On March 25, 2011, over 150 alumni and friends of the Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship Program gathered at Brooklyn Law School to celebrate the program’s 25thanniversary at an invitation-only panel discussion followed by a reception and dinner.
“Sparer occupies a special place for us, enabling our students, and ennobling our institution,” said Michael Cahill, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.
Each year, a group of students is awarded with Sparer Fellowships. The honor includes a paid summer internship in public interest law and many other enriching opportunities. Among these opportunities are public interest and multi-disciplinary forums and symposia and monthly luncheons on current public interest legal issues.
Throughout their Law School years and beyond, Sparer Fellows are mentored by faculty experts and leading professionals. The extended Sparer family is a large and informal, but a close-knit group.
“In order to commit to this kind of work, you need to be in a consistently supportive community,” said Professor Elizabeth M. Schneider, Rose L. Hoffer Professor of Law and founding director of the program. “That was one of the ideas behind the founding of the program.” Founded in 1985, the fellowship program was named for Ed Sparer ’59, a Professor of Law and Social Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Chosen as one of “The Lawyers of the Century” by American Lawyer, Sparer was a pioneer in the fields of poverty and health law.
To date, 414 Sparer Fellows have graduated, and 65 students in the law school are Sparer Fellows. Many Sparer alumni hold leadership positions in public interest organizations and government agencies around the country. They work in such areas as social justice, poverty, immigration, civil rights, homelessness, access to healthcare, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and international human rights. Some who work in private practice continue to devote a portion of their time to pro bono work.
“Before the Sparer Program, there were few students at Brooklyn Law School who were supported in their commitment to public interest law,” said Claudia Werman Connor ’88, one of the first Fellows. In 1986, she spent her fellowship summer literally following in Ed Sparer’s footsteps by working in his office, Community Legal Services, in Philadelphia. Today, Connor is the Regional Director of U.S. Programs at the International Rescue Committee.
“The Sparer Program has made remarkable progress. It has become a beacon to generations of public interest lawyers, advocates and activists. We are so grateful to the late Dean David G. Trager, who enthusiastically supported the founding of the program with Bertram Bronzaft ‘61, and to President Joan G. Wexler and Interim Dean Michael Gerber, who have generously continued this support,” remarked Professor Schneider. She also thanked the Sparer Faculty Committee, and the staff of the Public Service Programs Office, Director Elizabeth Kane, and Associate Director Danielle Sorken, as well as Charles Krause, the program’s long-time Administrative Assistant.
An Honor and a Challenge
For the panel discussion, Professor Schneider asked 14 Sparer alumni to discuss their careers, challenges, and passions. These 14 alums spanned many different years and areas of the law.
Laurie F. Parise ’04 described the unique organization she founded, Youth Represent (YR), which provides legal, advocacy, and social services to young people involved in the juvenile or criminal justice system. “It’s true wrap-around representation,” Parise said, “a holistic approach to young people trying to restart their lives.”
Parise secured several postgraduate awards and grants to fund her work, including the prestigious Equal Justice Works (EJW) Fellowship and an Echoing Green award. Last fall, Michael C. Pope ’10, another Sparer alumnus, won an EJW Fellowship to support his effort to expand YR’s outreach and impact.
In fact, more Sparer Fellows have been winning postgraduate fellowships than ever before — a testament to their abilities, dedication, and resumes that show a broad range of experience in public interest law.
For example, Michael Mastrangelo ’11 just won another Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Beginning in the fall of 2011, he will be a Fellow for two years at the Children’s Law Center, where he has also interned, assisting attorneys representing children in custody, visitation, and guardianship proceedings in family court. The EJW fellowship will allow him to implement a project of his own design at the Center, securing educational entitlements for disabled children embroiled in contested family court litigation.
Another student, Kate Wood ’11 has been awarded the William J. Brennan First Amendment Fellowship to work at the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Several Sparer alumni used variations on the same language to describe their experiences, noting that they felt “honored” to be able to do their work. But that sense of honor did not mean there were no challenges, they said, especially considering the personal toll the work can take. For more seasoned practitioners of public interest law, the sheer scope of responsibilities can seem overwhelming.
Ross Levi ’97 is now Executive Director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York’s largest statewide LGBT civil rights organization, with an almost $4 million budget and 25 full-time staff. He first worked there as a Sparer Fellow. “I love LGBT work, but it is exceedingly challenging,” he said. He oversees legislative and political activities, as well as education and community organizing.
Elizabeth Schuster ’89 is Associate Counsel at New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), which she notes is a “behemoth” of an organization. “We enforce due process for 600,000 teachers, plus custodians, janitors and bus drivers.” She expressed concern, as did other panelists, about current attitudes toward teachers and their unions and toward poor and disenfranchised people in general.
What “fires up” Jane M. Landry-Reyes ’93, Senior Staff Attorney of the Housing Unit at South Brooklyn Legal Services, is “preventing injustice and —sometimes— saving a life.” In addition to a busy housing court practice, she is an advocate for tenants’ rights. To help prevent burn-out and “keep things fresh,” she encourages attorneys to cross practice-area boundaries and work collectively.
A newer Sparer alumnus, Johane Severin ’08, is a staff attorney at Staten Island Legal Services, where she represents clients in immigration, social security, and unemployment matters. “I always wanted to be a lawyer, but knew nothing about public interest law,” she said.
When she enrolled in a Law School clinic, she was required to write a weekly journal about her experiences. It turned into a personal correspondence with a professor, who responded very positively to one of her entries, telling her she “really understood the issue” and urging her to apply for a Sparer Fellowship.
“Mentors come when you least expect them,” she said. “I didn’t know about the Sparer Program, but I followed this advice. That professor, who I never even met, changed my life.”
At the dinner, Robert Acton ’97, now Executive Director of the New York office of the Taproot Foundation, which supports pro bono legal work, toasted the 25th Anniversary of the program. In his toast he said:
“Sparer gives each fellow something very special – a place at Brooklyn Law School to belong. We find – in our fellow fellows – a group of likeminded friends who have identified something that’s not right with the world and in righteous indignation have responded, “I can’t stand it!” And they’ve gone to work.
“The dedication of the Sparer Fellowship Program over 25 years has created incredible societal impact through the students who have developed into public interest lawyers and/or lifetime pro bono champions.”
View photos of the event.