By Andrew Cohen
Many top law schools have larger graduating classes than Berkeley Law, but none produced as many 2017 Equal Justice Works (EJW) fellows. The prestigious two-year fellowship is awarded to exceptional lawyers who develop new, innovative projects that provide legal services to low-income and underserved populations.
Mel Gonzalez ’17, Danica Rodarmel ’17, Lilliana Paratore ’17, Natalie Schultheis ’17, and Aaron Voit ’17 are among this year’s 77 fellows. They will receive a competitive salary, generous loan repayment assistance, and connections to their prominent private sponsors while participating in trainings and other programs.
The news is a triumph for them, Berkeley Law, and its Career Development Office (CDO). Associate Directors of Public Interest Programs Alex Lee ’04 and Melanie Rowen work closely with students and alumni interested in EJW and other fellowships.
“We’re thrilled for the six members of our community who will use this fellowship to help marginalized people from coast to coast,” Rowen said. “It’s gratifying to see our amazing students and alumni succeed in a challenging, very competitive process to gain this opportunity.”
The CDO starts introducing students to the fellowship concept and highlighting potential outlets in their first year. The next year, students receive more details on the application process and start strategizing with the CDO about possible host organizations, areas of interest, and networking.
After candidates secure a host organization, Lee and Rowen help them draft their application and are available to review their final draft proposal. The CDO also presents a Fellowships Bootcamp each fall, where applicants are paired with a former fellow—usually a Berkeley Law graduate—who provides informed feedback on their applications and projects. The school also offers mock interviews for those who progress to the interview stage.
“The CDO has been such an incredible support system for me and many others,” Gonzalez said. “I can’t overstate how helpful the people there have been at every step of the application process.”
Gonzalez hopes to improve the working conditions for restaurant delivery workers in New York City. Sponsored by Thomson Reuters and Shearman & Sterling, his fellowship at the nonprofit Make the Road will enable him to represent workers, expand community education, and advance policy reform to end the tipped wage system.
Thousands of delivery workers, predominantly Latino, are in a hyper-competitive race to meet the exploding demand for takeout in New York City. They earn a subminimum wage that is supposed to be offset by tips, but face “increasingly demanding and dangerous situations because they’re being asked to cover more territory and deliver more quickly,” Gonzalez noted.
With the spike in online takeout services, restaurants often try to cut costs to offset the fees they pay for appearing on the services’ webpages. This includes tactics that illegally pass the costs onto delivery workers—discounting fees from their tips, misclassifying them as contractors to avoid paying workers’ compensation, and fining them for cold or late meals. Some restaurants also funnel the costs of bicycle thefts, repairs, and safety equipment to these workers.
“This heightens the risk of injury to delivery employees and others on the street,” Gonzalez said. “They have to work really quickly because their livelihoods depend on it, often having to choose between safety versus making enough money and not getting fired.”
Some online takeout companies also contribute to the problem. GrubHub, for example, is involved in a class action suit regarding the misclassification of its workers as independent contractors—allowing the company to deny them standard employment protections such as overtime, minimum wage, and insurance. On-demand services also decrease transparency regarding the collection of tips, creating more opportunity to divert them from employees.
“This is an inherently vulnerable position occupied by people who have little leverage and are easy to exploit,” said Gonzalez, who volunteered at the La Raza Workers’ and Tenants’ Rights Clinic during law school.
A former intern at Make the Road and the Center for Popular Democracy, Gonzalez will research the legal and political landscape pertaining to delivery workers and the tipped wage system. He will also represent individual wage theft and overtime claims, as well as unemployment insurance appeals, and collect data to develop a policy report.
“Online food delivery is an incredibly convenient service for consumers,” Gonzalez said. “Unfortunately, it’s also a new area that isn’t well regulated. I hope to help change that.”
Berkeley Law’s other EJW fellows will address wide-ranging problems.
Paratore, sponsored by Apple, Inc., and Baker & MacKenzie, will work for UnCommon Law in Oakland. She will provide gender-appropriate parole representation for women in California prisons and push for policy changes that recognize experiences of gendered trauma and abuse. Her project’s goal is to alter how the California Board of Parole Hearings considers gendered trauma. Paratore worked with survivors of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence during college and before law school.
Rodarmel, sponsored by Fenwick & West LLP, will work for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco and advocate to reform California’s money bail system. She will provide consumer justice legal services to clients on bail-related matters, work with community partners, and advise policymakers on reform. Rodarmel, who has worked on mass incarceration since 2010, plans to create the first bail-consumer legal services clinic. She will also conduct Bay Area trainings on bail process rights and work to counteract predatory bail practices.
Schultheis, sponsored by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, will help the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project support older youth in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. Once children at an unaccompanied minor shelter turn 18 and transfer to adult detention, they lose many procedural rights, face harsher legal standards, and are more likely to be deported. Schultheis will aid pro bono attorneys on cases geared to improve youth access to immigration legal services and develop best practice materials for lawyers in the field. She has previously assisted unaccompanied minors and refugees applying for resettlement.
Voit, sponsored by Munger Tolles & Olson LLP and Pacific Gas and Electric, will work for California Rural Legal Assistance. He plans to create medical-legal partnerships to improve the health of Salinas Valley farm workers and lower their exposure to agricultural pollution. In that area, pollution from pesticides and fertilizers exposes residents to toxins that can cause cancer, infertility and birth defects, and brain damage in children. Before law school, Voit worked on environmental health issues in El Salvador. At Berkeley Law, he represented undocumented immigrants and provided legal advice to an area tribe through the Karuk-Berkeley Collaborative.
“It speaks to what a large and robust community we have of people committed to public interest work,” Gonzalez said of Berkeley Law’s nation-leading roster of EJW fellows. “It also speaks to how visionary students at Berkeley are when it comes to tackling social justice issues. It’s quite an entrepreneurial group of people who confront major problems and constantly think about new ways to approach them.”