Four Chicago-Kent Graduates Selected for 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellowships

Monday, August 12, 2019

Four recent Chicago-Kent College of Law graduates were selected for 2019 Equal Justice Works fellowships, which provides them with an opportunity to support legal services organizations and launch their careers in public service.

The Equal Justice Works Fellowship program offers aspiring public interest lawyers an opportunity to design public service projects in partnership with legal services organizations that help build sustainable solutions in the communities where they serve. The projects are funded by the generous support of law firms, corporations, foundations, and individuals.

Equal Justice Works fellows
(clockwise from the top) Elisabeth Hieber, Tobias Rodriguez, Susana Sandoval Vargas and Carl Sessions are 2019 Equal Justice Works fellows.

Elisabeth Hieber, Tobias Rodriguez, Carl Sessions and Susana Sandoval Vargas, who are all May 2019 graduates, will spend their two-year fellowships addressing a wide range of issues from assisting LGBT elders and soon-to-be former inmates, to defending immigrant women and representing tenants in eviction court. Here is a snapshot of each of these talented alumni and their projects:

Elisabeth Hieber will establish mobile legal clinics to provide LGBT elders with housing and estate planning legal services. Hieber’s fellowship is sponsored by PepsiCo and is hosted by the Center for Disability and Elder Law. In addition to mobile legal clinics, Hieber will develop a pro bono initiative to recruit volunteer attorneys to help LGBT elders complete advance directives and power-of-attorney documents. Hieber will also develop and implement an interactive educational campaign to provide LGBT elders with a space to discuss and access information about legal issues common in the LGBT community.

“Because many LGBT elders have experienced lifetimes of discrimination and formative development characterized by criminalization of their identity, leading to social, health, and financial disparities compared to non-LGBT elders, LGBT elders are more likely to rely on public service providers and legal aid organizations for support as they age,” explains Hieber. “However, because many of these supports are not trained to provide care that is culturally responsive to these experiences, LGBT elders are more likely to experience invalidation when accessing support and are more likely to therefore avoid seeking support.”

Read more about Hieber here.

Tobias Rodriguez will work at Cabrini Green Legal Aid in Chicago, providing legal services for incarcerated and recently released fathers who want to establish or reestablish relationships with their minor children. His fellowship is sponsored by the law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP. During his fellowship, Rodriguez will help reestablish the parent/child bond by providing pro bono services in family law to former and soon-to-be-former inmates. Additionally, he’ll work to educate fathers about their options for criminal record relief and help recently released prisoners find housing and employment through Cabrini Green Legal Aid’s holistic approach.

“A judge may be more willing to give a father contact with his children if he is out of prison, has a stable job, and has a stable housing situation,” explains Rodriguez. “Prisons keep parents away from their children. By helping parents reconnect with their kids during and after a prison sentence, my project creates opportunities for families to build stronger and more intimate bonds with one another.”

Read more about Rodriguez here

Carl Sessions will represent tenants in eviction court and secure relief for tenants who have viable claims related to the substandard conditions in their homes. His fellowship is sponsored by the Rossotti Family Foundation. Without representation, and under the pressure of landlord’s counsel, tenants often unwittingly agree to be evicted and pay back rent, even when they have strong counterclaims. Sessions will help fill that gap in legal aid by expanding the Eviction Brief Advice Desk, a collaboration between Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, LAF, and DLA Piper that offers free assistance to renters at the Daley Center. Sessions will train additional pro bono partners to volunteer their time to assist tenants in understanding their rights and negotiating with their landlords.

“My project developed from the recognition that legal aid typically only defends someone from eviction but often does not make tenants whole and does not force landlords to fix the underlying conditions and issues that cause people to withhold rent,” says Sessions.

Read more about Sessions here

Susana Sandoval Vargas will defend low-wage immigrant women workers against wage theft and other abuses. Her fellowship is hosted by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and is sponsored by Discover Financial Services and the law firm of Winston & Strawn LLP. Sandoval Vargas will combat unlawful employment practices by representing women directly, by bringing high-impact litigation cases to court to challenge broad-based employment abuses, and by giving bilingual presentations on workers' rights for employees in the service and manufacturing industries, for employers, and for community groups. An immigrant and a DACA recipient, Sandoval Vargas said she has known the struggles of being an immigrant her entire life. She has dedicated her career to helping immigrant women.

“Through the fellowship, I hope to fill a gap in services,” says Sandoval Vargas. “While creating this program, I mean to help immigrant women, empower them to face the abuses that they are enduring at work day-to-day such as sexual assault, trafficking, wage theft, and unsafe work conditions.”

Read more about Sandoval Vargas here

A Commitment to Public Interest

Chicago-Kent has a long-established institutional commitment to public interest law. Students with a special interest in human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, social justice, increasing access to justice, and battling discrimination can carve their own professional niche by pursuing a Public Interest Law certificate. The certificate program enables a student to demonstrate a commitment to public interest law, define public interest career goals, customize coursework to match both interests and career objectives, and connect with related events, conferences and professional opportunities.

Additionally, Chicago-Kent’s Career Services Office provides guidance to students and alumni pursuing public interest careers and the student-run Public Interest Resource Center assists students with finding internships and volunteer opportunities. The Center for Access to Justice & Technology conducts research and supports faculty, staff and student projects on access to justice and technology, including developing A2J Guided Interviews using Access to Justice (A2J) Author®, an expert system and user interface used by self-represented litigants to complete a court form or navigate a legal process. Student volunteers from Chicago-Kent also staff the Self-Help Web Center at the Daley Center, which helps self-represented litigants access user-friendly legal information from Illinois Legal Aid Online and answer questions about forms and the court.