Fellowship recipients commit to public interest

April 28, 2008Duke Law News

Emilia Beskind ’08 receives Prettyman Fellowship
When Emilia Beskind taught in public school in New Orleans, she saw some of her sixth-grade students and their families get in trouble with the law. As their cases proceeded, “they were getting completely lost in the court system,” she recalls.

Beskind already had decided on law school, but the teaching experience “solidified the idea that I was going to be a public defender,” she says.

She’ll begin to realize that goal this fall, when she starts a two-year program as a Prettyman Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. The fellowship will provide about $150,000 in stipend, tuition, and fees as Beskind pursues her LLM in advocacy. During the first year of the fellowship, she’ll work as a public defender in criminal courts in Washington, D.C. The next year, she’ll reduce her caseload and supervise students in the law school’s criminal clinic.

“I really care about indigent defense. It’s why I went to law school,” Beskind says. “It’s not something a lot of people want to do, but it’s a really important thing for some people to do. It’s important that everyone gets a fair trial.”

Beskind says her experiences at Duke Law have helped her prepare for the work she’ll do at Georgetown. As a second-year law student, she ran the statewide Innocence Project for Duke, assessing and investigating claims of innocence from convicted felons in North Carolina. “Duke’s pro bono program has been fantastic,” Beskind says.

“Duke was a huge advantage for me” in getting the fellowship, she adds. Faculty members Erwin Chemerinsky and James Coleman helped prepare her for indigent defense cases.

“I feel good because I care about what I’m doing. But I like to work itself,” Beskind says. “I particularly like being there if I feel I’m there for a good cause.”

Leah Nicholls ’07 receives Supreme Court Assistance Project Fellowship
Leah Nicholls’ first experiences with lawyers involved efforts to obtain special education programs for her sister. Her parents at times had to push schools to provide the support and education to which her sister was legally entitled. In some cases they hired a lawyer, and the “things got so much easier,” Nicholls, a 2007 Duke Law graduate, recalls. “My sister benefited immensely.”

She was impressed by “the impact hiring a lawyer for even such a short time could have,” she says.

Nicholls will have an opportunity to make an impact herself as she pursues public interest law. Thanks to a Supreme Court Assistance Project Fellowship, she will begin work at the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, D.C., in August.

The litigation group, part of the nonprofit advocacy organization Public Citizen, focuses on consumer rights, open government, health and safety regulations, and the First Amendment. As a fellow, Nicholls, who now clerks for a justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, will evaluate U.S. Supreme Court petitions for certiori to determine which cases Public Citizen might be interested in; she’ll also serve as the contact person for any resulting aid.

“It seems like a really good combination of all the disparate things I like about legal work,” says Nicholls, who plans to stay in Washington after her fellowship ends to pursue work in civil rights or international human rights. “I went to law school to do public interest legal work. This is fulfilling my dream in that sense.”

Nicholls says her work with Duke Law’s Guantanamo Defense Clinic and Children’s Law Clinic helped solidify her commitment to public interest work. She particularly credits Associate Dean Carol Spruill for creating an environment that supports public interest. “She really seeks to inspire and make possible opportunities for public interest work for law students,” Nicholls says.
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