Third annual Public Interest Retreat proves rewarding for students, faculty

The third annual Wake Forest University School of Law Public Interest Retreat was coined a success by students and faculty alike.

“I am very pleased with the turnout and to see the level of interest grow again this year,” said Amanda Oliver, a third-year student and public interest retreat director, of the March 2 event.

“My only complaint about the day is that we didn’t have more time,” added Beth Hopkins, Wake Forest School of Law director of outreach. “I wanted to hear more from all of our panelists, especially Mr. (Francisco) Negron.”

Oliver said Negron, associate executive director and general counsel to the National School Board Association, kicked off the day with a discussion about education law and its impact on a variety of national issues. He spoke about his passion for non-profit work and the satisfaction he receives from helping students and educators all across the country. He also discussed the value of working in the public interest arena and the opportunities it provides aspiring lawyers.

“Often times you fall into a career in public interest law,” Negron told the room of students, faculty and practicing attorneys. “A vast majority of school lawyers also have their own law firms and offer a variety of services. Very rarely are school attorneys in-house counsel, which is why I encourage everyone to ask a firm about their education law component if this something they want to pursue.”

Negron also discussed the value of being passionate about whatever arena of public interest law someone wants to pursue, and that same spirit carried over into the four breakout sessions.

Representatives from various non-profit agencies and state and federal governmental agencies discussed the ability to handle a large case load and the skill sets that are most important for success. Many said that a great attorney needs to be able to think on their feet, listen to their clients, and be mindful of the relationships they build with the other attorneys, judges and court staff. They said that will help build a level of trust and set them apart from the rest.

“The biggest complaint I hear from my clients is that nobody will listen to them,” said Greg Davis, senior litigator for the Federal Public Defender’s Office. “You have to have the ability to be patient and listen to what they have to say because you never know when that will save your client time in jail.”

The panelists also urged those in attendance to take full advantage of their summers to gain valuable experience. David A. Singleton, executive director for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, said most companies want to see that someone has real-world experience in addition to the classroom knowledge. He strongly urged students to get involved with the clinics that are offered and not be afraid to pursue an opportunity, even if it is not their first choice.

“One of the best things you can do is determine your passion and follow that route,” said Iris Sunshine, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Central, N.C. “Internships are important, even if they don’t pay, because they give you the opportunity to gain valuable experience and network with alumni in those fields.”

Brittany Speas (’12) is someone who has benefited from those experiences. She said she attended law school with the primary purpose of helping those who don’t necessarily have access to many resources. She said she has interned for the Public Defender’s Office and Legal Aid so she understands both the criminal and civil proceedings. Speas said she hopes this will help her land a job upon graduation in May.

“I can see a lot of people who are in need, and I want the opportunity to be their voice,” said Speas, who is from Winston-Salem. “I’ve always enjoyed community service, and I see this as my opportunity to give back.”

Speas said this was the first year she has been able to attend the Public Interest Retreat, and she is grateful she had one last opportunity to get involved.

“This retreat has been wonderful,” Speas said. “It provides those of us who are interested in public interest law the chance to familiarize ourselves with the opportunities that are available and to network with those who are out there doing it every day. I am glad I was finally able to attend this year.”

 This year’s panelists included:

  • Paul Meyer, Chief Legislative Counsel, N.C. League of Municipalities
  • Rufus Allen, Assistant Attorney General with the Environmental Division of the N.C. Department of Justice
  • Joal Broun, Lobbying Compliance Division Director, N.C. Department of the Secretary of State
  • Ann Wall, General Counsel, N.C.  Secretary of State
  • Aisha Rahman, Executive Director, KARAMAH (Muslim Women Human Rights Organization)
  • Mike Selmi, Civil Rights litigator
  • David A. Singleton, Executive Director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center
  • Bert Gall, Senior Attorney, Institute for Justice
  • Susan Noe, Attorney, Native American Rights Fund
  • Jasper Brown, Field Attorney, National Labor Relations Board
  • Erin Comerford, AUSA
  • Greg Davis, Federal PD
  • Rebecca Wood,  Assistant Public Defender, Forsyth County PD’s office
  • David Sipprell, Violent Crimes Prosecutor, General Felonies Supervisor, Forsyth County DA’s Office
  • Gene Fishel, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Virginia’s Attorney General’s Office