In the summer of 2008 Spencer Wilson noticed an unusual number of people coming to Bay Area Legal Aid for advice on how to keep from being kicked out of their rental homes.
Most of them were low income and minority tenants, many of them elderly, some of them disabled. Some had already been locked out of their apartments for reasons they didn’t understand. Utilities had been shut off for some, security deposits confiscated. Many were bewildered by eviction notices for back rent they could prove was current.
By the time Wilson returned for his third and final year at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law, the causes of the distress with which he contended in Oakland, Calif., had fully revealed themselves.
The seizure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on Sept. 7 signaled a nationwide mortgage crisis. Three weeks later the biggest drop in a single day in the Dow Jones Industrial Average showed the world’s largest economy in free fall. Federal bailouts for major banking institutions and the automobile industry and a stimulus plan totaling more than two trillion tax dollars would follow.
All of that help wasn’t going to do much for the renters Wilson had been trying to help. But working together with the principals at Bay Area Legal Aid, Wilson developed a plan that earned him the Julius Glickman Fellowship in Public Interest Law, and enabled him to return after graduation to continue the work he’d started.
“I was in the right place at the right time when this problem was just emerging, Wilson said. “This is something very personal to me, something I’m passionate about.”
Wilson’s is one of three two-year, $50,000-a-year fellowships awarded this year to UT Law graduates for legal work in the public interest through an initiative called the Justice Corps, which is administered by the aptly named William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law. (Justice, a federal district judge from East Texas whose landmark rulings on school integration, education and prison earned him a reputation as a judge of the people, died Oct. 13 at the age of 89.)
The other recipients are Whitney Hill (Class of 2009) who received the George M. Fleming Fellowship in Health Law to work with the Juvenile Rights Project in Portland to represent children in cases involving dependency, juvenile justice and education. And Terry Schuster (Class of 2009) who was awarded the UT Law Faculty Fellowship in Public Interest Law to work with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, also on issues related to juvenile justice. (Schuster’s Fellowship is unique in that it was funded by law faculty contributions.)
The Justice Corps is the second major public interest law initiative introduced in the past year at the School of Law. Another project that helps increase access to justice is the Long Career Launch Program, which provides stipends to recent graduates for work with public interest or government agency organizations as they await the results of their state bar examinations.
Law School Dean Lawrence Sager is confident the programs will continue to increase access to justice–an idea he is deeply committed to–alongside a growing number of legal clinics, a pro bono program and a loan repayment program at the school.
Sager envisions some day offering as many as 10 Justice Corps fellowships a year. He would like the Career Launch program to offer more stipends, and have them cover a longer time period.
“We are very interested in the futures of our graduates,” Sager said. “We also want these students to come back and share their experience and enthusiasm with our student community.”
“Sager’s public interest zeal is visionary, advancing the work of his predecessor, William Powers, now the president of the university,” said James B. Sales, UT Law class of 1960. Sales, former president of the Texas State Bar, knows a little something about this vision, having recently stepped down as the head of the Texas Supreme Court’s Texas Access to Justice Commission. Among his most important initiatives there was the creation of a consortium of nine state law schools, including The University of Texas at Austin, to advance public-interest legal work.
Law schools play a critical role in teaching students that a license to represent the underrepresented is a privilege and not only a license to earn large sums of money, Sales said.
“Dean Sager has been an absolute stalwart. He hasn’t flinched one bit from the mission, pushing these fellowships and pushing the idea of public service,” Sales said. “I believe in a fundamental philosophy that every segment of the legal profession has an ethical and moral obligation to those who can’t help themselves.”
While Wilson’s Foreclosure Tenants Project epitomizes this spirit of moral and ethical obligation, it was also the logical extension of Wilson’s personal vision of law practice in the public interest.
After graduating from Pomona College, Wilson went to work for Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., where he got his first taste of public housing policy issues.
“Working on policy took a toll on me,” Wilson said. “You worked to get a law passed and that would be a success but the way the law was implemented wouldn’t be the way you envisioned it. My experience on the Hill was that the federal government didn’t do much to help out the little guys.”
Wilson chose his classes with public interest law in mind. In 2007 he took a summer job helping consumers at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. The next summer, his work in the Bay Legal housing department led to some discouraging research. Tenants coming in for help were among the poorest in the nation, living in places where housing was some of the nation’s most expensive.
Recognizing the difficulties renters were experiencing, the U.S. Congress in May passed the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act. Among the new protections was a mandatory 90 days for tenants to find a new place to live after eviction.
“Renters have been the forgotten victims of the housing crisis,” Senator Jeff Merkley, D- Ore., one of the sponsors of the bill, said at the time.
From the lack of news coverage of the Foreclosure Act, it appeared to Wilson that renters remained forgotten victims.
In his Glickman Fellowship application Wilson laid out a plan to educate clients, landlords, realtors, lenders and service providers about the new protections, in addition to representing tenants in cases of eviction, lockout, and utility shutoff in the first year. In the second he is committed to expanding the project outside of Contra Costa County.
Susan Kim, managing attorney for Bay Area Legal Aid, said the nonprofit eagerly supported what was an organic project for Contra Costa County. Organizations like Bay Legal depend upon young attorneys like Wilson.
“This fellowship is really a match between the host agency and the applicant,” Kim said. “We were impressed with Spencer’s maturity and his analytical skills. His project was very well thought out and very well developed. Spencer will be very busy.”
“I feel lucky to help shape the law, to help make sure it has the teeth it was supposed to have,” Wilson said. “I also feel as though I can act as a facilitator, helping to create a community of people interested in this kind of work.”
“I think in many ways schools like ours are working to meet the significant student interest in working for the public interest,” Harrington said. “It’s one of the most important things this school can do, and we are fortunate enough to have a multitude of programs that provide these types of opportunities to students.”
That interest is reflected in the increase in the number of students and employers involved in the second year of the Long Career Launch program, said David Montoya, the assistant dean who administers the stipend program through the Law School’s Career Services.
Montoya recognized a public interest opportunity in a simple but troublesome equation:
Law school graduates taking the bar exam in July were unable to make a permanent job choice until knowing the results of their exams in November, but they wanted to work during the intervening months. At the same time, nonprofit organizations and government agencies often had trouble affording young and talented lawyers.
With an endowment of $2 million donated by Joe R. Long (Law Class of 1958), a member of the Law School Foundation’s Board of Trustees, and his wife, Teresa, a program that bridges the two was created. The Long Career Launch’s first class of 38 were given $6,000 each for 400 hours of work at a public-service organization that would not otherwise have been able to hire them. They worked in 26 different organizations, ranging from the Office of the Attorney General of Texas to the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials. This year, the number of students in the program swelled to 53.
“This program allows graduates to use their talents and training to increase the reach of these public service organizations, and expand access to justice in the community,” Montoya said. “It also helps them get into practice and learn about opportunities they may not otherwise have considered.”