A Passion for Social Justice

Ryan Koleda, '16

A Q&A with Ryan Koleda '16, Staff Attorney, The Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Practice

Why did you choose Pace?

I chose Pace because of the positive reputation of the public interest law center and the hands-on learning experience it offered. I went into law school only wanting to practice in the public interest field. Pace had amazing clinics, including the Immigration Justice Clinic, where I worked as a student attorney my last year of law school.

Were you always interested in public interest work?

For as long as I can remember, I have been attracted to the public interest field. In college I studied social work and sociology. After college, I didn’t quite know how I wanted to apply my passion for social justice to my future career. But I went to law school knowing this would be the avenue to do just that. Through law school, I discovered how I wanted to practice and apply the law through public interest work.

What specific experiences Pace Law do you feel helped to prepare you for a career in public interest law?

Will you believe me if I say that all of my experiences at Pace prepared me for my career in public interest law? I went into law school knowing that I wanted to practice in the public interest field, so I tailored as many experiences as I could to that goal. The summer after my first year, I interned for a Nassau County Family Court judge who presided over custody and child protective cases. My second year, I participated in the year-long Federal Judicial Honors Program. The first semester consisted of a guided research and writing assignment where I met one-on-one with a professor to write a mock decision for a federal case. The second semester I interned for a Judge in the Southern District of New York where I applied those research and writing skills. The summer after my second year, I interned for a non-profit organization that represents children in custody and visitation cases in family court. Under the supervision of two staff attorneys, I was able to appear and practice in court as well as interview clients. My last year of law school I participated in a Civil Rights Externship and the Immigration Justice Clinic. The Civil Rights Externship through the law firm Newman Ferrara with Professors Cohen and McLaughlin provided me with experience in research, writing, discovery, trial preparation, and client contact. Through the Immigration Justice Clinic, with Professor Merton, I gained practical experience both in and out of court. Under her guidance, we took the lead on our cases. We did our own research, writing, interviews, and appearances in court.

What was your most memorable law school experience?

My favorite law school experience was spending spring break my 3L year in Dilley, Texas. Through the Immigration Justice Clinic and the CARA Pro Bono Project, we were able to volunteer at the South Texas Family Residential Center where the government detained women and children who entered the US at the southern border. We prepared women and children for their credible fear interviews, the first step in an asylum claim. In addition to preparing these families for their interviews, we also kept track of stories and data regarding the conditions of the detention facility and how these families were being treated.

How did the Public Interest Law Center guide you along the way during your time at Pace?

The Public Interest Law Center was incredibly helpful in preparing me for my career in public interest law. The summer after my 2L year, I interned at a non-profit organization that represents children in family court. Through the PILC Public Interest Summer Fellowship, I obtained funding in order to pay for my expenses that summer. During my 3L year, I participated in a mentorship program offered by Career Services. We were matched with alumni who practiced in the fields we were interested in post law school. My mentor not only practiced in family law representing children, but also worked for the organization I had my eyes set on. Also, throughout the application process for The Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Practice, during my 3L year, I went through rounds of application review with Career Services and prepared with them before each interview. I felt completely supported by PILC faculty and staff as I faced the daunting task of three rounds of interviews.

What has your career path been since graduation?        

Since graduation and taking the bar, I have been working at The Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Practice as a staff attorney representing children in abuse and neglect cases in the Bronx. State law mandates that every subject child of a child protective proceeding is assigned a lawyer. If a child can make a knowing, considered, and voluntary judgment, we provide zealous direct advocacy for that child. Children in child protective proceedings are constantly being told what’s best for them by most adults in their life whether it be the government or a relative or a teacher or a judge. We empower children to use their voices and advocate on their behalf. In systems that constantly try to silence them, we come alongside them through empathy and empowerment.

What do you find most rewarding about working in public interest law?

The best part of working in public interest law is knowing that I am using my degree and skills towards social justice. There are times where it is disheartening to think that litigating individual cases does not quickly bring about the major reform that is needed within such a broken system. However, after every victory, no matter how small, I realize how important it is to have empowered a youth to have a voice. I also realize that every small step forward, is still an important step forward to accomplish change, and I know that the work that I do helps contribute to that.

In your opinion, what qualities makes a “good” public interest lawyer?

Public interest lawyers need commitment to the work they are doing, but also the willingness to stretch and grow their understanding for the populations they are working with. They need a self-awareness to understand that they have limitations in understanding the people they are working with who are, in fact, people.  The ability to separate and self-care is also incredibly important. Sometimes you need to remember that taking thirty minutes to yourself or putting that motion down for the night will make you better and more capable of completing the tasks later. The work will always be there, so in order to sustain your ability to continue to do the work and not burn out, it’s important to take care of yourself.

Aside from your work as an attorney, what do you like to do in your free time?

In line with my self-care mantra, one of my favorite ways to destress and take time away is to work at Comic Cons. I am lucky enough to have several close friends who run and work at different Comic Cons around the world. Because of this I am able to step away a few times a year, be around friends and immerse myself in an entirely different atmosphere that is so far removed from public interest law. After these weekends I often feel refreshed and ready to dive back into my work. And I’ve gotten to meet some pretty cool people along the way.