University of Virginia Law School student Andrew Chen has been awarded a prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship that will allow him to provide legal aid to homeless youths in Los Angeles.
After he graduates, Chen will use his two-year fellowship to start a legal clinic in coordination with the Public Counsel Law Center, the largest pro bono–exclusive firm in the United States; Safe Place For Youth, a drop-in day shelter for homeless youth in the Venice neighborhood; and the Los Angeles Coalition to End Youth Homelessness, a conglomerate of legal aid and social work organizations.
The clinic will assist Public Counsel’s homelessness prevention and children’s rights projects.
“I’m incredibly excited,” said Chen, a native of Folsom, California. “I came to law school to do public service work. My experiences doing legal aid work through clinics and pro bono really set me on that path and made me realize I want to start my career with on-the-ground community work.”
The Equal Justice Works Fellowship is awarded annually to approximately 50 recent law school graduates who have created projects that will impact underserved communities and populations through legal services. As part of the fellowship, Chen will receive a salary, training and support.
The work Chen will start this summer will aid young people aged 12 to 22 with citation and warrant issues. He will also address needs for public benefits, advocacy, education and other civil issues.
Chen said he has already detailed plans to work with the coalition to have “know your rights” presentations and to start forging a relationship with police in the area. He said he hopes that will be the beginning of an informal diversion program where police officers can send youths to him and colleagues in certain cases, rather than arresting or ticketing them.
“I really want to help reach out to the community,” Chen said. “A big goal of this project is to give kids a second chance.”
Chen identified and researched the details of the project from scratch.
Equal Justice Works is interested in achieving concrete outcomes through funding sustainable projects, Chen said. For his project proposal, he coordinated with Public Counsel and Safe Place for Youth to structure the project to have the kind of services that could provide the most impact.
In the past Chen has worked on public benefits issues in welfare offices. Last summer, he assisted Public Counsel as a law clerk with their homelessness prevention law project, which he credits for giving him insight to the existing need in Venice.
“The clinic will be the first thing of its kind in that area,” Chen said. It’s increasingly important there because Venice is experiencing an upswing and influx of people, which is intensifying the need for such services. Because of the size of Los Angeles, it isn’t always practical for clients to travel or walk to an area where there are services available, he said.
Chen said he and his colleagues will be referring some cases to Public Counsel’s network of pro bono counsel because there is such a large unmet need.
Chen also worked in public service during the summer after his first year of law school, at the New York attorney general’s office in the labor bureau, where he helped enforce state labor laws.
Experience volunteering with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, participating in the U.Va. Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic and Program in Law and Public Service, and support from professors and other students who are looking to go into public service were instrumental in Chen’s decision to pursue a public interest career.
“My decision [to pursue public service] was made much easier because I felt so supported by the faculty and my friends,” Chen said. “The wide variety of policy classes offered has helped.”
While in Law School, he has been a member of the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, a secretary of the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and a member of the student board of the Law and Public Service Program.