Courtney Magnus ’18 will begin her career providing legal services to low-income individuals with mental illness and intellectual disabilities at Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida, thanks to a fellowship established by members of the Duke Law Class of 1987 that will fund her salary for one year.
Magnus, the inaugural Class of ’87 Legal Aid Fellowship recipient, interned at the agency in Plantation, Fla., during her 2L summer, when she primarily handled Social Security disability cases. The experience, she said, helped her appreciate the special advocacy needs of low-income disability applicants who face mental health and intellectual disability challenges.
“Mental health cases present many unique challenges arising from stigma and bias and the invisibility of the disability,” she said. “And it’s often difficult to obtain mental health records and treatment notes.” Her fellowship project will include offering legal services at the offices of mental health providers and educating those providers about Social Security claim requirements so they can better identify patients with strong claims.
Magnus has longed planned to become a public interest lawyer, having admired her mother’s career as a Legal Aid and public interest attorney in South Dakota. She gained critical skills through enrollment in the Civil Justice Clinic
and both the basic and advanced Health Justice Clinics
and handling a federal Social Security disability benefits appeal as an independent study project under the supervision of clinic faculty.
“The Social Security process is very complicated and I think that makes it difficult for the people who need these benefits the most to access them,” Magnus said. “Doing that type of work — in the clinic and during my internship with Coast to Coast — every day I felt like I was making a difference.”
Clinical Professor Hannah Demeritt
’04, who supervised Magnus’ successful advocacy in three hearings that helped Health Justice Clinic clients secure Social Security disability and Medicaid benefits, said the fellowship is going to someone “truly dedicated” to helping underserved and marginalized client populations. “Working closely with Courtney on these cases, I observed that her strong advocacy skills were matched by her excellent client communication skills and exceptional empathy for her clients, each of whom had some mental health issues contributing to their disability,” Demeritt said. “Courtney quickly gained clients’ trust and counseled them carefully and effectively. I was thrilled when I learned that she had received a fellowship to continue this work.”
Legal Aid career inspires classmates
Magnus’s project excites Julie Petrini ’87, who helped spearhead the establishment of the Class of ’87 Legal Aid Fellowship. “I love the combination of hands-on, one-on-one advocacy and the programmatic development of the services provided by Coast to Coast,” said Petrini. “Based on her background and interviews, I believe Courtney has the conviction, the ambition, and of course the education to make a real impact in this field.”
Petrini said her class was inspired to establish the fellowship that funds a qualifying graduate’s work in a Legal Aid position anywhere in the United States by the career of one of their own.
“Our classmate, John Keller, has served as a Legal Aid advocate from day one of his time at Duke,” said Petrini, who became pro bono counsel at Petrini & Associates in Framingham, Mass., after serving as vice president and deputy general counsel at Microsoft. “Many of us have been able to include some form of pro bono or Legal Aid in our careers, but few have shown the focus and dedication that John has. In the wee hours of our 30th reunion celebration in 2017, several of his section mates were admiring the selflessness and successes of John’s career, and the idea of the fellowship evolved from there.”
Keller, who has spent his entire career with Legal Aid of North Carolina and directs the Wilson office, said he was “overjoyed” when he heard about the idea during a conference call with Petrini and Paul Nofer ’87 a few days later. The fellowship helps a Legal Aid office with staffing and, in the longer term, in possibly recruiting a career staffer at a time when funding crises and budget cuts are limiting Legal Aid programs around the country, he said. “I have so much gratitude for my classmates.”