Melanie Kushnir Access to Justice Fellowship
About Melanie and the Fellowship that Honors Her Memory
The Melanie Kushnir Access to Justice Fellowship was created in honor of Melanie Kushnir, who dedicated her life to inspiring pro bono attorneys, law students, bar leaders, the judiciary, the community, and co-workers to donate their time, knowledge, and experience to those in need. She believed that those who face domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, consumer fraud or other civil legal challenges can have their lives forever changed for the better with an attorney who will stand and fight for their rights -- and that they deserve nothing less.
Melanie’s career in law reflected her passionate commitment to access to justice for the poor, middle class and underserved. Her enthusiasm, intelligence, resourcefulness and warmth won over legions of new volunteer attorneys for the Pro Bono Project at Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and increased participation by nearly 35 percent over her five years with us. From the start of her legal training, Melanie demonstrated a singular focus on pro bono work; prior to graduating from Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, she served as a public service fellow, a research fellow with the Pro Bono Research Group, and President of the Public Interest Law Foundation. Melanie won the CALI Award for Children and the Law. After law school, she spent eleven years in public interest law representing abused children in Chicago; working to place students in public interest careers at Chicago-Kent College of Law; as Assistant Staff Counsel for the American Bar Association Center for Pro Bono; and finally as Directing Attorney of the Pro Bono Project at Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. She also published and lectured on pro bono and access to justice topics. In her time in Southern Nevada, she made an indelible imprint on the lives of so many and we wish to keep her memory and spirit alive in a way the she would have loved, through support of public interest law education.
About Access to Justice and Civil Legal Aid
• Civil legal aid is defined as free legal assistance that is provided by a nonprofit law firm to low and middle income people who have civil (non-criminal) legal challenges with issues that include:
o Safety and stability (domestic violence, elder abuse, child abuse),
o Basic necessities (Social security benefits, veterans benefits, and housing), and/or
o Economic security (predatory lending, consumer protection, and managing debt).
• Local legal assistance is provided by attorneys employed by the nonprofit law firm Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, and by volunteer attorneys who are recruited through our Pro Bono Project. Legal support can span from participation in free legal classes to assistance at a self-help center (providing downloadable legal forms and instruction on next steps) to free legal advice one-on-one to full representation on an entire case.
• The need to train public law attorneys and recruit pro bono volunteers has never been so urgent. In our system of justice, if individuals accused of a crime cannot afford an attorney they are provided with free counsel by the court. Unfortunately, however, victims of civil legal issues have no right to a free attorney and civil legal aid is funded at a severely anemic level in relation to the intense need that exists.
o On any given day, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada staff have a stack of new cases on their desks and a lobby full of urgent needs. In Clark County, Nevada, alone, there are 702,427 individuals or 36% of the population living at or below 200% of poverty level, who would qualify for our services.
o The number of children living in poverty in Nevada is at 22%, up from 15% in 2008.
o Nationally, it is estimated that 50% of those who seek help are turned away because of limited resources.
o Even with the intensive focus that our Children’s Attorneys Project places on serving children in foster care, there are still hundreds of children in the system that we don’t yet have the capacity to serve.
o This is also true of our other programs, such as the Guardianship Advocacy Project, which we launched in 2016. There are thousands of senior citizens and adults with disabilities who have no legal line of defense against financial exploitation. Our Consumer Rights Project is often the last stop for unlawful exploitation of victims of financial fraud, and our Civil Law Self-Help Center helps provide eviction assistance to the 90 percent of tenants who struggle to represent themselves.
One law student from an ABA-accredited law school will be selected annually to receive the Melanie Kushnir Access to Justice Fellowship. Through an annual competitive process, interested law students will be asked to submit a proposal on how to improve access to justice in civil law in Southern Nevada or increase pro bono participation in the valley. Ideas can include identifying barriers to access to justice and ways to eliminate them and/or targeted initiatives to involve more volunteer attorneys in pro bono activities. The winner will have demonstrated a commitment to public interest law and the capacity to carry on Melanie’s work in assisting those unable to afford the civil legal help they need through the development of their proposal.
Each fall, details on how to apply for the Fellowship will be announced. Advisors will be available to work with students on their chosen topic to help guide them toward new ideas that have not been previously explored. The Melanie Kushnir Access to Justice Fellowship selection committee will be comprised of one Legal Aid staff member; one Legal Aid Center board member; one member of the Legal Aid Center Pro Bono Advisory Council; one representative of the William S. Boyd School of Law; one Justice of the Nevada Supreme Court or their designee; one representative of the Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission; and Ira Kushnir, Melanie’s father, or a family representative, if available. Interviews may follow the application process.
Once the selection is made, the Fellow will begin their Fellowship in May, following completion of the law school year. The Fellow will be paid a stipend of $10,000 for full-time work throughout that summer. The Fellow will develop their idea during their Fellowship term as well as work with Legal Aid Center staff on recruiting pro bono attorneys and assisting with access to justice projects currently underway.
In addition to the Fellowship, the Fellow will receive the opportunity to attend the State Bar of Nevada Annual Conference during the summer of their Fellowship, with payment of registration/travel/hotel accommodations as part of the Fellowship. At the State Bar of Nevada Conference, the Fellow will be able to present their winning idea and proposed implementation to the Board of Governors. While the full time employment of the Fellow will come to a close at the end of August, the Fellowship will officially conclude at the end of the year. During that time, the Fellow will be able to take advantage of judicial mentoring organized by the Eighth Judicial District Court in honor of Melanie. The Honorable Frank Sullivan will coordinate court observation and/or mentoring with the Fellow. The Fellow will also be invited to attend the Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission meeting during the fall to present their final work product. Finally, the student will be recognized at the Annual Pro Bono Project Awards Luncheon, to be held in December of each year, before the Nevada Supreme Court, the judiciary, and the attorney community, a lunch usually attended by 800 individuals.
Upon conclusion of the fellowship, the Fellow will be asked to participate as an ambassador in publicizing the availability of the fellowship during the following year. The Fellow may also be asked to serve as a mentor to the Fellow selected in the following year.
Click Here to view application details.