Nonprofit Fellowships Offer Invaluable Experience

For 175 Texas Law students, last summer was enriched by real-world experience working in nonprofit or government fellowships thanks to the law school’s Summer Public Service Program (SPSP). The program provides stipends to rising 2L and 3L students pursuing public service or other careers advancing the public interest.

“Our support for summer public interest work is remarkable, and the Summer Public Service Program made it possible for students to gain valuable legal experience in nonprofit and government settings this summer,” says Nicole Simmons, director of the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law. “We are so proud of what these students accomplished and look forward to providing this support in 2024.”

In total, the SPSP awarded more than $1.3M to students for a broad range of summer positions at nonprofit and social welfare organizations, as well as governmental agencies at the county, state, and federal levels in 16 different states and Washington, D.C.—and even in South Korea.

Stipends of up to $800 per week supported students, ensuring opportunities to build knowledge and skills, explore career paths, and improve their prospects for employment following graduation. The impact was deeply felt.

“This program made public service financially feasible,” says Alexander Nutt ’24, who spent the summer working in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “It’s a tremendous help to those who want to do this kind of law. I personally found the job to be the most interesting thing I’ve ever done.”

Tessa Slagle ’24 is emphatic that the benefits of the program extend well beyond one summer. “It was a game-changer for my career and professional development,” says Slagle, who was able to spend ten weeks at the City Attorney’s Office of Corpus Christi. “Beyond the immediate benefits of gaining legal knowledge and practical skills, the SPSP has profoundly impacted my future prospects, opened doors I didn’t know existed.”

Beyond the immediate benefits of gaining legal knowledge and practical skills, the SPSP has profoundly impacted my future prospects, opened doors I didn’t know existed.

Tessa Slagle ’24

Adds Slagle, “I am grateful—and excited to pay it forward by contributing to the betterment of society through the legal profession.”

In addition to Nutt and Slagle, 153 students had general stipends and 20 received named fellowships. This is because the SPSP serves as an umbrella for fellowships created through gifts from generous individual and institutional donors, and grants.  

Below, we go in depth with five SPSP students—Justin Atkinson, Cate Byrne, Ana Cruz, Nick Wilson, and Eleanor Withers—as they reflect on their 10-week summer fellowships in public service and describe how they were impacted by the experience.

Justin Atkinson headshot

Justin Atkinson ’24
Neighborhood Defender Service
New York City

In his work with the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem’s civil defense unit, Atkinson’s team helped clients with their eviction cases or other civil issues caused by contact with the criminal legal system. He conducted legal research, wrote pleadings, and attended housing court to assist with intake as part of New York City’s Right-to-Counsel law, which provides tenants facing eviction in Housing Court or NYC Housing Authority administrative proceedings with free legal representation and advice from nonprofit legal services organizations.      

“Affordable housing is so easily threatened by flimsy eviction suits,” Atkinson says. “It was encouraging to see how families were kept in their home by effective lawyering at the community level, especially by attorneys who grew up in Harlem themselves. It’s often an uphill battle on the tenant side, but it motivates you to be creative in your arguments.”

A double Longhorn who majored in government as an undergraduate, Atkinson has been a Mithoff Pro Bono Scholar each of his first two years in law school, and devoted considerable time to the law school’s pro bono Title IX Project. He is also staff editor for the Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights. The Sherman, Texas, native has participated in Texas Law’s Housing and Civil Rights clinics and serves on the student advisory board for the William Wayne Justice Center. Atkinson’s career goal is to work in civil rights litigation.

Cate Byrne headshot

Cate Byrne ’25
Federal Community Defender of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Byrne interned with the Federal Community Defender for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s capital habeas unit, which represents death-sentenced indigent individuals in state and federal post-conviction proceedings. Over the summer, Byrne honed her research and writing skills by drafting claims on issues, analyzing voir dire transcripts, and answering complex questions on the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

This internship taught me the importance of compassion and humor in difficult circumstances,” says Byrne. “Capital habeas is a truly life and death field that could easily turn stressful or overwhelming. However, the attorneys and clients I worked with were among the funniest, most thoughtful people I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with.

“I firmly believe every law student would benefit, both as an advocate and human being, from spending a summer working in public defense at any level,” Byrne adds.

Originally from Bettendorf, Iowa, Byrne earned undergraduate degrees in political science, economics, and environmental studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At Texas Law, she serves on the executive board of the Public Interest Law Association and Getting Radical in the South (GRITS), is an articles editor for the Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, is a Pro Bono Scholar for the criminal legal system projects, works with the Capital Punishment Clinic, and is a member of OUTLaw. Last year, Byrne received the Pro Bono Beacon Award for donating the most hours of pro bono service in her Texas Law class.  

Ana Cruz headshot

Ana Cruz ’24
Bronx Defenders
New York City

The Bronx Defenders provides representation for low-income borough residents in criminal, civil, immigration, and child welfare cases. As part of the nonprofit’s criminal defense practice, Cruz researched legal issues, drafted memos and case materials, sorted through discovery, and worked closely with clients.

“I continued to see and respect the importance of public defense work, particularly from a holistic lens,” Cruz notes. “Working with the attorneys, advocates, social workers, and other staff members showed me the wide variety of ways in which we can advocate for clients fiercely and compassionately at every single step of a case.”

Cruz is a double Longhorn who grew up in St. Louis and El Paso and majored in accounting and economics as an undergraduate. At Texas Law, she has been involved with the Parole Project, has worked with the Juvenile Justice Clinic, and currently is with the Criminal Defense Clinic. Cruz also interned with the Public Defender Service’s immigration division in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2022. 

Nick Wilson headshot

Nick Wilson ’25
U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia
Savannah, Ga.

Wilson worked as student intern with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia, primarily in the office’s appellate division while also gaining experience in the criminal division. His appellate work included writing and researching legal memoranda, helping to draft and edit the government’s responses to post-conviction motions, mooting oral arguments, and preparing summaries of relevant law.

His internship offered Wilson a view into challenging life circumstances. “Seeing firsthand how chronic drug and addiction problems, poor economic circumstances, and easy gun access combined to create such a high crime rate did a lot to solidify my thoughts on the varied and complex causes of criminality in the U.S,” he says. “I also learned much about how the federal criminal justice system tries to think about and respond to these issues, successfully and unsuccessfully, between the many different institutions it needs to operate.”

A native of Houston, Wilson is a double Longhorn, having earned a bachelor’s degree in history. He is a Strauss Center National Security Law Fellow and a member of The Review of Litigation, the Texas International Law Journal, and Texas Law Democrats.

Eleanor Withers headshot

Eleanor Withers ’24
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Washington, D.C.

For her internship, Withers worked in the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Division, an agency within the Office of the General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Her assignments included individually drafting sections of briefs that were filed in U.S. District Court, answering questions integral to the implementation of a new law known as the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, advising clients, and assisting litigators.

“My internship was full of great, challenging, and substantive work,” Withers says. “I was lucky to work for a client whose mission I am passionate about—eliminating disparities in health care quality and access. On top of that, I was thrown right into the thick of things, and I couldn’t have been more grateful for the challenge.”  Originally from the metro Detroit area, Withers earned bachelor’s degrees from the University of Michigan in public health and Spanish. She is the chief articles editor on the Review of Litigation and an editor on the Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights. Withers is a student attorney in the Domestic Violence Clinic and a Title IX advisor. She also was a lead student counselor and continues to do pro bono work for the Gender Affirmation Project.

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