If you’re interested in pursuing a public interest career in New York, it does not get much better than the Legal Aid Society. The Legal Aid Society is a private, not-for-profit legal services organization, the oldest and largest in the nation, dedicated since 1876 to providing quality legal representation to low-income New Yorkers. It is dedicated to one simple but powerful belief: that no New Yorker should be denied access to justice because of poverty. The Legal Aid Society hires about 40 interns per summer and 5-12 attorneys directly out of law school per year.
On August 5th, I met with Tami Steckler, Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice, to discuss her work, the Juvenile Rights Practice, and Legal Aid Society hiring processes.
What the Legal Aid Society Does
The Society handles 300,000 individual cases and matters annually and provides a comprehensive range of legal services in three areas: the Civil, Criminal, and Juvenile Rights Practices. Unlike the Society’s Criminal and Juvenile Rights Practices, which are constitutionally mandated and supported by government, the Civil Practice relies heavily on private contributions.
The criminal practice is composed of all public defender services in New York (public defender offices in New York are operated as non-profits), handles a total of more than 230,000 cases each year with a staff of 800, and serves as the primary provider of indigent defense services in New York City.
The Civil Practice Program operates out of a network of 16 neighborhood and courthouse-based offices in all five boroughs and 22 specialized units. The program works to improve the lives of low-income New Yorkers by helping vulnerable families and individuals to obtain and maintain the basic necessities of life – housing, health care, food and subsistence income or self-sufficiency as well as enhancing family and community stability and security by resolving a full range of legal problems, including domestic violence, family law, immigration, employment, and consumer law issues.
The Juvenile Rights Practice, which Tami runs, represents 90 percent of the children who appear before the Family Court in New York City on child protective, termination of parental rights, PINS (person in need of supervision), and juvenile delinquency petitions.
Why You Should Work for the Legal Aid Society
Legal Aid Society interns and attorneys get direct access to meaningful work at the oldest and largest not-for-profit legal services provider in the United States. The Legal Aid Society is such a well-known entity in the state of New York that the chance to form meaningful connections in different legal spheres all over the city are great. In fact, more than 30 alumni are serving as members of the Judiciary.
Tami herself is clearly an excellent supervisor and genuinely cares about interns’ development and career trajectory. You can read more about a day in the life of a Legal Aid Society attorney here.
Tami Steckler’s Career Path
Tami Steckler started at the Legal Aid Society 30 years ago and has been leading the Juvenile Rights Practice for 11 years. She has also worked at a foster care agency and at New York Legal Assistance Group, leaving the Legal Aid Society for a few years to gain managerial experience. When the position running the Juvenile Rights Practice opened up, she applied and was offered the position, which is not surprising because it is hard to imagine anyone in New York who knows more about juvenile rights than she does.
Before law school, Tami was a teacher and went to law school in order to sue school districts. She became passionate about juvenile rights issues while working as a teacher. One case in particular stands out to her. Tami had a severely disabled child in one of her classes but she came to realize over the course of the semester that the student was understanding everything she was saying in class. Tami came to the conclusion that the child would have a much better education if he were mainstreamed and so she told his parents as much. They decided to follow her advice and move him to a mainstream school. The school got mad when the student left because they lost funding. Tami realized that she wanted to work to advance children’s interests and ensure that they are looked out for above what the school district wants.
Tami’s Work at the Legal Aid Society
As the attorney-in-charge, Tami looks at the big picture and deals a lot with policy and legislation. She spends a great deal of time thinking about how to improve service to clients and how she as a manager can improve how she leads her staff.
Perhaps the most important facet of her job, Tami keeps the money flowing. The state is mandated to provide representation to children but Tami has to meet with the state and reapply for funding every five years.
Problems with individual cases come up to her as well. In her words, Tami engages in “client directed advocacy” and is a 10 out of 10 on the happiness scale. This work is her passion.
She described herself as “comfortable in chaos”
She has 5 kids, including 2 foster kids, and she is clearly very happy in her life. She has a great work/life balance and gets to spend a lot of time with her family.
Having worked as a public interest attorney myself, I know that the work causes the attorney doing it to have a particular worldview and ideas about how to improve the system.
I asked Tami how to improve the foster care system. Tami herself is a foster parent and said that foster care as an entity does not work well. She said “the premise of foster care is faulty.” It’s all related to poverty. If you took money that is dumped into foster care and gave it to the families, who have their children taken away and put into foster care because they lack resources, the families would be able to keep their children. The poor are in the public spotlight. The expectation of parenting is the same for them but they do not have the same resources.
Tami says that if you do what your passion is, you’re halfway there. Be a meaningful part of the community and you will find happiness and meaning in your work.
Legal Aid Society Intern and Staff Attorney Hiring
The Legal Aid Society hires about 40 interns each summer into their Law Student Internships and about 5-12 entry level staff attorneys each year. They also sponsor applications for fellowships, including the Shaffer Fellowship, Equal Justice Works Fellowship, Skadden Fellowship, and others.
The application period for summer internships for 1Ls is from December 1-February 15 and the period for 2Ls is from August 1-February 15. Offers are made on a rolling basis so the earlier you apply, the better. All interns must apply through the Legal Aid Society’s recruiting portal.
Staff Attorney Hiring
The application periods for this year’s 3Ls are as follows:
Criminal Practice: July 18-October 7
Juvenile Rights Practice: July 18-January 1
Civil Practice: Openings appear online as they become available
All applicants for staff attorney positions must include a cover letter, transcript, resume, writing sample, a list of references, the Applicant Questionnaire along with the Applicant Information Form in one single PDF. We will only accept an application submitted as a single PDF to: firstname.lastname@example.org for the Civil Practice, to email@example.com for the Criminal Defense Practice, or firstname.lastname@example.org for the Juvenile Rights Practice. Applications submitted without all the required materials will not be processed.
Inside Look Into the Hiring Process
Tami tries not to say no to interns and errs on the side of taking on as many as she can. The work volume is heavy and it is heavy emotionally. Tami wants to know that prospective interns can handle the work.
For new attorney hiring, the Legal Aid Society gives an automatic 1st interview to all diverse candidates and all candidates who previously interned there. If you are not diverse and did not intern there, the Legal Aid Society looks for public interest experiences and clinics on your resume. They care way more about experience than they do about grades. Tami is the second person to review all application materials and she doesn’t read the writing sample because she assumes it is heavily edited.
Interviews are structured and involve several hypotheticals. After interviews, the hiring committee rates candidates on a 1-4 scale.
You need 4’s to get through to the next round but 3’s get through if there is space. Tami reviews diverse 1’s and 2’s to see if they missed something.
Tami likes new blood. Generally, in Tami’s view, people don’t interview well.
They are looking for energy and conversational skills. Tami does not want candidates to be intimidated talking to her and she does not like arrogance. If a student does poorly in an interview, Tami will them that she is not going to offer them a position and will tell them what they did wrong in the interview.
Tami will call supervisors of former interns and ask how the intern did.
Tami said that public interest experience is so important to them because practice is not like law school.
If you are interested in applying to work for the Legal Aid Society, contact a CDO counselor and we can help you with your application.