The Independence Foundation provides three to five fellowships each year to outstanding recent law school graduates. In partnership with sponsoring public interest law organizations, these Fellows implement projects directly representing low-income individuals, thus accomplishing three goals:
- preparing young lawyers to work effectively for the public good,
- expanding service to the indigent public, and
- increasing the capacity of the region’s vibrant public interest legal sector in both the short term, with the Fellowships, and in the long term as former Fellows take their places in the public interest arena and move into leadership roles.
The Independence Foundation is committed to the support of free legal services for poor and disadvantaged residents of the Philadelphia region and has consistently and generously funded the public interest legal sector for nearly two decades. An important part of this commitment has been the Independence Foundation Public Interest Law Fellowship program. Created in 1996, it is the only regionally concentrated program of its kind.
Through the Fellowship program, the Foundation funds the compensation and cost of employment benefits for accomplished young lawyers who have decided to use their considerable talents in public interest service with a Foundation public interest law grantee. As an additional component of each Fellowship grant, the Foundation assists the Fellows in the repayment of their often substantial educational loans. Thus the Foundation enables some of the best and brightest law school graduates from around the country to come to the Philadelphia area and obtain employment with an organization based in this region that provides free legal services to poor and disadvantaged people. Clients served include people who are elderly, disabled or homeless as well as others deprived of their human or civil rights.
The Foundation requires that the focus of all Fellowship work be on direct representation of disadvantaged clients. Although the Foundation recognizes the value of broad based policy development, the Foundation is more interested in supporting direct legal services so that the Fellows develop legal and litigation skills. This gives young lawyers entrée into a public interest career and prepares them with skills essential in all public interest legal and advocacy work.
Each applicant works with a legal services organization in the five-county region. Together they propose a public interest law project that the applicant will implement if granted a Fellowship. A project typically consists of developing a new substantive area of legal practice or type of legal service that is consistent with the sponsoring organization’s mission.
The foci of recent Fellowship projects have included:
- developing a medical legal partnership based in nurse-managed health centers and serving people with disabilities;
- creating a mortgage foreclosure litigation system;
- supporting the legal needs of grandparents and other seniors raising related children;
- improving educational outcomes for youth in foster care;
- representing chronically homeless persons to access federal disability supports; and
- prosecuting discrimination against workers in Pennsylvania’s agricultural community.
Applications are reviewed by a knowledgeable panel including a federal judge, a retired Pennsylvania Superior Court judge and several respected members of the Philadelphia legal community. This panel conducts interviews of the finalists and makes recommendations for selection to the Foundation’s Board.
Fellows serve one year with the opportunity to apply for an additional year. The Foundation convenes all current Fellows at quarterly informal breakfasts, recognizing the importance of cohorts, and invites all the public interest community to an annual reception to introduce and celebrate the new class of Fellows.
The Fellowship program has given talented young people a solid grounding in legal skills and it has had a direct impact on the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise have been unable to secure access to the justice system. In the past 18 years, 61 young lawyers have received Independence Foundation Fellowships. Nineteen public interest law organizations in the five-county Philadelphia region, all grantees in the Foundation’s public interest law portfolio, have sponsored the Fellows. Of these Fellows, anecdotal evidence indicates that the vast majority has made careers in the public interest arena and the majority of those remain in Philadelphia. Fellows from the early years have risen to leadership roles in the public interest community and made significant contributions to the field of justice.
Independence Foundation supports the public interest field with traditional general operating grants, convinced that general operating funding of solid organizations is essential. The Fellowship strategy puts money behind talent and significantly enriches the field beyond general operating funds. The fact that Fellows are salaried means that each Fellow is appropriately recognized in her/his organization as an equal to other staff attorneys. The Fellowships add a significant number of potential leaders to the public interest community, another important part of the strategy.
The Fellowship program is simple and easily replicable. The key is a long-term commitment on the part of the funder. The model is replicable in other fields as well.
The Independence Foundation Public Interest Law Fellowship is largely responsible for Harvard Law graduate Louise Hayes becoming a Philadelphian. A successful applicant the second year of the Fellowship program, in the era of the implementation of the new welfare reform law, Louise’s project at Community Legal Services (CLS) focused on that issue. Following the Fellowship she stayed at CLS and served part-time as a consultant to the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, D.C. As a result, she became a national expert on food stamps.
Louise’s Fellowship began in the fall of 1997 and she is still at CLS because, “This was the job I wanted then and it is still the job for me. The work is different every day with individual representation, advocacy in Harrisburg and collaboration with community members.” Louise also states that the cohort of Fellows with whom she networked was enormously valuable in her early career and connections are still strong among Fellows over the years.
During Meredith Rapkin’s Fellowship at HIAS Pennsylvania in 2004-6 she specialized in cases involving immigrant victims of interpersonal violence. Following the Fellowship, she continued that important work at HIAS until deciding to take a two-year teaching fellowship in immigration law at Villanova University while considering her next career step. Time in academia convinced her that her place is in a practice environment, and in 2011 she became Executive Director of Friends of Farmworkers, another immigrant-focused public interest law firm.
Meredith says, “I cannot imagine what kind of attorney I would be without the Fellowship. The Independence Foundation Fellowship gave me a place of honor. It gave me work that inspired and challenged me. As a local program the Fellowship demonstrates that this work is valued in this community, in Philadelphia, and that is very important.”
Sue has been a Program Officer providing capacity building services to grantees at the Independence Foundation for 12 years. For the previous 18 years she was on the staff of Resources for Human Development, Inc., serving first as a program director and then Development Director.