An EPIC Responsibility
Emory Law’s student-run committee raises the profile of the legal profession.
At the intersection of a lawyer’s career interests and understanding of the law resides inherent responsibilities to his or her neighbor, community and society. One student-run organization at Emory Law provides deeper insight into this responsibility, connecting law students with the opportunities and resources to serve the public interest while preparing for their entry into the legal profession.
Since 1989, the Emory Public Interest Committee (better known by the acronym EPIC) has been promoting awareness and increased understanding of public interest law. The committee encourages and facilitates the employment of Emory Law students in public interest legal positions and acknowledges the professional responsibility of lawyers and law students to make legal services more accessible to those in need of adequate representation.
Throughout the year, EPIC hosts a series of events to raise awareness of public interest legal jobs that are available to law students. Students also play host and operate these events to raise funds for their fellow law students who want to pursue public interest internships. In 2012, EPIC raised more than $180,000 to help 36 EPIC grant recipients accept volunteer positions or clerkships in public interest organizations.
“EPIC is a source of great pride for the law school,” says Robert Ahdieh, Emory Law’s vice dean. “The law clinics, public interest field placements and internships, a pro bono program and the Loan Repayment Assistance Program are examples of Emory Law’s commitment to public interest law.”
EPIC’s largest fundraiser is the Inspiration Awards. Each year, EPIC recognizes three attorneys in the Atlanta area who have made significant contributions to public interest law. The 2013 honorees are Robert N. “Robbie” Dokson, shareholder at Ellis Funk PC; Jeffrey O. Bramlett, partner at Bondurant Mixson & Elmore LLP; and Tamara Serwer Caldas, deputy director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.
Dokson, who is the 2013 recipient of the Lifetime Commitment to Public Service award, says he is humbled to join the ranks of other public interest “heroes” who symbolize the work that EPIC supports. “Work in the public interest, in my opinion, ought to be a part of every lawyer’s DNA,” says Dokson. “Having a group like EPIC functioning so effectively at the law school level, and run almost totally by law students, plants that seed early in a young lawyer’s career in a way that hopefully will last a lifetime.”
Other EPIC-sponsored activities include used book sales, a lunch series that brings together public interest attorneys with law students in a casual lunch setting, fall service day and the annual EPIC conference.
Stephen B. Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, was keynote speaker for this year’s EPIC conference. Bright previously served for more than 20 years as executive director of the center, which represents people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails, and advocates for reforms of the criminal justice system in the southern United States. In addition to advocating for those disenfranchised by the legal system, Bright teaches at Yale Law School and previously taught as an adjunct professor at Emory Law. He received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Emory University in 2006.
EPIC conference organizers, Anam Ismail 14L and Steve Justus 14L, carefully developed and executed the conference theme, “And Justice for All? Criminal Justice in the South.” Ismail and Justus wanted to create a program that brought together the prosecution and the defense sides of the criminal justice system. This approach reflected the two students’ divergent tracks in public interest law: Ismail spent last summer working on criminal defense cases for the Georgia Innocence Project, and Justus interned for the Cobb County (Ga.) solicitor general’s office.
“There is all too often a dividing wall in the criminal justice system,” Ismail says. “While we recognize this wall, we hope this conference showed that this wall is not insurmountable.”
Ismail and Justus also wanted to shed light on a third side of the process: the perspective of the defendant. In that light, the conference structure allowed attendees to experience the process a criminal defendant goes through beginning with pretrial, advancing to trial and ending in post-conviction.
“The topics, the themes, the focus of the EPIC conference each year really highlight subjects that all of us should be engaged with,” says Ahdieh. Public interest law, he adds, is at the core of what it means to be a legal professional, whether an attorney is in private practice at a large law firm or working in the public defender’s office.
In his frank speech, Bright argued that society is less concerned with the criminal justice system because that system primarily addresses minorities and the poor.
“The criminal justice system is the part of American society that has been the least affected by the Civil Rights Movement,” said Bright, “and that is just a polite way of saying the criminal courts are the most racist institution in our society today.”
Lauren Simons 13L, president of the 2012–2013 EPIC Student Board, says Bright’s passion and convictions set a tone of candor for the conference. “It allowed us to have really honest conversations in an area that can be a little bit uncomfortable.” She also notes that having judges and sheriffs at the same event with criminal defense attorneys created a balanced conversation, with prosecutors and defense counsel contributing to the discourse.
Simons joined EPIC her first year at Emory Law because she knew she wanted to pursue a career in public interest law. Her involvement with EPIC connected her with spring break and summer internships at the Georgia Innocence Project and the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection, where she now works as a part-time employee while completing her education. One Emory Law graduate who benefited from EPIC’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program is Haley Schwartz 05L, who now serves on EPIC’s advisory board. Schwartz says she and the other alumni advisors are really there only to provide assistance and backup to EPIC’s student leaders.
“We marvel at these students,” Schwartz says. “Not only are they keenly aware of the law, but they bring such focus and passion to educating their fellow students and the community about public interest law.”