Summer Public Interest Fellow Laila Rizk ‘21 Helps Low-Income New Yorkers Get a Fresh Financial Start

Laila Rizik '21L
July 6, 2020

Even as shelter in place orders lift and businesses re-open, New York City is reeling from the impact of COVID-19. Along with illness and death, the virus has brought widespread job loss and financial insecurity. This economic crisis—which some experts say is second only to the Great Depression—is taking an outsized toll on New Yorkers who were already marginalized and struggling before the pandemic hit.

Laila Rizk understands how financial distress can upend people’s lives. For the better part of the past year, she has worked as a legal intern for the NYC Bankruptcy Assistance Project (NYC BAP) at Legal Services NYC, the largest U.S. organization devoted exclusively to providing free civil legal services to low-income people.

At NYC BAP, Rizk and her colleagues prepare and file Chapter 7 bankruptcy petitions. Their clients then represent themselves as their non-protected assets are liquidated and distributed to creditors. Rizk and her fellow NYC BAP advocates also represent debtors in select Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases, which involve court-approved debt repayment plans.

“I started at NYC BAP in Fall 2019 as a student in the Law School’s year-long Bankruptcy Advocacy Clinic,” says Rizk. “I’m now continuing my work there, remotely, as a St. John’s Law Summer Public Interest Fellow. My clients have suffered from illness, accidents, work discrimination, disability, and death of caretakers. COVID-19 has only made their needs greater, with skyrocketing unemployment, major food insecurity, and lack of access to technology, among other obstacles. I feel empathy and deep compassion for them—so much so that it keeps me up at night. That's what motivates me to produce my best work product and to be a zealous advocate for my clients.”

Rizk also draws her empathy and compassion from her own life experience. "I’m one of five children and my father is an Egyptian immigrant," she shares. “I spent my life watching my parents work tirelessly to make ends meet and give us the best life they could. I see these same qualities in my clients: hard working, caring, dedicated, and honest. No one should have to experience the struggle and hardship that my clients experience every day. Bankruptcy is a tool to give them a fresh financial start. And with that fresh start, positive change is possible.”

As she devotes herself to being an agent of that positive change, Rizk is grateful for the financial support she receives from St. John’s Law. “Like many of my peers, COVID-19 affected my family and me. In addition to my clinical work, I worked part-time jobs that I lost when the economy shut down. It was hard to lose those sources of income. But, as I aim to do for my NYC BAP clients, the Summer Public Interest Fellowship has lifted enough of the financial burden off my shoulders that I can keep doing the work I’m passionate about.” 

Funding for Summer Public Interest Fellowships comes primarily from the Law School’s annual Public Interest Auction, which is run by the Public Interest Center and its affiliated Public Interest Law Student Association.

This year’s Auction took place entirely online due to the pandemic. With its success, the Law School announced its 2020 Summer Public Interest Fellows, as well as the recipients of the 2020 New York Council of Defense Lawyers Sam Dawson Summer Fellowship (Dallas Neely '21, Brooklyn Defender Services) and Catalyst Public Service Fellowships (Jared Brady '22, Suffolk DA; Colin McKillop '22, NYS Housing Finance Agency; Olivia Piluso '22 , Hon. Deborah A. Kaplan; William Turnbull '22, Brooklyn DA; Bailey Waltman '22, Westchester DA; and Stefanie Williams '22, Hon. Deborah A. Kaplan).

In addition to Laila Rizk, the Law School’s 2020 Summer Public Interest Fellows are:

  • Damyre Benjamin '21 (Brooklyn DA)
  • Abigail Bittel '21 (A Better Balance)
  • Daniel Bornstein '21 (Crag Law Center)
  • Skye Boutte '22 (NYC Law Department)
  • Melissa Carroll '21 (Legal Aid Society)
  • Brittany Clark '22 (Legal Services NYC)
  • Matthew Cleaver '21 (Brooklyn Defender Services)
  • Joanne Corrielus '21 (NYC Law Department)
  • Chelsea Donohue '22 (Catholic Migration Services)
  • Sierra Fischer '21 (NYC Law Department)
  • Nicole Hanna '21 (NYC Department of Investigation)
  • Jon Hedges '21 (Legal Aid Society)
  • Katie Helde '21 (Legal Aid Society)
  • Moana Jaouad '22 (International Rescue Service)
  • Lucia Kello '22 (Brooklyn Defender Services)
  • Tatehona Kelly '22 (Advocates for Children of New York)
  • Santina Lopez '22 (City Bar Justice Center)
  • Colin Marinovich '21 (Suffolk DA)
  • Valerie McGovern '21 (Legal Aid Society)
  • Dariana Reid '22 (Center for Popular Democracy)
  • Alessia Riccio '22 (The Exoneration Initiative)
  • Ashley Rivera '22 (NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault)
  • Kamila Sanchez Valez '22 (The Door)
  • Camille Sanchez '22 (Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp)
  • Sadia Shamid '21 (Advocates for Justice)
  • Bridget Sheerin '21 (NYC Law Department)
  • Zachary Wagman '21 (NYC Law Department)
  • Ashley Williams '21 (NYC Law Department)
  • Abigail Ziegler '22 (Nassau County Bar Association)

These 37 fellowships provide over $148K in summer employment funding for deserving St. John’s Law students.

To support the Public Interest Center, Summer Public Interest Fellowships, and other public interest programs and initiatives at St. John’s Law, please visit the online giving page and select “Centers” and then “Public Interest Center” from the drop menus under “Select a Designation.”