ASU Law students make community impact through fellowship program
Last year, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University selected 18 students as its first Public Interest Fellows.
The fellowship program, the first of its kind at the law school, was formed in 2020 when ASU Law leadership and donors came together to create opportunities for students to participate in social justice programs. Student organizations, like the Black Law Students Association, were at the forefront of advocating for increased opportunities in the social justice space. The law school funds these opportunities through the Public Interest Fellowship Fund, which is bolstered by donors like the the Squire Patton Boggs Foundation.
This summer, the cohort has grown to 25.
Included in that cohort is Julian Puthenpurayil, the first student from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law to earn a Squire Patton Boggs Foundation Fellowship. Puthenpurayil is one of 30 fellows this summer in the program founded in 2005 to advance law and public policy issues at nonprofits, government agencies and domestic or international organizations. He is currently lending his talents to the Yuma County Public Defender’s Office. While there, he will draft and revise motions, observe court proceedings and work hands-on with clients.
Helping others is the reason Puthenpurayil went to law school in the first place. The second-year law student hopes to become a federal defender upon graduation.
“I wanted to enter the legal field because I wanted a job that addressed issues in the criminal justice system, which I studied as an undergraduate and graduate student, and one in which I would interact with and help individuals,” he said. “I enjoyed working with individuals facing some of these issues as a counselor at an alternative-to-jail substance-use treatment facility prior to attending law school.”
Puthenpurayil has met with several other participants to learn about the work they’re doing all over the country. He has also connected with former fellows who are becoming mentors. To support public interest internships, Yuma County put out a call to its bar members to find interns housing and support while there for the summer. Puthenpurayil was able to secure housing with Adam Gage, a retired court reporter.
“The opportunity is really amazing because those positions are often not able to offer the same benefits as private firms, so sometimes even when students want to try a public interest opportunity, they cannot turn down a competing offer,” he said. “So far, the fellowship has been very rewarding.”
This fellowship program, and others like it, allow law students the opportunity to help others through public service instead of forgoing these types of externships for financial reasons.
“We created the Public Interest Fellowship program to help students to explore public interest careers that might not have been financially viable. Now they have the ability to not only have on-the-job experience but also support communities and organizations in need of legal assistance,” said Stacy Leeds, Willard H. Pedrick Dean and Regents Professor of Law. “And funding from partners like the SPB Foundation help us continue to provide our students with these diverse opportunities.”
Public interest law is a not-for-profit legal sector, often aiding with legal issues for underrepresented populations or effecting change for the benefit of the public. The law school’s emphasis on clinical programs and employment opportunities speaks to ASU Law’s mission to advance justice.
A focus on supporting diverse communities, interests
Levi Bevis, another ASU Law student, decided to take his legal talents to the public interest sector this summer through an externship with the ACLU of Arizona.
The rising second-year law student grew up on a cattle farm in rural Alabama and saw what the lack of legal resources and access could do to low-income communities. Working in Washington, D.C., after graduating from college only confirmed his desire to help.
He chose ASU Law because of its location and programs focusing on LGBTQ+ civil rights and immigration law. Now, Bevis is serving as a legal intern to the staff attorney at the ACLU, working on first amendment and civil rights cases.
“The opportunities are there and there are so many chances to do great work and really get to know people you’re helping,” he said. “You can engage in communities of every background and engage with the community you’re living in.”
Similarly, Natalie Heun identified a passion for the environment and sustainability in high school before learning about the impact law and policy can have on environmental issues. She set her sights on law school, choosing ASU Law for its energy and water law classes, as well as its certificate in sustainability law, to get her where she wanted to go in her career.
This summer, she obtained an externship at the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law.
She’s working with the attorney general of New York, writing memos on energy regulation and researching a paper she will publish on the center’s website as an educational resource. Heun encouraged students not to overlook these important public interest opportunities due to financial reasons.
“It can be hard to secure funding for these positions sometimes and that can be restricting, but there are great opportunities through ASU Law, like the Public Interest Fellowship funding I was lucky enough to receive,” she said. “I recommend looking into funding sources if you’re interested in an externship like this.”
The ASU Law Public Interest Fellowship Fund is supported by donors to provide stipends to students of all backgrounds hoping to work in social justice research and reform.
ASU Law student Charles Miller, an Arizona native, knew he wanted to focus on issues he cares about, like climate change and immigration, in his home state. That brought him to a summer internship in the office of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI.
“I worked in Washington, D.C., for a nonprofit public interest law firm before moving back to Arizona to start law school,” he said. “While in that job, I became familiar with Sen. Whitehouse’s work — specifically on climate and money in politics.
"When I saw the senator was hiring law clerks to work on his Judiciary Committee staff, I knew it would be the perfect opportunity for me to work on issues I care about for someone who’s spent so much of his career focusing on those same issues.”
Miller, also a rising second-year, said he’s learned a lot about how to use his skills to give back and create change since arriving at ASU Law.
“‘Public interest can mean a lot of different things,” he said. “You can find advocacy work in so many different fields and I think that’s something I didn’t really know about the law until I started school and started my job search.”