Working as a high school special education teacher, Ally Rivard would attend meetings between parents and school officials charged with allocating student services. “A lot of times, the parents didn’t know their options, and couldn’t advocate effectively for their child,” Rivard recalls. “I’d step in and do my best to help them. Advocating for educational services is a lot like advocating for legal rights. You have to navigate an intricate system of rules and regulations, and most people simply can’t do that on their own.”
Rivard saw the difference it made for her students and their families to have someone in their corner, and she carried that insight with her as she started her legal studies at St. John’s Law. “I was drawn to the work of the Law School’s Public Interest Center right away, and became my 1L section’s representative” she says. “The Center offers so many opportunities to help underserved and marginalized individuals and communities, so getting involved was a natural extension of my work as a special educator.”
Later that year, Rivard participated in the Center’s annual spring break service trip. It was a formative experience. “I volunteered for a week at Lone Star Legal Aid in Houston,” she explains. “I worked directly with clients on immigration and domestic violence matters. It was amazing to see firsthand how much one organization can help so many people. I'd gone from sitting in a classroom to getting real world, hands on legal experience. It confirmed that there are countless ways, big and small, for lawyers to do good and make a difference.”
Along with other students affiliated with the Public Interest Center, Rivard has supported its signature event, the annual Public Interest Auction, which raises significant funds to support summer public interest fellowships, service trips, and other public service activities at the Law School. She was twice the beneficiary of the event’s fundraising success, receiving a fellowship to work at Queens Legal Services the summer after her 1L year and another to work at the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office this summer.
Rivard has also benefitted from participating in events hosted and co-sponsored by the Center. In addition to organizing another successful Public Interest Auction and spring break service trips to assist Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in New Orleans and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in San Antonio, the Center had a full slate of offerings for 2018-19. A Public Defender Panel brought St. John’s Law alumni back to campus to discuss their careers and to network with students. Women on the Bench, organized by the Women’s Law Society, featured a panel of female judges who shared highlights along their path to the profession, including challenges and triumphs.
During the American Bar Association’s annual Pro Bono Week, which focused on the legal needs of disaster survivors, the Center presented a Disaster Resiliency Panel featuring Law School alumni and other experts in the field. And, along with the Ron Brown Center for Civil Rights, the Center hosted a discussion with local Native American tribal leaders on the Law’s Impact on the Independence and Culture of Native American Nations.
Rivard and all the students and faculty involved with the Public Interest Center—including co-directors Ann L. Goldweber and Gina M. Calabrese—marked another 2018-19 milestone when Center Executive Board member Allison Cabibbo ’19 earned an Equal Justice Works Regional Public Interest Award for her outstanding commitment to public interest. The award recognizes students who provide outstanding service through law clinics, volunteer work, internships, extracurricular projects, and more. Cabibbo was the sole winner for the Northeast region, which includes some of the most competitive law schools in the country, and was one of just eight students across the country to receive the honor.
Going into her final year at St. John’s, Rivard looks forward to supporting the Public Interest Center as its student executive director. “The Center has helped me find my calling in the law,” she shares. “Whether I end up working in private practice or public service, I’m committed to helping people navigate the complex legal system, so they can feel hopeful again and strive for right-fit solutions instead of seeing their legal issues as insurmountable obstacles.”Sidebar
With the success of this year’s Public Interest Auction, the Law School recently announced its 2019 Summer Public Interest Fellows, as well as the recipients of the 2019 New York Council of Defense Lawyers Sam Dawson Summer Fellowship (Jennifer Bacon ‘20, Brooklyn Defender Services) and Catalyst Public Service Fellowships (Sierra Fischer '21, Westchester DA; Jennifer Hopkins '21, Hon. Alan Scheinkman; Dilara Islam ‘21, Hon. Deborah Kaplan; and Jeelesa Omala ’21, Office of Court Administration).
The Law School’s 2019 Summer Public Interest Fellows are:
The record-breaking 34 fellowships will provide over $167K in summer employment funding for these deserving St. John’s Law students. To support the Public Interest Center and its programs and initiatives, please visit our online giving page and select “Centers” and then “Public Interest Center” from the drop menus under “Select a Designation.”