When Melissa Cohen applied to law school, it was with absolute certainty that she wanted to pursue public interest law. An internship with the ACLU National Office in New York City had opened her eyes to the social and political work the attorneys were doing, and it solidified her desire to become a lawyer. In turn, being offered a Darrow Scholarship cemented Cohen's decision to attend Michigan Law.
A Public Service Focus
"The Darrow Scholarship was critical in helping me make my decision," Cohen said. "I'm aware that a career in public interest doesn't pay the same as working at a law firm, so it was important to me that I could afford to do the work I wanted to do after law school. It meant a lot that the Law School seemed to value students who were coming in with a public interest focus and wanted to help them pursue that career."
Cohen found a cohort of other like-minded students at Michigan, who were also supportive of her desire to use the law to make a difference in the world. "I made wonderful friends at Michigan and was able to build a community that understood and valued the kind of work I was looking to do," she said. Cohen returned to Michigan Law in 2015-2016 as one of the first MLaw Public Interest Community Visiting Fellows.
An Advocate for Children
Cohen was involved in several activities at Michigan Law, including serving on the
Michigan Journal of Gender and Law, participating in the Women Law Students Association, and conducting research for Clinical Prof. Frank Vandervort. Her favorite experience, by far, was the Child Advocacy Law Clinic, which she credits with helping her learn how to become a lawyer and champion for children. "It was incredible, hands-on experience," she said, "and set me on a path to doing child advocacy work the first five years I was out of law school. I really loved the experience."
After graduating from the Law School in 2009, Cohen began working as a Skadden Fellow at Children's Rights, an advocacy organization in New York that helps abused and neglected kids. When the fellowship ended after two years, Children's Rights hired her as a staff attorney. During her time with the organization, Cohen litigated federal class-action lawsuits that were "aimed at fixing broken foster care systems across the country. It was exactly the kind of social justice work I went to law school hoping to do."
A Dream Job
Cohen is now doing social justice work of a different kind—as a staff attorney with Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York, which she joined in May 2014. She represents Planned Parenthood regional affiliates across the country that are challenging abortion restrictions. One of Cohen's current cases involves representing Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, which is challenging a restriction on Medicaid funding for abortion in Alaska.
"It's a critical time in this country to be working on reproductive rights issues," said Cohen, a women's studies minor at Duke University. "Planned Parenthood does incredible legal work and it has always been a dream of mine to join its litigation team."
And it's a dream job that the Darrow Scholarship helped make possible. "The Darrow truly allowed me to pursue the career I wanted," she said.
Story written by Lori Atherton.
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