Justice Center: 20 Years of Impact 

Eden Harrington, Nicole Simmons, and Mary Crouter
Eden Harrington, Nicole Simmons, and Mary Crouter standing by the portrait of Judge William Wayne Justice

A staff attorney with The Bronx Defenders’ criminal defense practice in New York City, Marissa Balonon-Rosen ’19 credits her time at the law school’s William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law in part to her landing a job in the public sector.

“The Justice Center was extremely influential in putting me on my career path,” says Balonon-Rosen. “The supportive faculty and practitioners who brought in inspiring speakers, its events, and the connections the center forged with other public interest students all really helped show me that a career in public interest was not only possible, but also was an incredibly rewarding career decision.”

Balonon-Rosen is among the thousands of current and former students who’ve benefitted from the Justice Center over the years, and her work embodies the center’s founding purpose. This year, the Justice Center celebrates its 20th anniversary as it embarks on its first ever change in leadership.

Judge William Wayne Justice

Over the last two decades, the center, named after Texas Judge William Wayne Justice, has supported students interested in pursuing a career in public service law with lectures, scholarships, networking, and opportunities through the center’s pro bono program, one of the largest in the country, which is open to all Texas Law students who want to strengthen their skills.

Many students come to law school hoping to work in the public interest but believing pro bono work or volunteering are their only options. The Justice Center makes it clear that public interest lawyering is a viable choice. And it has built a strong alumni network, which remains engaged with current students.

The center has educated students, faculty, and attorneys about public interest legal issues while delivering critical legal services to underserved populations—veterans, homeowners, hurricane victims, and immigrant detainees—increasing access to justice across the state of Texas.

“The center has helped the law school develop a very strong and robust public interest community,” says Mary Crouter, the center’s former assistant director. “On a high level, this kind of work also helps to move systems in the right direction, and Texas is a state that needs really good lawyers to represent people who otherwise would not be represented.”

As the center begins a new chapter, Nicole Simmons ’07—who took on the director role and joined the clinical faculty in 2023—looks forward to expanding its reach and increasing financial accessibility for students interested in public interest law. Professor Simmons formerly worked as a public interest and public defense career counselor at Texas Law.

“We are connecting with stakeholders and exploring opportunities for growth and innovation,” Simmons says. “Already, I’ve been so inspired by our alums and students.” Simmons expects to roll out a new strategic plan for the Justice Center in summer 2024.

Home for Justice

The center got its start in the early 2000s after a group of Judge Justice’s former clerks approached Texas Law with the idea of creating a public interest center on campus to honor the judge and his work.

The law school was very receptive. “We thought, ‘What a wonderful idea, to create an endowment and center that would have an enduring life,’” says Associate Dean for Experiential Education Eden Harrington, who joined the law school in 2000 overseeing public interest programs before becoming the center’s founding director.

The Athens, Texas-born William Wayne Justice was appointed to the bench by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. During his 41-year career, Judge Justice handed down a number of landmark civil rights decisions, including ones addressing racial discrimination in schools, prison conditions, and the education of children of undocumented immigrants.

According to a Texas Monthly article, “Justice was physically a small man, but morally he was huge. He was … not afraid to let politics or even precedent get in the way of something he thought was fair—like forcing schools to integrate and forcing prisons to be more humane.” A former Texas lieutenant governor noted that “Judge Justice dragged Texas into the 20th century, God bless him.”

Texas Law alumni were essential in getting the center off the ground. Bill Whitehurst ’70, senior counsel at National Trial Law, and Richard Mithoff ’71, trial lawyer at Mithoff Law and a former Judge Justice clerk, co-chaired the fundraising committee for the center, which formally opened in 2004. “Our goal was to move the needle so that Texas was perceived as a law school that was great for public interest students, one that supported and attracted them,” Crouter says. “We had to figure out how to do that from scratch.”

Our goal was to move the needle so that Texas was perceived as a law school that was great for public interest students, one that supported and attracted them.

Mary Crouter

(Crouter had a Judge Justice connection, too. Her husband, David Weiser, was a clerk for Judge Justice, who officiated their wedding.)

For Harrington, it was about “elevating the path of public service both for students committed to it and in the eyes of other students across the law school.” Since the center opened, it has steadily expanded its programming and scope. “It’s really become the go-to resource for students exploring public interest paths,” she says.

The center has sponsored lectures by renowned public service attorneys, hosted conferences, and created essential scholarships and fellowships for students interested in pursuing public service law.

Its Public Service Scholarship—partial tuition scholarships for 2Ls and 3Ls—has been awarded to 92 students since 2005, and dozens more students have benefited from its Equal Justice and G. Rollie White Public Service Scholarships.

Beginning in 2022, the law school has guaranteed funding for all students working in unpaid or low-paying summer positions with nonprofit, government, and legislative offices through the Summer Public Service Program (SPSP), which the Justice Center administers. To date, 338 students have participated in the SPSP.

Texas Law is among a small number of public schools that provide such support. “The summer program is a huge commitment to service and our student body,” Simmons says.

To support the center’s multiple programs, over the years, its staff has grown to include five attorneys, two program coordinators, and numerous upper-level students. Perhaps one of the center’s most impressive endeavors is the Richard and Ginni Mithoff Pro Bono Program, which is housed inside the Justice Center and open to all Texas Law students.

A Helping Hand

The Justice Center team knew a comprehensive pro bono program was an essential addition. The Mithoff Pro Bono Program was made possible in 2009 by a $2 million endowment gift from Texas Law alum Mithoff and his wife, Ginni.

The program is dedicated to promoting a culture of pro bono service in all Texas Law students and providing them opportunities to build their professional skills, and it has provided free legal services to thousands of people in Austin. Through projects including parole packet representation, a Title IX advisor program, and helping people with wills, students complete critical pro bono work under the guidance of supervising attorneys.

Opportunities—which range from providing just a few hours to 40 or 50 hours per project each year—are built to meet students where they are academically and give them exposure to various types of law and experience working directly with people with legal needs. Since 2010, 182 students have received Mithoff Pro Bono Scholarships to help support the work. The scholars take on a leadership role in the program, helping to train and manage student teams.

“The program is really an engine making sure that all law students have the opportunity to do pro bono while they’re in school and develop a lifelong commitment to pro bono,” Crouter says.

Andrea Marsh was appointed the Mithoff Program’s director and a lecturer in the summer of 2014, coming to the role from the nonprofit legal world. “I really wanted to help students to think creatively and to figure out how to find and build career paths in a field that didn’t necessarily have an as-well-established career path ladder,” she says.

I really wanted to help students to think creatively and to figure out how to find and build career paths in a field that didn’t necessarily have an as-well-established career path ladder.”

Andrea Marsh

Texas Law students had previously engaged in pro bono work supported by an endowment in honor of Harry Reasoner ’62. The Mithoff Program formalized and streamlined efforts by building a program in-house. It expanded opportunities and opened them up to a much larger swath of students. “And, we’ve constantly been adding more projects,” Marsh says. “It’s been consistent growth over the years.”

The Justice Center and the Mithoff Program have vastly increased all Texas Law students’ participation in uncompensated service for the public good. Pro bono participation at graduation rose to 79% for the class of 2023 from 53% in 2016. In 2023, students served 357 individuals through 11,064 hours of pro bono work.

“Pro bono work gives students an easy way to immediately engage in practical work,” Marsh says. “At this point, the program is really a legal services provider in the Austin community. We fill gaps in the services offered by full-time legal aid nonprofits.”

Students, Marsh adds, often have many thoughts about local needs and issues they want to address. The pro bono program connects them with the tools and supervision they need to transform an idea into a project that delivers services. “We are constantly developing new pro bono projects based on student interest and on gaps we’re seeing in the community,” Marsh says.

Public Interest Experience

Current law students like Araceli Garcia ’24 are grateful for the opportunities the center is giving them. She received an Equal Justice Scholarship, and she’s served as a pro bono scholar with the Pro Bono Program. Garcia is also a member of the Justice Center student advisory board.

“The purpose of the student advisory board is really to keep a pulse on what’s going in the public interest student community,” she says. Students join working groups based on their interest. During Garcia’s first year, she joined a group of women of color.

From conversations that took place in that group, Garcia helped to start a center-backed initiative supporting public interest law students whose lived experiences intersect with the legal systems they seek to challenge in their careers. The center agreed to hire a student RA to work on the initiative. Garcia applied and got the role.

“A lot of times, clients remind me of family members,” Garcia says. “I, and other students, we want to be able to think through and to talk about all of the different ways in which these feelings and thoughts come up.”

Garcia organized a series of lunches for people participating in the initiative, called Empowered for Public Interest, and a mentorship and networking dinner for students and attorneys was well received. “The feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” she says.

“The skill I learned from this initiative on building authentic networks was just as important as the very tangible skills of being an avid pro bono participant,” she says. “These experiences have been invaluable. The Justice Center is one of the few places at the law school where you can really get hands-on experience working with clients.”

After graduation, Garcia will take lessons she’s learned to a job in the public sector. She’ll join the Atascosa County’s regional defender’s office in South Texas where she hopes to work with immigrants entangled in the legal system.

For student Justin Atkinson ’24, the center has helped to nurture his interest in civil rights litigation, housing law, and the criminal legal system’s response to gender-based violence.

Early in his 1L year, Atkinson applied to the Pro Bono Program’s Title IX project. He was accepted and chosen as team lead. During Atkinson’s first semester he represented his initial service recipient in a sexual assault allegation case. As a 1L, he helped a total of six recipients, and more than 20 recipients in his 2L year. He’s on track to work with more than two dozen inidividuals this academic year.

“Pro bono provides help to our community, but it also provides a kind of expertise for law students that we might not otherwise get,” Atkinson says. “I came to law school to better understand how institutions try to keep people safe from harm, and without the Title IX pro bono project I wouldn’t have seen what did or didn’t work in dozens of cases.” 

Pro bono provides help to our community, but it also provides a kind of expertise for law students that we might not otherwise get.

Justin Atkinson ’24

Atkinson is also on the Justice Center student advisory board and serves as a pro bono scholar. As a go-between serving law student volunteers and attorneys, he’s gained valuable leadership skills and case management experience. He will lend that capability to a career in housing advocacy after graduation this year. He’ll also continue to stay in touch with the public interest connections he’s built at the center.

“There’s a whole apparatus the Justice Center provides that really facilitates friendships with people with similar professional goals,” Atkinson says.

Career Launch Pad

Two women sit side by side on a couch, a baby sitting between them.
Parisa Fatehi-Weeks ’07 in a photo from 2006 with her Immigration Clinic client Maria, and Maria’s daughter.

Alumni say the center has been an invaluable part of their Texas Law experience—and beyond. That’s true for Adjunct Professor Parisa Fatehi-Weeks ’07, who’s now senior director of environmental, social, governance programs and partnerships at job site Indeed.

“The law school experience is much richer, and you can be much more successful, if you go through it with a group of people sharing your expertise, tips, news, and opinions,” says Fatehi-Weeks.

On her refrigerator, Fatehi-Weeks keeps a photo of herself and an immigrant service recipient she helped during law school. Her first job after graduation was as a law clerk for a U.S. District Court judge in Houston, a role she applied for after encouragement from Justice Center staff.

In her current position at Indeed, Fatehi-Weeks uses lessons learned at Texas Law and the Justice Center to help job seekers who face employment barriers including immigrants, refugees, and people who were previously incarcerated.

Balonon-Rosen landed her first job with the New Hampshire public defender partially thanks to assistance from the center, too. In the law school’s career services office, Mary Murphy ’11 is the counselor who specializes in public interest and public defense careers. Murphy often holds workshops on preparing public defense job application materials and offers mock interviews.

Marissa Balanon-Rosen standing in the offices of Bronx Defenders
Marissa Balonon-Rosen ’19 in the offices of The Bronx Defenders.

As a law student, Murphy herself benefited from a postgraduate fellowship program she heard about through the Justice Center. “The center creates this very clear pathway into a career in public interest and a community where students get to know each other and work together so they have support,” Murphy says.

The Justice Center has also helped to grow the school’s public interest professionals. When Murphy graduated, she was one of 20 students out of a class of 382 to pursue a career in public interest law. The class of 2022 had 30 out of a class of 280.

Alumni can benefit as well from the center’s public interest postgraduate fellowships, the first of which was awarded in 2005. They can also partake in the Loan Repayment Assistance Program, which has helped 145 graduates with their debt since its inception in 2009. (The LRAP was initially started and administered by the Justice Center and is now overseen by the financial aid office.) Through the center’s website, graduates can continue to make and maintain important connections in the public interest law space.

“It’s not just a community for three years of law school and that’s it,” Simmons says. “It’s a community that reaches back through time.”

Looking to the Future

Portrait of Nicole Simmons ’07
Nicole Simmons ’07, former director of Pipeline Outreach and Development, was named director of the William Wayne Justice Center in 2023.

Simmons started as center director in July 2023, leaving her prior position as the inaugural director of the law school’s Pipeline Program, which promotes access to legal education for students who are first generation or low income. She’s still learning and fine-tuning priorities and plans for the Justice Center, but several key areas are starting to stand out.

Simmons wants to better show students early on in law school that, if they do want to pursue a career in public interest or public service law, there are ways to make it work financially—they don’t have to sink deep into debt post-graduation.

“Many students come in wanting to do public service,” Simmons says. “But they look at the difference in salary between someone working at a big international law firm versus someone working at a nonprofit. Some students say, ‘I just can’t do it.’”

Simmons hopes to offer additional incoming scholarships for public interest students. “I’m thinking about how we can expand our scholarship program and make law school more accessible for public interest students,” she says.

She also wants to build an even more active, engaged, and dynamic public interest alumni network—both online and off—forging connections between law school alumni, students, faculty, and staff. “I’m excited to work on that with the team,” says Simmons.

One approach could take the form of an annual gathering for both alumni and current students in a celebration of public interest, she says. Simmons also wants to be more intentional about the speakers the center brings in to attract even more excitement from students across the entire law school, including those who don’t necessarily plan to pursue public interest law.

“What I really want is for every student who comes through Texas Law to have an encounter with the Justice Center and its programming that inspires them to use their knowledge and skills to advance equal justice as law students and graduates,” she says. “That’s the goal.”

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