Create Change Fall 2023

Executive Director's Message

“We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.”
— Nelson Mandela, human rights lawyer

Time has flown since I joined the Levin Center in August. I have been so fortunate to work with this outstanding team. I’m overwhelmed by how caring and supportive they have been, and with their genuine commitment to our students’ success and happiness. I’ve been delighting in meeting many of our students. They’re insightful, creative, and visionary, and it’s inspiring to imagine all the ways they will make a difference!

All three JD classes as well as our advanced degree students are already devoting significant time and skills to pro bono projects, externships, student organizations and other public interest endeavors. Eighty-five percent of our 1L students are volunteering time with a pro bono project this year. Our upper class students are also paying it forward, mentoring 1Ls through our Public Interest Fellows, Associates, Mentors and Mentees program. With students’ postgraduate and summer employment searches well underway, the Levin Center is helping students navigate a flurry of applications and interviews with public interest employers. 

This quarter, all of us at the Levin Center – Anna, Kevin, Melanie, Mike, Shafaq and I – have witnessed that many of our students’ studies and job searches have been fraught by the horror of unfathomable violence and cruelty abroad. We have heard from some students that they’re struggling to contain unbearable grief. Some are terrified for loved ones who are suffering severe deprivation, whose lives are in immediate danger.

Against this backdrop, an eerie absence of conversation can add to students’ grief and fear and can feel profoundly alienating. Basic principles of shared humanity – the equal value of human life, the necessity of shared safety, the rights of everyone to freedom and dignity – are at risk of being discarded for zero sum analyses. Students, especially our law students, have a critical role to play now and in their future careers in insisting that those universal principles are not discardable, using the law to uphold them, and building new systems to overcome the failings of current ones. The tests they’re facing now will inform their work as relentless advocates for a humane and just world.

Whether they’re impacted by global events or hyperlocal ones, we always welcome our students to bring their whole selves and speak with us about their challenges, passions and dreams. Another constant in our work is the celebration of the wide spectrum of ways students and lawyers engage in public service, not only through paid employment but also pro bono work, mentorship, volunteer board service and other routes. An inspiring example we have profiled in this edition of Create Change is 1984 alumnus David Mason, who has committed his time post-retirement to representing asylum seekers and other immigrants seeking protection.

Wishing you and your loved ones peace and safety,

Shannon

Alumnus Devotes His Time Post-Retirement to Assisting Immigrants

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Few kindergarteners have a solid grasp of 1L concepts. But David Mason, JD ’84, had a front-row seat to a legal education at a very young age. His father enrolled in law school when Mason was four, following a career in accounting. “Over dinner, I would ask him what he learned in law school,” recalls Mason. “I think I was the only six-year-old who could name the three branches of our federal government and who knew the meaning of the word ‘tort.’”

From that early education through retirement, Mason’s path has followed an interesting arc, spanning from large, complex commercial finance transactions to, in his pro bono work, immigration services with potentially life changing consequences for his clients.

Mason’s father’s example influenced his decision to become a lawyer. Mason explains, “It seemed almost pre-ordained that I would go to law school and follow in his footsteps, as did my younger brother. Once in law school, I became aware of the many things a lawyer can do, all of which seemed to me to be both intellectually challenging and a great way to support a family.”

Mason’s decision to attend Stanford was aided by a small nudge from the Beach Boys. “At the same time that I was applying to law schools,” he recalls, “one of my roommates at the University of Illinois was applying to schools to get his PhD in economics. We got into many of the same schools. On the first nice spring afternoon in Champaign, Illinois, he and I sat down for a beer on the balcony of our apartment, wearing shorts and t-shirts for the first time after a particularly cold winter. He knew he was going to choose Stanford for grad school and he encouraged me to join him in Palo Alto.”

As California Girls played on the turntable (which — Mason and Merriam Webster explain — was a rotating platform that carried a phonograph record), his roommate urged, “Why not go to law school in an area with a nice climate, why not wear shorts and t-shirts during February and why not experience life in a different part of the country?”

Mason could always return to Chicago, his roommate assured him, “and by the way, Stanford is a pretty good law school.”

The next day, Mason called another friend, also from Chicago, who was in the midst of his 1L year at SLS. Mason told his friend that he planned to visit the campus, but his friend urged against it. “Save your money,” he insisted, “it’s the nicest campus in the country; there is no need to visit.”

Once at SLS, Mason’s decision was validated. He enjoyed, in particular, the emotional debates of his Criminal Procedure class with Professor Barbara Babcock. “I was struck by her passion for protecting the rights of the accused and her ability to defend her positions against the most ardent critics in the classroom.”  He also enjoyed Professor Bob Ellickson’s light-hearted use of the Socratic Method as he taught both modern and archaic real estate concepts.

After graduation, Mason worked as a commercial finance lawyer for thirty-seven years. He is honest about the rewards and challenges. “Maybe others can tout a decades long career which moved only in an upward trajectory,” he shares, “Not me. I certainly experienced highs, usually in the form of bringing in a new client to my law firm, or having my work flow grow alongside a client as it evolved from a start-up to a leader in its industry, but I also experienced lows as old clients decided to seek other counsel.  As the saying goes, I wasn’t able to please all of the people all of the time.”

“My greatest work-related accomplishment,” Mason recounts, “was having formed bonds with fellow associates at my firm who would go on to be my partners. It was that group who supported me when I was struggling and who I could support when they were struggling. Losing clients was always devasting. Fortunately, I had the support of great friends and colleagues. They were there as a sounding board as I strategized to find new clients to fill the void. I’m glad that I was able to form a network of people who were available for me when I needed them. Hopefully, they are saying that I reciprocated by supporting them when they needed support.”

“The finance work that I did for thirty-seven years was demanding, fast-paced and intellectually challenging. It was professionally satisfying to be part of a deal team that had a common goal of getting a deal done, although each constituency tried to negotiate the best deal for itself. From a financial perspective, the work that I did was quite valuable and meaningful to the transaction participants. The work also allowed me to support my family. The only thing missing,” Mason concluded, “was a feeling that I was doing something that benefited the public good, as opposed to benefiting Wall Street (or LaSalle Street in Chicago).

“I enjoyed a wonderful career as a finance lawyer, but I tired of it. At the same time, I wasn’t ready for flat out retirement, so I searched for a way to use my legal training to accomplish something good, but at a slower pace and part time. Immigration work seemed like a great way to satisfy my objective.”

Shortly after leaving his law firm, Mason contacted a legal aid clinic in his community to offer his pro bono services and completed an online introduction to immigration law offered by Catholic Immigration Legal Network. 

“I don’t want to overstate the work that I’m doing, as at present I am doing immigration legal work (on average about ten hours a week) at what I would consider to be a first or second-year associate level. I am being supported and mentored by pro bono immigration lawyers who are half of my age. It is great to see these young lawyers committed to the work that they do. The work is providing me with a new identity, having given up my ‘finance lawyer’ identity when I left my day-to-day law firm practice. I hope to expand my knowledge of immigration law and continue to help those in need of immigration law services.”

Asked what advice he would give law students, Mason cites principles that are as valuable in the private firm context as in nonprofit legal services: reliability, respect, curiosity and diligence.

“If you tell someone — client, opposing counsel or colleague — that you will deliver work product by a specific time, deliver the work product by that time.  Once you blow a deadline your credibility is gone.

“Be civil to your opposing counsel. It’s the decent thing to do, and at some point, you will need a favor from opposing counsel.”

And lastly, “Ask lots of questions of your superiors, but before asking a question, be prepared to describe what you did to find the answer and what you believe the answer to be.”

Mason began contributing his pro bono immigration services about a decade ago. At first, he did so sporadically but, for the last year and a half (after leaving the full-time practice of law), he has done so exclusively. His work has allowed his clients — DACA recipients, refugees, and others — to live and work in the U.S. and in a few cases to finally become U.S. citizens.

Mason explains, “Some clients hope to be able to return their homelands, while others remark at how happy they are in the U.S. even though many of them make only the minimum wage. Those who hope to stay in the U.S. are optimistic that their families will be better educated here than they  would be in their homeland, and that they will flourish economically. It feels good to be able to help people who find themselves needing immigration law services.”

“Over the last year,” he adds, “among other things, I’ve been helping Ukrainian refugees obtain employment authorization documents and Afghan refugees obtain asylum, a status which allows them to remain in the U.S. and to apply to have their families join them in the U.S.” Mason remembers a particular client he would meet every few weeks at a social services center on Chicago’s North Side.

“As I approached the social services center, my client could always be found about a half a block away, sitting on a bench, talking on his cell phone. When he saw me arrive, he would end his call and come to greet me. His eyes were always a bit red from crying. It wasn’t hard for me to conclude that my client had been on the phone with his wife and four children (ages two to seven) who were still located in Afghanistan. At the end of each meeting, he would always ask me and my co-counsel how long it would be before his family would be able to join him in the U.S. The unfortunate answer was ‘three-plus years.’”

“I look forward to the day when I see him reunited with his family,” Mason shares, “due in some small part to the legal work that I’m doing.”

Levin Center Hosts Fall Public Services Awards Dinner

SLS students, faculty and staff gathered to honor two outstanding public interest attorneys at our annual Fall Public Service Awards dinner on Monday, October 16. Sasha Buchert, director of the Non-Binary and Transgender Rights Project at Lambda Legal, was awarded the National Public Service Award and delivered the keynote address. The Miles L. Rubin Public Interest Award was awarded to Maggie Filler ‘12, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in the Special Litigation Section.

The National Public Service Award is designated for an attorney whose work on behalf of the public has had national impact. The Miles L. Rubin Public Interest Award is given annually to a Stanford Law School graduate whose outstanding work has advanced justice and social change in the lives of vulnerable populations on a community, national, or international level. In particular, the Rubin Award is intended to highlight concrete and sustainable approaches and solutions to a societal problem.

Read more about our awardees in the press release and on our website.

Maggie Filler, JD ’12 (left) and Sasha Buchert (right) with Anna Wang, Associate Dean for Public Service and Public Interest Law (center)

 

Pro Bono Program Grows to 25 Student-led Projects

Create Change Fall 2023

SLS students explored this year’s pro bono opportunities at our annual Pro Bono Fair (pictured), where 2L and 3L student leaders presented on dozens of projects that provide legal assistance with partner organizations. Seventy-six 2L and 3L students currently lead pro bono projects. This year, 182 incoming students – including 1Ls, advanced degree students and transfer students – signed up to participate in a project. Of those, 158 were 1L students, making up approximately 85% percent of the class of 2026!

This year, the number of projects available for students to choose from grew to 25. New projects launched this year include the Reproductive Justice Pro Bono Project, in which students conduct research supporting reproductive justice organizations and aligned causes across the country, and the Education Defense Pro Bono Project, in which students work with SLS’s Youth and Education Law Project to improve both the educational and juvenile case outcomes for San Mateo youth entering the juvenile justice system.

Other projects address a broad range of legal needs, focusing on education equity; election law; environmental law; family defense; health equity; legal assistance for renters; legal education for adolescents; native law; naturalization; legal assistance for veterans; legal assistance for prisoners; legal assistance for domestic violence survivors; criminal record clearance; racial and disability justice; assistance to small businesses and entrepreneurs; social security disability assistance; Title IX assistance for survivors of sexual violence; animal protection; legal assistance for refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants; advocacy for transgender and gender diverse clients; and workers’ rights. Read more about all the pro bono projects on our website.

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SLS Public Interest Alumni in the News

We like to share news of our SLS Public Interest alumni. Please feel free to forward links for us to include in future issues.

Jimmy Bierman, JD ‘08

Jimmy Bierman, JD ‘08, was elected to the Fairfax County, Virginia, Board of Supervisors, representing Dranesville District.

The Hon. Tiffany M. Cartwright, JD ‘10

The Honorable Tiffany M. Cartwright, JD ‘10, was confirmed by the Senate to serve as a United States District Judge for the Western District of Washington.

Sophia Lin Lakin, JD ‘12

Sophia Lin Lakin, JD ’12, was appointed Director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Hon. Mónica Ramírez Almadani, JD ‘04

The Honorable Mónica Ramírez Almadani, JD ‘04, was confirmed by the Senate as United States District Judge for the Central District of California.

About Create Change

Create Change is designed and produced quarterly by the staff of the John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law. Unless specifically noted, all articles are written by staff.

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From Left: Shafaq Khan, Kevin Lo, Anna Wang, Melanie Stone, Shannon Al-Wakeel, and Mike Winn. Photo credit: Christine Baker.

Associate Dean for Public Service and Public Interest Law: Anna Wang
Executive Director: Shannon Al-Wakeel
Director, Pro Bono and Externship Programs: Mike Winn
Director, Public Interest Career Development Program: Shafaq Khan
Public Interest Career Counselor: Kevin Lo
Program Manager: Melanie Stone
Research Assistant: Noelle Andrew, BA ’24

To be notified when new issues of the newsletter are available, please visit this website.

Create Change is published via email and past issues are available on our website. Articles, letters, and photos are welcome. Please send them to public.interest@law.stanford.edu.

You can visit us on the web at:
law.stanford.edu/levin-center
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