PUBLISHED:May 16, 2024

Madison Pinckney ’24 awarded Duke Law’s Keller Fellowship


Pinckney, who wants to pursue a career in disability rights, will receive financial support to work for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest for one year

Pinckney '24 Madison Pinckney '24

Madison Pinckney ’24 has been awarded Duke Law School’s Keller Fellowship, an annual award that provides financial support to a graduating student to work in a public interest organization for one year.

Pinckney will join the nonprofit advocacy group, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), in New York City. The group focuses on impact litigation and direct services lawyering in three core areas: Health Justice, Disability Justice, and Environmental Justice. 

Pinckney, who has aspired to work with the nonprofit since her 1L year, pitched a project to fill a noticeable gap in the disability justice space; one she says has inspired her in her studies at Duke Law from the beginning. 

“[NYLPI] does special education work for kids with disabilities in grades K-12, and they also do work with students with disabilities who are taking licensing exams, but they don’t have this middle part: higher education accessibility. Things like college, graduate, and professional school admissions, reasonable accommodations, physical accessibility of buildings, medical leave of absence; any accessibility issue that has to do with that level of education,” said Pinckney. 

Prior to her arrival at Duke Law, Pinckney was receiving extensive treatment for Lyme disease, an experience that opened her eyes to the needs of students with disabilities in the graduate school space. 

“When I finally felt well enough to come, I recognized that’s not a common experience for everyone with a disability. Not everyone has the opportunity to feel well enough or have enough resources to go to law school, so I wanted to ensure that part of what I was doing — because I wanted to focus on disability rights — was increasing accessibility of higher education. This made the fellowship placement the perfect fit for me, because it was a hole in their project that they wanted me to fill,” said Pinckney. 

Ensuring that people with disabilities have what they need to pursue undergraduate or professional degrees is not only an issue of accessibility, but lends itself to proliferating a cycle of poverty within the disability community, Pinckney says.  

“Everyone should be able to access higher paying jobs that require a degree or an advanced degree, especially with how heavily the U.S. job market places demand on having those,” said Pinckney. “In New York City, where I’ll be doing this work, for those who are physically able to work with their disability, only about 33% do. A piece of that puzzle is making higher education more accessible.” 

Pinckney interned with the Community Health Law Project during her 1L summer, a New Jersey nonprofit focused on legal representation and direct services advocacy for low-income and elderly people with disabilities. 

In her 2L year, she joined the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in D.C., where she focused on impact litigation work for employment discrimination in the disability rights space and systemic special education reform.

At Duke Law, Pinckney co-founded the Lyme Disease Advocacy Project with Luke Mears ‘24, a pro bono effort that advocates for legislative change for students with Lyme and Tick-borne diseases. 

“I was so impressed when Maddy and Luke approached me in the fall semester of their 1L year and expressed an interest in founding a new pro bono project, which is ongoing and completely driven by their outreach to partner organizations and their engagement in developing and assigning pro bono work,” said Stella Boswell, associate dean of Public Interest and Pro Bono at Duke Law.

The project is now in the preliminary stages of partnering with Tick JEDI Coalition, a nonprofit in New Jersey. The group’s advocacy has aided legislative changes that will bring tick-borne illness education to the state’s public school system.

“I went undiagnosed with Lyme and tick-borne illness for about 10 years. I had been sick for most of my life, while [doctors] were trying to figure out why, and that’s a very common experience for people with those diseases,” said Pinckney, who serves as a member of the Tick JEDI Coalition’s board. We wanted to focus on something that’s the first of its kind in the country; to have an advocacy space in a law school for that.”

Pinckney was recently awarded a Duke Law School Pro-Bono All-Star award for her work on the project, as well as her service in the Health Justice and Children’s Law Clinics at Duke, and earned the Law School’s Public Interest and Public Service (PIPS) Certificate.

“Maddy is the kind of student that reminds me why I became a clinical teacher. Her instinctive and organic lawyering skills have changed both her clients’ lives for the better and ensured she has left an indelible mark on the clinic’s legacy as we take on new challenges,” said Health Justice Clinic Director Allison Korn, who served as Pinckney’s PIPS mentor. “But as dauntless, driven, and confident Maddy is, I’m even more proud of her sense of compassion and kindness. She meets everyone — students, clients, partners — right where they are and leaves the spaces she occupies better than they were before.” 

The Keller Fellowship, one of three year-long paid fellowships Duke Law offers to students pursuing public interest careers, is named in honor of John Keller ’87, a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina for over 35 years, and was initially funded by members of his graduating class. Awarded annually, it enables fellows to work with a host organization doing domestic legal work in the United States with their salary and benefits paid by the Law School. Fellowships doing civil legal work for low-income or indigent clients, particularly work that addresses issues related to eliminating poverty, are preferred.

“Maddy has never waivered from her commitment to stand up for people with disabilities. By designing a project herself and finding a partner, she seized the opportunity presented by the Keller Fellowship to serve people who would otherwise not have a voice,” said Bethan Eynon, director of Public Interest Careers at Duke Law. 

“The Keller Fellowship is an incredibly necessary step for public interest students. To be able to have the opportunity to pursue this work at a nonprofit that I’m very passionate about is an incredibly valuable thing. It’s a great way to launch yourself into a career, and I’m so grateful that the Law School has that opportunity, and that I was able to receive it,” said Pinckney.