I am excited to share the next installment of my series on How Law Students Build Legal Careers. I hope that Marissa Ram’s story is an inspiration for those of you who are just beginning your journey. She is another example of a person who is doing what she set out to do when she started applying to law school.
I first met Marissa in the summer of 2009 when she was applying to law school. While working with her to create her application materials and schools list, the focus was on women’s rights and human rights on an international scale based on her previous work, travel, and volunteer experiences. She ended up attending UC Berkeley (she attended undergrad there as well) and she graduated from Berkeley Law (Boalt Hall) in 2013.
Today, Marissa is a 2013-2015 Equal Justice Works Fellow at Safe Horizon Anti-Trafficking Program in New York City.
Marissa, tell my readers a bit about your background before you were applying to law school and why you decided law school was the right path for you.
As an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, I majored in Political Science and minored in Middle Eastern Studies. My coursework focused heavily on knowledge production and recovering the history and lived experiences of social groups that had been silenced or erased by conventional scholarship. Before law school, I served as a health educator in Bombay, India, working with street-involved youth currently or recently engaged in the commercial sex trade and other informal street-based economies.
As a biracial young woman of color and the child of an immigrant parent, I was always interested in the stories and experiences of those outside the mainstream. Since my mother worked with low-income and underserved communities as an occupational therapist, I was also raised to be critical of institutions and recognize the ways in which systems can reproduce inequality. I came to law school because I wanted to advocate for the legal needs of young people, women, immigrants, and communities of color, but also because I wanted to challenge the laws and structures that maintained and reinforced injustice.
Why was Boalt the right law school for you? What did you take advantage of at the law school to further explore your options?
The legal profession is inherently conservative and that’s certainly reflected in legal education. The pedagogy of the first year can really dull your idealism – even at a school like Boalt, which has a strong social justice community and culture.
There is a lot of pressure in law school to do what is considered “prestigious.” It was important to me that my academic and extracurricular endeavors were in line with my values and personal ambitions. I took classes on subjects I cared about, rather than subjects that would be in the bar exam. Instead of focusing my attention on achieving perfect grades, I concentrated more on legal clinical work, internships, and field placements, so I could learn how to better serve clients and communities.
As it turned out, I was rarely asked for my grades when I applied for public interest internships during law school or even during the post-graduate legal fellowship application process. The traditional markers for success in law school will not necessarily be as relevant for a future social justice lawyer. Demonstrated commitment to working on the issues or significant experience serving the community often matters much more than grades, especially when you are applying to do direct legal services work.
It’s also incredibly important to create a supportive community for yourself, whether you do so through the law school social justice community or outside the law school entirely. For a variety of reasons (including very understandable financial considerations and competition for highly coveted public interest law positions), most law students do not end up pursuing public interest immediately after law school. Furthermore, the majority of classes and career services will not be geared towards your needs and you may often feel like you’re swimming upstream. Having a group of friends and future colleagues who provide support for each another’s career ambitions and who will share information when you all apply for the public interest loan forgiveness program after graduation is hugely valuable.
Tell us about some of the jobs/clerkships/extracurricular experiences you engaged in during law school that had the most value for you in finding a public interest position after law school. How did they add value to your career choices and opportunities that were presented to you? What did potential employers find to be most impressive/persuasive? Any decisions you regret?
Law school is a strange place, where you’ll often be applying for clerkships or jobs a year or more in advance of your start date, even before you’re even sure what you want to pursue career-wise. I tried as much as possible to let my interests, identity politics, and desired skills lead me when choosing internships and extracurricular activities. Being open to change is important, but it can be surprisingly challenging in law school, where you’re expected to map out a career plan so far in advance.
While in law school, I founded and chaired a student-led clinic, the Boalt Anti-Trafficking Project, which offered law students the opportunity to provide legal services to survivors of human trafficking through partnerships with local legal organizations. I also worked with trafficking survivors, refugees, and/or immigrant detainees though my involvement with the California Asylum Representation Clinic, the International Human Rights Law Clinic’s Immigration Detention Project, and a Human Rights Center Fellowship with the Council for Civil Liberties in Australia.
These and other internships and extracurricular experiences helped me learn how to work with community-based legal and non-legal partners, build coalitions, draft legislation and lobby on issues, create Know Your Rights workshops for clients who lacked legal representation, lay the groundwork for a new legal project, and document emerging client needs when working on a new area of legal advocacy. These experiences proved extremely valuable when I created and applied for a project-based post-graduate legal fellowship that prioritized direct services and community education/advocacy.
Providing direct services and representation to clients of various ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and language abilities helped me develop better interviewing and legal counseling skills. I also learned how to work more sensitively with clients who are facing multiple layers of oppression, including racism, sexism, poverty, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, past and ongoing trauma, etc. Clients are the ultimate source of authority and expertise when it comes to their lived experiences. Through direct legal services/representation, I learned how to let myself be educated by the communities I served in order to better advocate for clients’ needs.
Providing client-centered advocacy is a learned skill that requires you to work with your client, challenge your own preconceived notions, and continuously question the potential consequences of advocacy efforts. As important as it is to remain grounded in a detailed understanding of the law and policy and political issues at play, I believe a social justice advocate and community lawyer must always place an empathetic connection with his or her clients that is built on listening, understanding, and trust first and foremost. This is not a skill set your law school will necessarily teach, but a social justice employer that works directly with clients will value client-centered advocacy skills.
I wouldn’t say I regret any of my internships or extracurriculars during law school, but I also approached everything as a learning experience. During one field placement, I worked at an incredible organization with amazing legal advocates, but I was miserable because I was doing legal research and writing at a desk all day, every day. It just wasn’t a good fit. I’m someone who likes a lot of client contact, enjoys running around and being out of the office, and loves having a different schedule and responsibilities each day. It’s just as valuable to recognize and come to terms with what you don’t enjoy as it is to figure out what you love.
How did you obtain your post-graduate legal Fellowship and what are you doing in this position?
Post-graduate public interest legal fellowships allow recent law graduates/new lawyers to obtain entry-level positions with non-profit organizations that would probably not have the financial resources to hire an entry-level attorney otherwise. These fellowships typically range from one to two years. There are different types of fellowships and Fordham Law provides a good overview.
I applied for project-based fellowships, which require each applicant to develop a new and innovative project that provides legal advocacy for underserved communities. Safe Horizon Anti-Trafficking Program (my non-profit “host” organization) and I developed a project together. The project was based on a combination of my experiences working with homeless and street-involved youth who were experiencing or at-risk for trafficking, along with the program’s desire to expand its outreach and direct services in order to better prioritize those populations. We then submitted lengthy applications to potential fellowship funders (either foundations or corporate sponsors). The entire process took about a year from project conception to the application and interview rounds to my selection as an Equal Justice Works Fellow a couple months before law school graduation.
Through my fellowship, I provide direct legal services, community education, and advocacy to homeless and street-involved youth up to age 24. My work has a particular emphasis on male youth and LGBTQ youth experiencing or at-risk for trafficking or exploitation in both the formal workplace and street-level informal economies.
Keep in mind that public interest employers hire on a very different timeline than most firms or government employers. It can be stressful to watch many of your classmates and friends secure their post-graduation jobs months or even a year before you do, but that’s a reality of applying for public interest positions.
Tell me what you set out to do when you started law school and how/whether that has changed/focused.
I entered law school with a more narrow view of what it meant to create social change. I believed systemic social change stemmed from carefully targeted class action litigation. While I recognize that impact litigation is one tool for social change, it didn’t end up being the legal model for creating social justice that spoke most to me. You can have the perfect case, but that doesn’t mean you will actually get justice through the court. There is always a limit to the law because the legal system is unjust in many ways.
My experiences in law school showed me that I prefer an environment that utilizes multi-pronged advocacy, including organizing, direct services, and community education, legislation, and coalition-building with grassroots community-based organizations, rather than one that focuses exclusively on litigation.
The community lawyering model asks lawyers to look beyond litigation or traditional ideas of “success” or a “win” in addressing deep-seated systemic discrimination, oppression, and inequality that affect marginalized communities. Community lawyers work with communities (as partners and equal participants) to build the power of communities to challenge systemic legal barriers. Community lawyers must confront their own predetermined notions and continuously question the potential consequences of their advocacy efforts, in order to truly engage in and advance client-centered social justice.
What advice would you give to someone currently deciding which law school to attend who wants to practice human rights law on either a domestic or international scale?
I would urge anyone interested in wants to practice human rights law or social justice to download and read William Quigley’s “Letter to a Law Student Interested in Social Justice,” which really speaks to many of the challenges of doing social justice work. Social justice lawyering is inherently transgressive, because law and justice are often very different things.
Human rights work can encompass a broad range of public interest and social justice work. I think it’s also important to recognize that the international human rights as a concept has a problematic history in certain ways, with assumptions of universality based on Western values and a very top-down nation-state framework. I recommend reading Makau W. Mutua’s article, “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights,” which challenges human rights advocates to question the universality and “cultural neutrality” of the human rights framework. Looking critically at institutions and frameworks is crucial in social justice advocacy, whether that’s the international human rights law framework, the legal system, or even the law school educational model.
Social justice advocates are always part of a larger team, but formal legal education and training doesn’t necessarily give you the answers as to the best way to create social change and work with underserved communities. Humility and awareness of your privilege go a long way if you’re not a member of the community you’re serving and/or don’t share the same lived experiences. The communities you serve are best equipped to speak to what’s needed. You are not their savior. Your clients have a voice – you are there to learn and give them the opportunity to advocate for what they need, on their own terms.
You can seek out opportunities to hone your skills as a future social justice advocate at any law school. Some law schools might have more social justice courses, clinics, or better public interest career advisors. But no matter where you go to law school, a huge component of your social justice advocacy skills are learned outside the classroom and on your own time.
Lastly, there are no easy answers when doing social justice work. Systemic social change does not come easily. It’s messy, chaotic, and daunting. You’re serving clients and communities at the margins and working within often incredibly unfair systems. You will make mistakes and you will fail, but you won’t be alone. Social justice really is a team effort. You’ll be working in solidarity with people doing inspirational, life-changing work, who are trying to truly transform society.