need with her law degree.

"Using law school and using my legal knowledge as a way to go and help people, especially help the communities I represent and disproportionately impacted communities, was very central to my law school journey," Humphrey, of Ewing, told Law360. "Obviously, people can use their law degree to do whatever they want to do, but for me personally, I came to law school to help people."

Through her various roles working at prosecutor's offices as well as her experience working for nonprofit organizations, Humphrey was exposed to the hardships facing people on issues ranging from bankruptcy to drug use.

"For me, you can't separate criminal justice, drug use or bankruptcy from socioeconomic conditions and issues of poverty," she said. "It's all different heads of the same beast."

Because she was pursuing a public interest path, Humphrey was accepted into the Social Justice Scholar program at Rutgers Law School, a competitive program founded in 2016 that gives scholarships to students who "demonstrate an exceptional commitment to public service and are most likely to dedicate their legal careers to working on social justice causes and on behalf of underserved communities," according to the university.

Jill Friedman, associate dean for pro bono and public interest at Rutgers Law School, said she, too, has noticed an increased interest in social justice among Rutgers law students.

The law school received a $1 million gift from James and Sharon Maida in 2015 that led to a fellowship program in their name as well as the launch of the Social Justice Scholars Program.

As a result of the Maida gift, and the merger of the Camden and Newark campuses of Rutgers Law School, "social justice and public interest has indeed become more of an interest among our students than in years past," Friedman told Law360.

The same can be said at Seton Hall University School of Law, according to Lori Borgen, associate clinical professor and director of the school's Center for Social Justice.

"There's been a lot of interest among students in recent years who were led to law school for a social justice cause or a mission," she told Law360.

Last year with the pandemic, people became more aware of the disparities that affect low-income communities and people of color, and law students were no exception, according to Borgen. She said students reflected on this and said, "I don't like what I am seeing, how can I make a change?"

In response, Seton Hall launched a class this year called social justice lawyering.

"It was a one-credit course meant kind of as an introduction for students to issues of social justice lawyering and different ways to pursue social justice through different types of careers," Borgen said. "It was the first time we offered it, and we had more than 45 students enroll — and that was during January when they don't have to take any classes and they are on break."

One of those who signed up for the course was Mia Dohrmann, an incoming third-year law student at Seton Hall.

Like Humphrey, Dohrmann went to law school to pursue a career in public interest, she said.

"I actually studied pre-med in my undergraduate, but I realized by senior year that wasn't the field I wanted to go into," she told Law360, "but I knew I still wanted to use my education to help marginalized communities and traditionally underserved people."

Dohrmann, of Wyckoff, is a student attorney this summer at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau where she is helping people who are facing eviction. Last summer she was a legal intern at the ACLU-NJ.

Her experiences at Seton Hall and her internships have only solidified her desire to pursue a career in the public interest.

"There are a lot of communities and people who are systemically and structurally failed by the systems we have in place," she said. "There are so many ways in which people are set up to fail, and being a social justice lawyer is one way you can fight back."

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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