Public Interest Center Director Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz Finds Fulfillment Helping St. John’s Law Students Serve the Greater Good

St. John's Law Public Interest Center Director Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz.

Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz

April 10, 2024

On an early April evening, the Law School cafeteria is buzzing with activity as students, alumni, and faculty raise numbered paddles and, bid by bid, vie to win items on the block at the annual Public Interest Auction. Looking on from the sidelines, clipboard in hand, is Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz, who helps students organize this major fundraiser as director of the Public Interest Center at St. John’s Law.

It's a fitting administrative leadership role for Ortiz-Ortiz, who started at St. John’s last fall. For 10 years, animating the Vincentian mission of serving the greater good, the Public Interest Center has offered students a range of opportunities to explore and engage in public interest and pro bono work. That work, Ortiz-Ortiz believes, is central to a lawyer’s professional and ethical duty to ensure that the justice system is fair and equitable for all individuals.

She has acted on that belief throughout her legal career. In law school, she provided free legal representation and employment discrimination litigation on behalf of low-income LGBTQ+ clients in Puerto Rico. Soon after earning her law degree, in the wake of devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and María, Ortiz-Ortiz immersed herself in disaster response and recovery efforts. 

“When you see the impact major disasters have on communities where you grew up, you can’t help but feel a sense of responsibility to do something,” she says. “After seeing the legal issues that disaster survivors navigate, I felt an urge to help.” That calling took Ortiz-Ortiz to New York, where she was a Disaster Response Legal Fellow at Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit focused on expanding access to legal aid and pro bono through technology solutions and community partnerships. Over the next six years, she served the organization in different roles.


“The one constant through my positions at Pro Bono Net was the reminder that many legal procedures are complicated and inaccessible, and that lawyers alone can’t address the justice gap—that divide between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to meet those needs,” Ortiz-Ortiz shares. “I primarily worked with civil legal aid attorneys, and we would think about innovative and creative ways to complement traditional legal services, whether that was building remote pro bono programs or problem-solving legal issues in a community by working directly with community organizers.”


In her day job and as a volunteer with the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Disaster Legal Services Program, Ortiz-Ortiz saw firsthand the barriers people can face when seeking legal assistance. “Studies show that many people believe that lawyers can’t help them with their legal problem, have a negative perception of our legal system, and don’t know if they can afford legal representation,” she explains. “So, when I think about public interest, I think about the value of a lawyer’s expertise, but also about how we might develop the next generation of lawyers to think outside the box and find ways we can work with other professionals and support people who are not always resorting to lawyers to solve their legal problems.”

With that experience and insight, Ortiz-Ortiz came to St. John’s Law to work directly with students who will be the next generation changemakers in, and beyond, the legal profession. “I’m thrilled to be here,” she says. “St. John's Law struck me as a space with a strong focus on community, so it was exciting to think about building community with students and alumni doing public interest work. Also, as a Latina, I know the value of representation in the legal profession and in public interest. I’m excited to be part of a law school that attracts a diverse group of students and fosters an inclusive environment.” 


As she supports the work of the Public Interest Center and the students who benefit from its programs and initiatives, Ortiz-Ortiz also models volunteer service to the community. She is co-director of the ABA Disaster Legal Services Program and contributes to various public interest committees and efforts, including the New York City Bar Pro Bono & Legal Services Committee and the New York State Bar Association Environmental Justice Committee. Her selfless service as an attorney has earned Ortiz-Ortiz recognition as one of the ABA's Top 40 Young Lawyers On the Rise.


Now, as she completes her first academic year at St. John’s Law, she looks forward to the work ahead. “I'm already thinking about a three-year roadmap,” she says. “We want to grow our partnerships with public interest organizations in New York. Increasing our fundraising efforts for the Public Interest Auction is important, too, to fund our Summer Public Interest Fellowship Program. I’m also excited about further engaging our alumni network, especially those working in public interest, to explore ways we can work together. Most of all, though, I want to raise awareness about the need for innovative public interest lawyers and pro bono, and the impact this type of advocacy and work can have on our communities. This work is so fulfilling, and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds!”