Public Service Takes Many Forms Outside NYC

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Five Stein graduates working for public service organizations outside the New York metropolitan area share their experiences on a variety of topics, including elder law, housing, and wage theft.


Rachel Graves ’13, Attorney with Sawaya & Miller, Denver, CO

Rachel GravesI represent plaintiffs who are victims of wage theft in class action lawsuits against their employers as an associate attorney at Sawaya & Miller, a private law firm in Denver, Colorado. I was really drawn to class actions in law school because they give the underdog a tool to defeat the more powerful. In my work litigating wage theft actions, I have represented a huge array of different types of workers, including massage therapists, waiters, construction workers, exotic dancers, truck drivers, call center workers, movers, nurses, and more.

Until late in law school, I expected to work for a nonprofit or the government. It took me a long time to fully realize that there are opportunities at private firms doing work very much in the spirit of public service. When I did, it really opened up my job search, particularly here in Denver, where there are woefully few nonprofit legal organizations. I wish that my job qualified for public service loan forgiveness, but other than that, I am thrilled to carry on my fight for the little guy in a private firm.


Jesse Loper ’09, Attorney-Advisor at HUD (U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development), Denver, CO

Jesse LoperDuring law school, I quickly realized that I didn’t love traditional legal work. I also came to recognize my passion for housing, primarily because housing is so critical in providing poor individuals and families a platform for socioeconomic advancement. HUD has been a great place to work for two main reasons. First, I wanted to work on housing and development issues in a larger framework. Second, HUD offers me the opportunity to work on interesting legal questions on a variety of matters associated with multiple program areas.

At HUD, I provide legal counsel and representation in four separate program areas: 1) Federal Housing Administration (FHA) programs for single family homes; 2) FHA programs for multifamily homes; 3) Office of Public Housing; and 4) Office of Community Planning & Development. The Single Family FHA programs based out of our regional office provide mortgage insurance on loans made by FHA-approved lenders throughout a 17-state area. The issues that come up within the FHA are diverse, challenging, and yet force me to remember fundamental things I learned in Property 101!

Law school is a great place to figure out what kind of legal work you enjoy and what types of issues you are most passionate about. Try to take full advantage of that opportunity. During my time at Fordham, I took the Urban Policy clinic, really enjoyed Property and worked at The Legal Aid Society in Housing Court. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to remain in public interest and continue to be engaged in housing work.

I got my job at HUD in 2009, during the economic crisis, so I was very busy right from the start. Almost immediately, I was handling my own reviews, cases, and assignments that came from our different program clients. Additionally, I was paired with a mentor whose experience and counsel I still call upon. Mostly, it was terrific to be tackling important work from the outset and to see the positive impact HUD programs can have on individuals, families, and the community.


Leila W. Morgan ’04, Trial Attorney at the Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., CA

Leila MorganI entered law school with the goal of being a public defender. I believed, and still do, that zealous representation of those accused of criminal offenses is at the heart of our justice system. I wanted to stand between the power of our government and the individual. The experience and education I received at Fordham gave me the opportunity to do just that. I have been a trial attorney for Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., for the last eleven years. Each day I have the privilege of advocating for indigent persons charged with federal crimes in the Southern District of California.

I am intellectually challenged every day. We practice vertical representation, meaning that I represent my client from arraignment all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. There are always motions to be researched and written, and new creative challenges to mount for our clients. I am privileged to work with fifty other attorneys who are all dedicated to the same thing: providing the best representation possible to our clients.

During law school, I wanted to be a public defender because of a sense of fairness and justice. I wanted to fight the government, the system, and authority. I wanted to stand with the underdog. However, after eleven years, that is not what keeps me motivated every day. Now, I realize that as much fun as it is to stand in court, fight and win, that is not the most important thing that I do. The clients are what keep me motivated every day. Each of my clients is a unique person with a unique story to tell. My job is to tell that story. To make sure that others see more than just what they have been charged with or convicted of.

I felt called to be a public defender. This is the only work I can ever see myself doing. It is not always easy. It is not always rewarding. There are times when it feels like you are getting beaten down from all sides, but on those days you remember the clients that you have helped and you push forward. For those that want to do this work, I cannot encourage it enough.

The Stein Scholars Program at Fordham gave me what I needed to follow my dream of being a public defender, and for that I am eternally grateful. The only advice I can give to those who want to pursue public interest work is to follow your passion and do what brings you joy.


Nicole Tell ’98, Vice President of Development at the Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, PA

Nicole TellAfter practicing corporate litigation for nearly seven years, I gave it all up and joined the nonprofit sector. I took time to think about what I actually liked about practicing law and what I did not. What I realized was that simply going to a nonprofit law center or working on public interest legal issues would not be more professionally satisfying. So, rather than taking the “usual” path of joining a public interest legal organization, I gave up the practice of law and became a full time nonprofit fundraiser. Yes, technically I ask people for money! Since 2008, I have been in the development profession and I am currently Vice President of Development at Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia. We provide K-8th grade scholarships to low-income children to attend private or parochial schools in the Greater Philadelphia region. There are many similarities about what I did as a lawyer:  advocacy on behalf of a client and finding the best means to communicate our “case.” But I am free from the pettiness and mundane rules I found challenging in litigation. I also get to work with clients who need our help, as well as corporate and community leaders and high net worth individuals in a non-adversarial way. I love that part of my job.

I find that coming from a profession like law that is client-centered, I expect a certain level of professionalism and responsiveness that not all nonprofit professionals have. I think I am successful at my job because I am always client-focused (whether that client is a donor, board member, or family we serve). Additionally, I know how to juggle multiple tasks and projects in ways that others often cannot. Leaving the practice of law made me realize that while people love to make fun of lawyers, there is also somewhat of an expectation of heightened intelligence when someone says they are a lawyer (a sense that we hold some magic knowledge that others do not…if they only knew). Being outside of NYC and Fordham where I was trained and had connections (and where people were readily familiar with its prestige) has made that more apparent to me. It has taken me a little while to get accustomed to that, but when you feel your skill set is better utilized in your current profession and the culture and environment of where you work suits you better, you learn to live with it.


Tracy Zanco ’06, The Elder Law Center of Kirson & Fuller, Orlando, FL

Tracy Zanco I practice elder law in Orlando, FL.  As elder law attorneys we specialize in estate planning, probate administration, Medicaid planning, and guardianships.  I love my work because it is varied and requires a lot of interaction directly with clients and their families.  On the estate planning side, we occasionally visit people in their homes or while they are in the hospital to assist them with the execution of their documents.  On the guardianship side, I have to go to court, argue cases, and try to resolve contested matters.

I highly recommend elder law for students or practitioners who desire a varied practice that is rewarding because you are either helping people in times of crisis, or planning with them to give them peace of mind.  My background in public interest work and my clinic experience at Fordham have helped me in this position because those experiences developed my client relations and drafting skills.  I am continually amazed by our clients’ ability to handle all of the pressures they face while also trying to manage various legal hurdles.  I am grateful to have found elder law and would be happy to speak with anyone about it.

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