Students urged to pursue public service careers


By Jordan Poll

When Hallie Ryan first heard a rumor about a small-town “hot check” court outside Little Rock, Arkansas, that had generated $12 million in legal fees over a mere five years, she decided to see if it had merit.

Ryan’s investigation ultimately led her to Sherwood, Arkansas, where she witnessed a judge impose astronomical fines on nearly 200 individuals in a single day for bounced checks costing as little as six dollars.

“It was pretty clear what was happening,” Ryan said. “It was a modern-day debtor’s prison.”

At the time, Ryan worked for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., where she spearheaded the organization’s Criminal Justice Initiative.

This work took her to the small Arkansas court near Little Rock and, eventually, a man named Charles Dade.

Dade had already been arrested seven times and spent more than 100 days in jail for bounced checks totaling just a couple hundred dollars when he first met with Ryan and agreed to become the first named client in a lawsuit against the state, Dade v. City of Sherwood.

Within a couple weeks of filing, the court overhauled its procedures and dismissed thousands of cases that trapped people in cycles of debt.

The court then entered into a settlement agreement in November 2017, enshrining the new practices.

The lawsuit had a ripple effect throughout Arkansas and prompted the state administrative office of the courts to form a task force to examine the issue statewide.

“I think about Charles all the time,” Ryan said. “People like him, who put themselves on the line to help others, despite what it might mean for their own situation. They are why I do what I do, and why this work is so important.”

Ryan recently returned to Michigan Law, from which she graduated in 2013, to give the keynote address at the semiannual Inspiring Paths lecture, where she talked about her previous work with the Lawyers’ Committee and her current role as managing attorney for the Falls Church Office of the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) in Virginia.

She spoke to students about the importance of leaning on each other while charting the sometimes-uncertain path toward a career in public interest law.

“There is nothing more important than the [public interest] community as you begin to make truly life-changing decisions,” Ryan advised. “Build friendships with the people in this room, because they are who you’ll be turning to for support in the years to come.”

While many of her classmates committed to law firms as early as their second year, graduation came and went without a concrete offer for Ryan.

It wasn’t until she had taken the bar and was in the process of moving to Washington, D.C., that her future began to take shape with the Lawyers’ Committee.

Funding for her first year with the organization came from Michigan Law’s Bridge Fellowship — now the Legal Practitioner Fellowship — a yearlong postgraduate program for recent graduates pursuing public service careers. When the fellowship funding ended, the Lawyers’ Committee offered Ryan a permanent role with the organization.

“All of my public interest classmates and I found jobs we love within six months of graduating, and so will you,” she said. “At times, the uncertainty was hard, but I felt sure about the direction I was heading. Don’t let fear stop you from pursuing this path.”

Dade v. City of Sherwood was only one facet of Ryan’s criminal justice work with the Lawyers’ Committee.

She also brought litigation against states who denied indigent criminal defendants their right to counsel, and led the organization’s role in President Obama’s federal clemency initiative — a program that provided pro bono counsel to federal prisoners seeking clemency due to federal sentencing laws widely considered to be excessively punitive and racially discriminatory.

“Creating programs and designing campaigns for systemic reform isn’t done by other people. It is done by you and me,” she said. “And you don’t have to wait decades before doing this kind of work. The reality is that I was a second-year attorney when I was in that jail meeting with Charles.”

Now, at the LAJC, Ryan serves as lead counsel for the first lawsuit in the nation challenging unconstitutional racial profiling and warrantless raids and home arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

She also spearheads the organization’s efforts to reform immigration bond practices.

Ryan said her commitment to public service is as strong as ever, and encouraged students to keep their blinders on until they are doing exactly what they want to do. 

“We need new and creative strategies and people who are willing to take risks, and nobody is more capable than you,” she said. “So I mean it. Come work with me. We need you.”