Alumni support bolsters students pursuing public interest careers
New summer and post-graduate fellowships funded by Duke Law alumni are enabling more students to get a foothold in the competitive field of public interest work
Duke Law alumni have boosted their support for public interest fellowships, enabling more students and recent graduates to pursue highly competitive but low-paying or unpaid positions in areas such as public defense, indigent civil legal services, disability rights, housing, labor relations, international human rights, and civil work at government agencies.
In summer 2021, nine 1L and 2L students were inaugural recipients of Alexandra D. Korry ’86 Civil Rights Fellowships, established by Korry’s husband Robin Panovka ’86 and their daughters, to honor her extensive pro bono civil rights work that included helping end juvenile solitary confinement in New York. Korry, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, died in September 2020.
The Korry Fellowships join other competitive summer fellowships made possible through generous alumni endowments to Duke Law, including the Carroll & Simon Fellowship, the Steckley-Weitzel Fellowship, the Burdman Fellowship, the Everett Fellowship, the Mansfield Fellowship, and the Zipp Family Fellowship. A total of 21 students received one of these endowed fellowships in 2021.
Another 55 students received Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) grants, which provide guaranteed funding to students who complete volunteer and fundraising requirements during the year and secure a qualifying public service position for the summer.
PILF grants are raised through student activities and gifts from alumni such as Frederick “Rick” Robinson ’82 T’79 and his wife Jill Robinson, who were honored as Public Interest Advocates at the 2020 Public Service Celebration & Auction. This year the Robinsons funded nearly two dozen PILF summer internships.
“We believe that it is very important to help minimize the financial obstacles that dissuade law students from pursuing careers in public service,” Rick Robinson said. “By providing funding for PILF summer fellowships, we hope to encourage students to investigate all of their employment options and not merely those that provide the highest levels of financial compensation.”
Between endowed fellowships and PILF grants, Duke Law distributes between $375,000 and $400,000 each summer to students.
Korry Fellow Kailey Morgan ’22 worked on a first-degree murder trial as an intern at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, an experience that will help her in the post-conviction work she plans to pursue after graduation. She spent her days in court or at a mental hospital visiting the client, whom she describes as a severely mentally ill Black man.
“I was really able to get a lot of hands-on experience, which I’m so thankful for, [and] develop a relationship with our client and also think about how to communicate with people who have severe mental illness,” she said.
“This was a case about poverty, mental illness, and racism, and that’s really what we were litigating. We did not get the result we wanted, but it really showed me how much the system – not only the criminal system, but also our medical and healthcare system – has let down homeless people and especially people of color, so it just motivated me to continue to do this work.”
A longtime volunteer in the juvenile justice system, an experience that prompted her to enter law school, Morgan said she has never wavered in her desire to work at disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline and ensuring those charged or convicted are treated with dignity. She is earning a Certificate in Public Interest And Public Service (PIPS) Law along with her JD, and after graduation will work as a staff attorney at the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, where she is externing this semester.
“I feel so fortunate that I’m able to do this work. I’m so lucky that I was able to come here with my passion and focus and actually be able to see it through. I’m so thankful for the fellowship and for the opportunity it allowed me to pursue.”
Other organizations hosting summer interns from Duke in 2021 included the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Lawyers for Civil Rights, the National Center for Youth Law, Mobilization for Justice, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Irish Centre for Human Rights, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and Legal Aid of North Carolina. Interns also worked in federal government agencies and public defender, district attorney, and U.S. Attorney offices across the country.
A Korry Fellowship also funded a federal government internship for Leigh Davenport ’22, who spent last summer working at the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, complementing her interest in working at the intersection of poverty law and civil rights.
During the mostly virtual internship – which also included several visits to Washington, D.C., where she met Attorney General Merrick Garland – Davenport worked on a variety of cases, most involving the Fair Housing Act. The internship expanded on her experiences working with clients in the Civil Justice Clinic at Duke Law.
“The thing I really appreciated about the DOJ was the power that goes with being able to leverage the United States government to address a rights violation,” Davenport said.
“Oftentimes you can avoid trial and avoid a dragged-out situation for aggrieved parties just because the government is involved. Government lawyers can often see patterns across the country, allowing them to help people more effectively.”
Davenport, also in the PIPS certificate program, plans to pursue a career in civil rights litigation after graduation and is now including government positions along with non-profit positions in her job search.
“The thing that stood out at DOJ and from other government attorneys I’ve talked to throughout the country is that the people are so mission-driven,” she said. “People love this work and they believe in it, so you get really passionate, really interesting people who are there for the right reasons. So that’s really appealing about government enforcement for me.”
New post-graduate fellowships fulfill a longstanding goal at Duke Law
Historically 40% to 50% of Duke Law students do public interest work during their 1L summer, but fewer continue on that path. In recent years, the numbers of 2Ls and 3Ls committing to public interest careers has gone up, said Stella Boswell, assistant dean of public interest and pro bono. That fits with a broader trend of increased competition for both summer internships and post-graduate jobs over the past decade.
“Now to get a post-graduate public interest job you really need to have demonstrated that you’re committed to that work and you’ve focused on developing the skills to do that work,” Boswell said. “That’s another reason why the summer funding is so important. Students need to be able to afford to do these in the summer if they want to get that kind of work when they graduate.”
Boswell said it has been a longtime goal of the Law School to offer a post-graduate public interest fellowship for JD students, and beginning next year, there will be two: the Keller Fellowship and the Farrin Fellowship. That’s in addition to the Duke Law Post-Graduate Fellowship in Public International Law and International Human Rights, established with a gift from the Noble Foundation, led by alumnus David Noble ’66, and currently funded by Stuart Feiner ’74. Since 2017 the fellowship has supported a graduate working in one or more non-governmental or international organizations for a year; recipients, who have included alumni of both the JD and the LLM programs, have worked at organizations including the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
“It’s that first job after you graduate that’s the hardest to get. Because entry-level public interest jobs are so incredibly competitive, a fellowship can really help launch somebody in their career,” Boswell said.
Established by classmates of John Keller ’87 to honor his nearly 35 year career at Legal Aid of North Carolina, the Keller Fellowship provides a salary and benefits for a year of post-graduate work at a domestic public interest organization. It is open to graduating students each class year.
“This fellowship was created to honor the particular career choice and excellence of our classmate John Keller, but also to promote civil legal aid in general as a critical tool in combatting socioeconomic, racial, and situational inequality,” said Julie Petrini ’87, who served on the selection committee that evaluated applicants’ proposed projects.
“Duke Law graduates contribute to access to justice in many important ways in their communities — through monetary donations, volunteerism, and pro bono work — and this fellowship serves to extend those contributions in support of the front line of civil legal aid practitioners.”
Mary Beth Reed ’21, the inaugural Keller Fellow, is working at JusticeMatters, a Durham-based organization founded by Libby Magee Coles ’08 that provides trauma-informed legal services to protect children and assist survivors of human trafficking. JusticeMatters has a strong Duke connection: of its eight attorneys, four are Duke Law graduates and two others received their undergraduate degrees from Duke University. After externing with its immigration and family law teams for two semesters, Reed says she knew she wanted to return.
“Even as the pandemic unfolded, I was impressed with their trauma-informed approach, the strength of the clients, and the determination of the staff,” she said.
For her fellowship, Reed designed a project to help local immigrant children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected to find a caregiver and obtain legal status, and work with local organizations in finding undocumented children who are eligible for immigration relief. Reed, who also earned a PIPS certificate, said her work in the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Duke was integral in preparing her for the fellowship, she said, providing training in casework, language access, and trauma-informed communication with clients.
“Given my passion for working with children, the increased number of unaccompanied minors coming across the border nationally, and a greater local emphasis on supporting our growing immigrant community, it seemed like the perfect time and place for this project,” Reed said.
Submitting her first green card application for a client was an exciting milestone, she said.
“I grew up in a family that prioritized public service, so I knew from the time I was young that my ultimate career goal was to help others,” Reed said. “I have also had a lifelong love of working with children and have spent countless hours as a teacher, tutor, babysitter, and camp counselor. It wasn’t until law school, however, that I realized immigration could blend my passion for children’s rights with my other interests and skills, namely my Mexican-American background and Spanish language abilities.
“I feel so grateful to have the opportunity this year to work on something that I care deeply about, both personally and professionally.”
The Farrin Fellowship, announced in October, is funded by a gift from alumnus James Farrin ’90 and his wife Robin, and will provide a year’s salary and benefits for a graduating student working with a 501(c)(3) organization that provides domestic legal services. Preference will be given to graduates working on behalf of low-income or indigent clients, particularly individuals or groups who have historically faced discrimination, as well as graduates serving clients in the Carolinas.
Farrin told the Duke Chronicle in November that he began increasing his gifts to Duke Law as thanks for the help he received from faculty and alumni, including Professor Paul Haagen and Len Simon ’73, in litigation by Black farmers against the federal government that resulted in a $1.25 billion settlement.
“We were looking for a way to continue to stay involved with Duke and make an even greater impact,” Farrin said. “[My law partners, my wife and I] thought that doing this gift would serve a couple of purposes: one, it would help Duke Law students, which is beneficial; but secondly, it would help the community of people who need representation and otherwise could not afford it.”
More opportunities for a new generation of public interest lawyers
The two new post-graduate fellowships highlight the increased opportunities available to the current generation of Duke Law students. Before starting her fellowship at JusticeMatters, Reed spoke with Keller. She reflected on both the similarities of their paths and the different opportunities to pursue public interest work available to their respective generations of Duke Law students.
“What struck me most in our phone conversation was that John was one of, if not the only, graduate in his class to go straight into working for a public service organization like Legal Aid. It made me that much more appreciative that I had so many resources available to help make my career goals possible, and I hope Duke’s public interest community only continues to grow,” Reed said.
“My experience in law school was significantly enhanced by having classmates who are now pursuing their own public interest passions and a career counselor who took the time to understand my particular interests and encouraged me to pursue them.”
Tish Szurek ’87, who also served on the Keller Fellowship selection committee, said the many clinics and workshops now offered at Duke Law, as well as the PIPS Certificate program, give students the extensive training and support they need to make an immediate impact upon graduation.
“Public interest groups such as legal aid are currently facing incredible funding stress and are therefore not able to add the legal staff they need to meet surging demand,” Szurek said.
“The many clinics and workshops offered at Duke Law and the Certificate in Public Interest and Public Service Law give students extensive training and support to make an immediate impact upon graduation. The group that created this fellowship is honored to do so and grateful that the Law School has developed successful programs to prepare students for careers in public interest law.”