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Penn Law graduates share perspectives on public interest careers at TPIC alumni dinner

At last month’s annual Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC) Washington, DC Student & Alumni Dinner, a distinguished panel of Penn Law alumni shared their experiences pursuing careers in the public interest. The dinner, co-sponsored by the Leo Model Foundation for Government Service and Public Affairs, brought together more than 50 Penn Law students, alumni, and staff for a celebration of service. Alumni working in all facets of service, ranging from the Legal Services Corporation and numerous government agencies, to advocacy organizations like MALDEF and the National Women’s Law Center, attended – helping to achieve the Law School’s aim of bringing current and past students together to connect around their mutual service goals.

After an introduction by Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean and Executive Director, Penn Law’s Associate Director of Public Sector Careers and Director of Government Programs Neta Borshansky moderated a panel discussion featuring Todd A. Cox L’92, Director of Policy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., Premal Dharia L’03, Director of Litigation at Civil Rights Corps, and Sarah Greenberger L’05.

Dharia described her career path, noting that she entered law school with the goal of becoming a public defender. After graduation, she worked as a public defender in DC, then in Baltimore for the Federal Defenders Office and then as defense counsel in the military commission at Guantanamo Bay. Now, in her role as Director of Litigation at Civil Rights Corps, she focuses on impact litigation, policy work, and advocacy, bringing each of those elements together in pursuit of criminal justice reform.

Cox shared how he learned about the possibility of becoming a public interest lawyer from a college professor. Before then, Cox said he lacked exposure to lawyers because there were none in his family, and that his parents had grown up subject to racial segregation. Once he arrived at Penn Law, a professor persuaded him to pursue a career in the Department of Justice, where he originally worked in the Voting Section, which enforces federal laws aimed at protecting voting rights. He later transitioned to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and then to the NAACP LDF. This month he is joining the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, where he will direct their civil society program, dedicated to ensuring the full and equitable participation of the most vulnerable in the country’s democratic process.

Greenberger served in the Peace Corps and taught at a New York charter school before deciding to attend law school to pursue public interest law. After graduation, she completed a clerkship with the Honorable Judge David S. Tatel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. While she initially planned to focus her career on education law and litigation, Greenberger soon decided to pursue policy work instead. Greenberger has moved between roles that involved legal work — such as her time at the Solicitor General’s office — and policy work, such as when she worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior. At the National Audubon Society, she oversees the conservation organization’s national policy team. 

The panelists also discussed work-related outcomes of which they were particularly proud. Dharia discussed the impact of her work on affecting the drivers of mass incarceration through lawsuits around the country, and Greenberger talked about the recent passage of solar power legislation in Arkansas, which the Audubon society helped to steward as part of its strategy on addressing climate changes. Cox cited the LDF’s role in defeating a proposed judicial nomination in the Senate which the organization believed would have a negative effect on racial justice.

Finally, the panelists shared the important soft and professional skills that have allowed them to succeed in public interest work. Cox discussed his facility with coalition politics, Dharia noted her ability to navigate the ecosystem of criminal justice while doing issue-driven work, and Greenberger mentioned the importance of decisiveness.

The panelists then took questions and comments from the audience. After the panel, the evening continued with networking and conversations between alumni, TPIC students, staff, and faculty.