Amal Bass ’06, Staff Attorney with the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, knew when she enrolled at HLS that she would emerge a public interest lawyer, though she wasn’t sure in what form.
Arriving with interests in Latino civil rights, education law, and gender issues, she spent her 1L summer with the Women’s Law Project and her 2L summer with the Homeless Advocacy Project. These internships exposed her not only to different fields but also to contrasting types of work. She explored policy-based work at the Women’s Law Project, assisting with impact litigation and researching and writing on legal issues. “It was very interesting,” she says, “I got to see an issue I care about up close and work with lawyers doing something that mattered, something that mattered to people in a big way.” Her 2L summer focused on more client-based work, assisting homeless individuals.
Ultimately deciding to pursue policy-based work, Bass returned to the Women’s Law Project after graduation as a full-time staff attorney. The small size of the organization fosters a busy, dynamic atmosphere. In a typical day, Bass deals with issues related to pregnancy discrimination, sexual assault on college campuses, female athletic programs, and domestic violence. These issues may be addressed through impact litigation, administrative appeals, policy drafting, or public education.
In the seven years since she joined the Women’s Law Project, Bass has noted an increase in certain kinds of cases. One such trend is the surge in pregnancy discrimination cases; in a recession, pregnant women are often the first people to be laid off. Bass hopes that pending federal legislation, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, will help to remedy parts of this problem. At the present moment, however, she and her colleagues must work within an existing legal framework that often fails to protect women from these discriminatory practices. “The most frustrating part of my job is talking to young women who think that they have more rights than they do. They feel their employers should treat them better but there’s often not much recourse because the law just isn’t as good as we’d like it to be,” Bass laments.
These gaps in the law demonstrate a need for change, and the Women’s Law Project is working to create policy to fill the voids. Their efforts recently resulted in the passage of a law that will require public schools to report data on gender equity in their athletic programs, and the Law Project played a critical role in the FBI’s revision of its definition of rape in 2012. These are just two examples of the ways in which the Women’s Law Project is able to impact systems and institutions in a profound way. “Data is important, knowledge is important, and access is important. It’s slow, but we do have successes. And we often don’t have time to sit and congratulate ourselves because we’re already onto the next issue,” Bass remarks.
Bass offers encouragement to those interested in her line of work. “A lot of people look at public interest work and think that getting your first job is all about luck,” she says, “And there is an element of that, but there are things you can do to make yourself more likely to be lucky.” She advises gaining clinical experience and seeking out contacts in communities of interest.
She also notes that students should try not to be anxious choosing the “right” job out of law school. She describes Philadelphia’s public interest law community as fluid, frequently sharing information, initiatives, and even employees; the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Community Legal Services, Philadelphia Legal Aid, and Women Against Abuse are just some of the organizations that cooperate with the Women’s Law Project, and Bass knows of many public interest lawyers who have worked on a variety legal issues at more than one organization over the course of their careers. “Where our issues overlap, I haven’t felt a sense of territoriality. Anyone who can come to the table and contribute is welcome,” she remarks, “It’s a really nice community to be a part of.”
Written by an OPIA Summer Fellow