Alumni working in public interest describe the careers that NYU Law’s LRAP Plus program made possible

Students walking near the Washington Square Park Arch

Mae Bowen ’20 is serving as a trial attorney in the environment and natural resources division of the US Department of Justice; Hannah Howard ’20 is prosecuting cases of gendered violence as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn; Nora Christiani ’19 is representing immigrants in detention who are fighting deportation; and David Altman ’20 is working as a public defender in Jersey City. All of them, as well as a number of other recent graduates pursuing public interest careers, are participating in NYU Law’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program Plus (LRAP Plus).

In 2018, as part of the Lead the Way capital campaign, the Law School expanded its LRAP program, which helps alumni who work in a range of full-time public interest jobs receive forgiveness for their law school loans. Among other enhancements, LRAP Plus allows most participants to receive an annual salary of up to $100,000 with no monthly payment on their law school loans.

NYU Law spoke to alumni who are among the first to be enrolled in the expanded program to learn how it has impacted their careers in the public interest.

Paul Leroux ’19, staff attorney, Brooklyn Legal Services I grew up in small town in northwestern Vermont, and had always been interested in public service and in making a career and a life out of doing positive things for the community, but wasn’t exactly sure how to do that. I worked for a couple of years with an organization called the United States Conference of Mayors, and really loved it and had great experiences there, but wanted to have more tools to advocate for communities, and went to law school knowing that I wanted to pursue public interest law. Having a strong LRAP program and a strong method of paying for law school after law school was very important to me.

I work currently as a staff attorney in the housing unit at Brooklyn Legal Services, where I’ve worked since graduation. What we’ve seen is that tenants who have attorneys are able to defend their homes, resolve the underlying issues that brought them into housing court, and ultimately avoid eviction at higher rates than tenants who don’t have attorneys. And so having this opportunity to do this work, I think is extremely important.

During the ongoing pandemic, there’s been a number of protections and financial resources for tenants and small homeowners, and we’ve been really on the front lines helping people have access to those resources. In the early stages of the pandemic, I worked on an advice hotline where people could call in and talk about the issues that they were having with their housing and paying for their housing during the lockdown.

More recently, I’ve been in virtual court almost nonstop, trying to defend and implement the protections that are available to tenants in housing court, defending hardship declarations that we have filed in order to stay cases, defending folks’ rights to stay in their homes while they have pending applications for emergency rental assistance. And that, I think, has been important work that we’ve done, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to do it.

Hannah Howard ’20, assistant district attorney, Kings County District Attorney’s Office After my undergraduate degree, I worked at a rape crisis center for two years, and so my decision to go to law school was really a decision to become a prosecutor for gender-based violence, specifically. When it came time to make a decision as to which law school, LRAP was the deciding factor for NYU Law. I had received a scholarship offer from another law school, and had looked into their LRAP program, but it was not as generous or developed and I didn’t want to count on that for such a big financial decision.

I am currently working at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in the domestic violence bureau, where I had interned during my 1L summer. It is important to me to prosecute gender-based violence, as I am a survivor myself. It is immensely rewarding to know that I have turned one of the most difficult parts of my life into the fuel for my professional pursuits.

I also acutely feel the importance of prosecuting gender-based violence at this historical moment, in the midst of rising consciousness around these issues. At a time when our society is listening more and more to survivors who come forward, I believe it’s crucial that we have prosecutors who can approach this work with a trauma-informed lens. I also find value in my role as a prosecutor because every day I put into practice one of my deepest beliefs, that we’re all more than the worst things we’ve done. Gender-based violence will not be solved by incarceration and it’s very meaningful to me to use my role in the criminal legal system to seek justice, not just jail.

Maia Cole ’20, staff attorney, Brooklyn Defender Services I worked as a paralegal in a civil rights law firm before attending law school. LRAP was very important to me because I knew that it would be very hard to pay back law school loans on a public interest salary. There were several NYU alumni at the law firm, so I knew when I was applying to schools that NYU Law had a great forgiveness program, and I was able to talk to a number of lawyers about their experience with loan forgiveness.

I work now at a public defender office, Brooklyn Defender Services, [representing] tenants who are facing housing challenges, often as a result of contact with either the criminal legal system or the family regulation system. I primarily work with clients who come to our office through the Brooklyn Defender’s criminal defense practice or family defense practice, who are also facing housing issues, such as eviction, termination of tenancy from their public housing, bad conditions in their apartments that need repairs, or have been illegally evicted from their apartments and need a way back in.

I’ve always been interested in doing work in an intersectional office—that is, not just doing housing cases, but this kind of creative work that helps people with a number of the overlapping issues that they face. I feel really fortunate to be at a place like the Brooklyn Defender Services who are so committed to addressing as many needs as we can, to fully support the lives of our clients.

Mae Bowen ’20, trial attorney, Environmental Enforcement Section, Environment and Natural Resources Division, US Department of Justice When I was applying to schools, I knew that I wanted to do public interest work, so comparing financial packages was obviously very important to me, but it was also important to me to go to a great school. I come from the Florida panhandle on the Gulf Coast, and my community was deeply impacted by the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which first awakened me to the importance of environmental justice, environmental policy, and advocacy. I studied environmental science in college, and have always been interested in pursuing that.

As a lawyer at the DOJ, I specifically focus on affirmative civil litigation on behalf of the United States under the pollution statutes. So, I primarily focus on the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Superfund cleanups, and those sorts of things.

At the federal government level, we’ve got a new administration that has conveyed to staff that they are focused on two things: environmental justice and climate change. This policy focus impacts our work and the kinds of cases that are referred to us from agencies. The litigation that my colleagues and I handle often focuses on halting active pollution, cleaning up pollution, and remedying the harm done by that pollution in communities and to our natural resources.

In this job, I have seen how working on a case can lead to a tangible reduction in harm. I’ve been amazed to see the resources and power of the federal government put to work to address these important issues and to see actual community impact. [Quotes reflect the personal views of the speaker and not that of the federal government.]

Joy Kim ’20, staff attorney, The Legal Aid Society I majored in urban studies in college and became especially interested in the housing aspects of what I was studying, and learning how much housing impacts people’s health, livelihood, stability, and also just how many systemic issues are in the housing system. When I was applying to law schools, I knew that I wanted to practice housing law.

I liked NYU for a lot of reasons—like the Furman Center and the extensive programming for people interested in public interest work—but that NYU had a comprehensive LRAP program was definitely a huge factor when I was choosing which school to attend. Throughout law school I kept thinking, “Oh, this is too good to be true. This can’t be,” as far as thinking that LRAP would allow me to do the kind of work I wanted to do without worrying about debt.

Now I work at The Legal Aid Society as a staff attorney in the tenant defense unit. [My graduation] from Law School ended up being a historical moment in the tenants’ rights movement, because of all these new COVID protection laws and this eviction moratoria that was created near the beginning of its outbreak. The moratorium expired on January 15, so it’s been incredibly busy trying to help tenants stay in their homes and understand their protections. I think I have around 40 clients right now, which is a lot for a new attorney, but I’m really, really honored to work and to be part of this movement.

Nora Christiani ’19, staff attorney, Bronx Defenders I don’t think I would’ve become a lawyer without a loan forgiveness program like LRAP. I went to law school to become a public interest, social justice lawyer, and knowing how expensive law school is, I did a very deep dive into what different programs offered and I liked NYU the best. I thought it provided the most assurances that loans would be forgiven and that I’d have help figuring out how.

Before coming to law school, I had done work in the US and Latin America, and already spoke Spanish, and the intersection between domestic law and international human rights law was interesting to me. I now work at the Bronx Defenders, which is the public defender office in the Bronx. The work I do is involved with providing free legal representation to New Yorkers in immigration detention facing deportation.

Right now, there is a state- and city-funded program called the New York Immigration Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), founded in 2013, and it has contracts with nonprofits, like the Bronx Defenders, so I am a NYIFUP attorney. It’s a really unique program, nationally speaking. Prior to this program, New Yorkers who were detained went through this incredibly coercive immigration system that builds all of these incentives for you not to fight your case—because many of these cases depend on pulling together huge amounts of evidence letters from family and from other countries and involving experts, and it’s incredibly hard to do that when you are incarcerated. So NYIFUP was created to help people who are detained to have the option of a free lawyer. The eight or so years that the program has been running has built an incredible amount of institutional knowledge and an incredible community of New York public defenders who I believe have brought the level of practice up to a very, very high quality of representation.

David Altman ’20, trial attorney, New Jersey Office of the Public Defender I came to law school explicitly with the intention to go into public interest. The combination of NYU Law’s LRAP program as well as the strong public defense community there were the two deciding factors when I was considering [law school] offers.

I currently work in the Hudson County office for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, which is based in Jersey City. We represent adults charged with felonies in this county. I’m on a trial team, which means I handle cases after clients have been indicted. I represent clients from that stage through the resolution of their case, whether that’s a trial, a plea, or a dismissal.

And I have a wide variety of cases: I represent people accused of every type of crime. I represent people who are detained and in jail and people who are out on pretrial release. I represent people who have never had contact with the criminal justice system before and people who have been serving very lengthy prison sentences prior to coming back to being a client.

While the variety is wide, each of my clients is facing very serious charges, so it can be very daunting work at times. Because many of the court’s functions, like trials, were suspended at the beginning of the pandemic, we have this enormous backlog of cases which, some weeks, can feel overwhelming. But I really enjoy my work. It is incredibly satisfying and fulfilling to help a client resolve their case in a way that helps them, or at the very least makes them feel represented and supported as they navigate a really daunting system.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Posted January 28, 2022.