An Interview with NYLAG’s Kirkland & Ellis Fellow
Shana Khader is a Kirkland & Ellis fellow working within NYLAG’s Consumer Protection Project. She is a graduate of Columbia Law School and Occidental College, where she won a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English at a university in Argentina.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the Kirkland & Ellis Fellowship. What drew you to apply for it?
The Kirkland & Ellis New York City Public Service Fellowship is awarded every year to one graduate from Columbia Law School and one graduate from NYU Law School to fund a project that will directly benefit New York City residents. In order to apply, I had to find a sponsoring organization and develop a project with them. I was excited about the opportunity to develop my own project with a public interest organization, to pick an area of need and to be able to address it. Especially because I really wanted to do direct services work straight out of law school, the fellowship was a perfect opportunity for me.
Q: Why did you pick NYLAG?
My final year in law school, I began to volunteer with the Volunteer Lawyer for a Day Program in the Bronx through NYLAG. The first day I volunteered, I was struck by the compelling need for representation in consumer debt and collections cases and the value of the VLFD program. There are a huge number of cases, and clients have no idea what to expect or what their rights are. When I learned about the fellowship opportunity, NYLAG was the first organization I approached because I was excited about the work and impressed with the lawyers I had worked with and supervision I had received as a NYLAG volunteer.
Q: What kind of work are you doing for the Consumer Protection Program?
Right now I’m spending most of my time with the Volunteer Lawyer for a Day Program in the Bronx Civil Court, where we provide one-day representation to pro se defendants in consumer debt and collections cases. As a Spanish speaker, I think working in the Bronx is particularly rewarding since there are so many Spanish-speaking clients who are at an even greater disadvantage than the average pro se defendant. In addition, I’m beginning to work with some clients through the Connect to Care program, where we advise and counsel clients who have been negatively affected by the recession in areas like consumer debt, bankruptcy, foreclosure, eviction prevention, and more. The main challenge is representing as many people as possible.
Q: Have you found any surprises so far?
Honestly, I’ve been surprised by how challenging the work is—but in a good way. I think the process in consumer debt cases can look somewhat mechanical to the outside observer, and in some ways this is true. But what I’ve been surprised by is how much room there is for strategy and negotiation, for really using the law and the legal process to try and get the best outcome for each individual client. As we like to say in VLFD, there’s never a dull day in court. Sometimes the surprises are good and sometimes they’re challenging, but we’re always on our toes.
Q: Are you finding that most clients are taken by surprise that they’re in court?
This really depends. Every client’s story is different. We have lots of clients who come to court because all of a sudden their wages are being garnished and they never even knew a lawsuit had been filed against them. We have lots of clients who are being sued by someone they’ve never heard of, usually a debt buyer who hasn’t named the original creditor. And we have lots of clients sued over credit cards they do think they had at some point. Our job is to help each client understand his or her options in the legal process, and advocate on his or her behalf.
Q: What are your plans for when the fellowship is over? How do you see this experience fitting into the rest of your career?
It’s so funny to be thinking about this question now when I feel like I just started, and honestly I’m not sure. What I do know is that I’m getting excellent training and experience, and I can’t imagine a better place to really develop my skills as a lawyer. This work has made me very passionate about consumer protection issues, and I’m committed to public interest and service generally. I’m excited to see what possibilities develop in my career.