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Summer jobs: Towns gets chance to give back

In part, Kelly Towns wanted to work with the Community Justice Project (CJP) because it was based in her hometown of Pittsburgh. More importantly, she wanted to “give back” to her community. “In any city you can see there are people who need an advocate,” says Towns. “They are dealing with issues and they don’t really know where to turn; even if the situation doesn’t rise to the level of a court case.”  

Towns joined CJP, a public interest law firm that was established in 1996, because of the Interest on Lawyers Trust Fund Accounts (IOLTA) fellowship she received to cover her summer employment. “It gave me the opportunity to work for a nonprofit but still get paid.”
CJP mostly handles cases that cannot be handled by Neighborhood Legal Services and other regional legal services programs—class actions for example. “Our cases will in some way affect large groups of people or deal with novel legal issues,” said Maggie Schuetz, a staff attorney at CJP. She added that referrals often come when Legal Services attorneys see the same thing happening over and over and “we work to fix the problem systemically.” 

Research, writing, and advocating for clients

Towns’ work has mostly involved doing research and writing for a diverse number of cases involving consumer protection, prisoner rights, and tax law. But in addition, she has done a client interview and worked on a case that went to trial almost as soon as she began her internship. “It was really difficult because you just jump in without knowing all the facts of the case, and you’re really just focused on one issue that needs to be researched. But it’s also fun to be a part of something that is so important.”
With a full-time staff of only six attorneys to cover most of Pennsylvania, Schuetz said interns are an invaluable resource. “Important issues come up throughout the year that we just don’t have time to research. So they are on the back burner until we can get them moving when we have interns.”
After joining CJP, Towns was surprised by the size of the Hispanic population in Southwestern Pennsylvania, which has surged by nearly 50 percent in the last decade. “The language barrier is huge; they don’t know what to do, where to turn. We’re their last resort.”
Schuetz believes that the larger number of cases involving Hispanics have come about not solely because of the increase in the size of the population, but because the CJP, through its Hispanic Outreach Project has “given the community more of a voice.”
According to Towns, “The most rewarding aspect of my experience has been working for clients. They are so appreciative of the work you’ve done for them. Even the little bit of research I may have done. They are so grateful that you are advocating for them.”
“The work is very hard; you have to be very committed,” said Schuetz. She added that to work as a lawyer at a firm like CJP, you have to be self-motivated. “You don’t get much hand-holding. It’s pretty much, here’s your office, file some cases. Clinic work in law school really helps.”
For Towns, the experience has affirmed her belief in the need for public interest law. “Even if I don’t end up getting a job in the field,” she said, “I hope I will always find a way to continue to do this type of work, even as a volunteer.”


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