A Different Kind of Fellowship: Checking in with the First Shaffer Fellows

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In May of 2011, Jessica Howton was standing in a cap and gown, receiving her diploma from Notre Dame Law School. Just a few weeks later, she was appearing in court as an attorney representing the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston, Texas.

“I had spent summers interning at different non-profits, so I had some idea of how much ‘hands on’ work there is to be done,” Howton recalls. “But I learned very quickly that it can be literally trial by fire. My first official day they sent me to court. It was game on right away.”

Such is the experience of a Thomas L. Shaffer Public Interest Fellow from NDLS. Shaffer Fellows jump straight into the work they studied three years for and about which they are passionate.

“By the time I was in my third week with my fellowship, I had inherited about 100 cases,” echoes Howton’s Fellowship classmate, Brian Murray ’11 J.D., regarding his position at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. “It’s full immersion into the practice of law. You learn quickly how to have a relationship with a client, everything from making phone calls, to drafting letters, to meeting. That immediate client interaction was different from anything I did in law school but incredibly rewarding to my professional development.”

Murray, who now serves in the Public Defender’s Office of Chester County, Pennsylvania, offers that his Fellowship experience provided him lessons the average graduate probably doesn’t learn so quickly.

“I was filing complaints, requesting discovery, meeting clients. To be sure, there was some learning on the fly. But as a result, when I walk into a courtroom now, there are no nerves. It became second nature to me during that fellowship. I learned how to become a functioning lawyer on a daily basis.”

Howton and Murray were the first two Public Interest Fellows at Notre Dame. Since 2011, nine Notre Dame Law graduates have served as Shaffer Fellows. Their experiences have taken them around the country and into a variety of legal areas. The highly competitive Thomas L. Shaffer Public Interest Fellowship program funds the beginning stage of a career in public service. Each Fellow works for a non-profit that provides direct legal services to low-income or other under-represented groups. All funding for the Shaffer Fellowships comes from Notre Dame benefactors.

“The Tahirih Justice Center provides legal representation to immigrant women facing gender based violence,” Howton, who now serves as a supervising attorney with the Center, explains. “Our clients come to us after having served as sex slaves for cartels, undergone genital mutilation, and have been beaten and raped because of who they are or what their family members thought of them. But there is hope for the future because each of our clients has the power to start a ripple effect in their families, communities, or country of origin. It has been a blessing to have this opportunity through the fellowship and I will be forever grateful. I love my work and I could not have done this without the Notre Dame Fellowship.”

The Law School offers a variety of opportunities to engage in experiential learning both post-grad and as an enrolled student. In addition to the Shaffer Fellowship Program, NDLS graduates may participate in the NDLS Public Service Initiative, which enables qualified NDLS graduates to gain practical, professional legal experience and develop additional contacts and references while receiving stipends for working with a government or nonprofit employer in their targeted area of the country.

While in school, all NDLS students are encouraged to participate in a wide variety of clinical programs, externships, lawyering skills courses, immersion and pro bono programs. More information about these offerings is available at our Clinics and Experiential Learning web page.