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If it offends your sense of justice, there is a fellowship

At a Public Interest reception on April 14, 2008, featured speaker Professor Michael Wishnie ’93 shared with faculty, staff, and students some thoughts on public service and the Law School’s newly-announced plan to expand its public interest program and increase financial support for graduates.

Professor Wishnie was an apt choice to speak on the topic. He co-teaches the Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic (WIRAC), as well as the Balancing Civil Liberties and National Security after September 11 Clinic (9-11 Clinic). He joined Yale Law School as a clinical professor of law in 2006 after having spent eight years as a professor of clinical law at the NYU School of Law. He also clerked for Judge H. Lee Sarokin and Justices Harry Blackmun and Stephen Breyer between stints as a Skadden Fellow with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project (ACLU IRP) and a staff attorney at the Brooklyn Neighborhood Office of the Legal Aid Society.

“Yale’s loan forgiveness program, the most generous in the country, and its strong clinical offerings, unique in beginning in the middle of one’s first year, were significant factors in my own choice to attend the Law School nearly twenty years ago,” Professor Wishnie told the students. “Over the years, I have taken advantage of nearly every public interest program Yale provides, and I urge you to do the same.”

As a student, Professor Wishnie spent both of his law school summers on a Summer Public Interest Fellowship (SPIF), the first at Chinese Staff & Workers Association in New York City’s Chinatown, and the second, at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

“I was maxed out on financial aid,” he said. “SPIF enabled me to pursue full-time public interest work, sparked lifetime commitments to labor and immigrant rights, and allowed me to develop professional relationships that have continued to enrich my work to this day.” 

He also participated in numerous clinical courses, including the Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic and three clinics in the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization.

“Today I am wearing a simple necklace, given to me more than fifteen years ago by one of my clinic clients, a Haitian refugee who was detained at Guantanamo Bay because he was HIV positive,” said Professor Wishnie. “I was a student in the Lowenstein Clinic, and I still remember those experiences vividly.”

Professor Wishnie described how as a 2L, he had traveled to Guantanamo to meet with his clients for the first time, under a court order that allowed students and lawyers on the base for only 36 hours. In several instances, he was obligated to tell the refugee in their first conversation that medical records indicated the man had HIV. Eventually, litigation led by Dean Harold Koh and the Lowenstein Clinic succeeded in closing the world’s first HIV camp.

Building on his clinical work and his SPIF summers, Professor Wishnie returned to the ACLU IRP as a Skadden Fellow, concentrating on the representation of low-wage immigrant workers, including workers from Chinese Staff, and deepening his engagement with labor, employment, and immigration law. “I was fortunate to receive the Skadden Fellowship,” said Professor Wishnie, “But in those years I was also married, with one child and before long another on the way. If not for COAP, I would not have been able to afford to pursue this public interest work.”

Much of Professor Wishnie’s scholarship and legal advocacy since entering clinical teaching remains shaped by his work in Yale’s clinics and his SPIF summers. Today, WIRAC students are cooperating with Chinese Staff to handle two federal wage-and-hour lawsuits for Chinese restaurant workers in Connecticut, and 9-11 Clinic students are co-counseling national litigation on behalf of a wrongfully-detained material witness with the ACLU IRP.

“You are all adults,” Professor Wishnie said at the reception, “and you will choose your own path. But in my career, nothing has been more rewarding, or enjoyable, than fighting for clients whose cause I believe in. Find good colleagues, good people with whom you like working hard, and that comradeship will sustain you as it has me.”

Professor Wishnie also urged students to take advantage of the new public interest fellowships announced by Dean Koh. “When I was a student, my clinical professors often said, ‘If it offends your sense of justice, there is a cause of action.’ But today, at Yale Law School, we can now declare, ‘If it offends your sense of justice, there is a fellowship.’”