News & Politics

Legally Speaking: David Stern

The Equal Justice Works head chats with us about how to convince more young lawyers to choose public-interest work

Photograph courtesy of Equal Justice Works.

David Stern, executive director of Equal Justice Works, isn’t like any of the other lawyers featured so far in Legally Speaking. He doesn’t represent corporations, and he doesn’t bill by the hour. He heads a leading nonprofit organization that connects law students and young lawyers with public-interest fellowships and other opportunities to provide legal services to indigent and marginalized communities. With Equal Justice Works’ 25th anniversary coming up this fall, Stern talked to about the impact his group is making and why enthusiasm for public-interest work among young lawyers continues to grow.

How and why did you choose public-interest law?

I grew up in a family that cared a lot about social-justice issues. My father was particularly active in campaign-finance-reform issues. My mother did a lot against the Vietnam war. I grew up in a household where the dinner-table conversation was a lot about inequalities and social justice, and so I knew when I went to law school—as many people do—that public interest and social justice was my calling.

I spent a summer working for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. Now it’s called Public Justice. We had the case featured in the book A Civil Action, the Woburn case, where we were co-counsel. Those are the kinds of cases—the very exciting ones—where you feel like “wow, we’re on the cutting edge.”

I worked for a small commercial firm for six months and really disliked it. We had a case involving a mall and Friendly’s ice cream, and Friendly’s ice cream didn’t renew their lease on the day they were supposed to, so the mall didn’t want to give them that space. To this day, I don’t remember whether we represented the mall or Friendly’s ice cream. It was all about money. After that case, I [knew] this wasn’t for me.

How did you land at Equal Justice Works 18 years ago?
[My wife and I] traveled around the world for nine months. By getting off of the treadmill, it really gave us a chance to reflect. Halfway through the trip, both my wife and I said we weren’t going to go back to our jobs. I came back and was literally walking down the street, and Ralph Nader’s right-hand man, his name was John Richard, was walking the other way. He said, “So what are you doing?” I said, “You know, I’m looking [for work].” He says, “I have the organization for you,” and he sent me over to the National Association for Public Interest Law, which is [now] Equal Justice Works.

You’ve traveled all over the country to find investors to fund your fellowships. What about Washington’s pro bono and public-interest ethic stands out?
Washington is both a mecca for public-interest organizations and also for pro bono culture. I think the rest of the country looks to Washington as the hub and the model. It’s actually one of the most refreshing things for me when I talk to lawyers, especially those in big firms, and they recall why they went into the profession in the first place. They all recall a public-service yearning.

It’s true that many students go to law school because of that kind of yearning, but few stick with the goal of doing public-interest work. What’s the key to convincing someone that the six-figure law-firm gig can wait and public service is worth a try?

If anything, there’s been a significant bump in those numbers since President Obama has been in office. He has certainly inspired a lot of people to do public-interest work. So more people have that public-service bug when they start law school. Unfortunately, yes, law school strips that away in many respects. It tries to teach lawyers to think in sterile, analytical ways without a lot of heart. There’s also a lot of competition in law schools for those coveted six-figure-salary jobs, and so people are malleable, they’re generally young, and all of these activities—the sterile thinking, the going after the coveted job, the very large educational debt—often strips away those public-service aspirations. Our job is to keep those embers burning. We do a conference and career fair where people come and have a chance to get employed by public-interest employers but also to hear other students, so they feel like they’re part of a community. The second thing is the summer public-interest internships and clinical programs [we set up]. More than anything else, these early experiences—where you look in the eyes of somebody who’s in need of public service, and you use your legal skills to help them—that’s a very powerful moment.

What do Equal Justice Works fellows actually do? What impact are they having?

The most inspiring part of the job is to see young graduates come up with so many interesting ideas to solve problems. One [candidate I recently interviewed] proposed a project involving human trafficking down in the South, where people come into this country in search of the American dream—sometimes they’re illegal, sometimes they’re legal—but employers will burn their passports, put them in vulnerable positions where they’re afraid to go to the authorities when they’re not paid their wages or are treated poorly in the workplace. This person has a project specifically to help those people who are in these positions, to work with organizers who know these workers, and to try to get them the visas that entitle them to stay in this country and get protection from their abusive employer.

I’ll give you one example of one of our fellows who’s in Chicago right now. There’s something called a U-Visa, which is generally used by victims of domestic violence who can complain about the violence without fear of being deported. The same U-Visa law [could] also apply to workplace violence where an employer abuses an employee who’s illegal, knowing there’s very little chance that person’s going to complain to authorities for fear of deportation. We have a lawyer whose working on using U-Visa in the workplace-harassment setting. The domestic-violence [use] is pretty settled. There are a lot of cases. But here’s somebody who’s now expanding the area of the law to cover workplace problems.

Since the economy has gone south, and many law firm jobs have dried up, has there been more interest in these fellowships?

There has been, but here’s what I’d say about that: This is a question about whether it’s the downturn in the economy causing the increase, or is it the increased appetite among students who want to do public-interest work? We’ve seen a bump up in the number of people who have expressed interest. Our applications are up 10 to 20 percent in the last two years. However, in looking through the applicants, their qualifications are as impressive as they were before. So it’s not like people who just want to find a job and will throw their hat anywhere they can to find one are applying. These people have extraordinary qualifications in the public-interest field to do the project they want to accomplish. That’s not an “I’ll throw my hat in the ring” kind of thing.

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She oversees the magazine’s real estate and home design coverage, and writes long-form feature stories. She was a 2020 Livingston Award finalist for her two-part investigation into a possible wrongful conviction stemming from a murder in rural Virginia.