By Ethan Bishop-Watt
Ethan Bishop-Watt graduated from Texas State University in 2012 with a degree in Philosophy. He received his law degree from Washington and Lee University School of Law in May 2015. He is now a staff attorney in the Sexual Assault Unit of Lone Star Legal Aid, working with survivors of sexual assault to escape their abusers, move on from the attack, and obtain legal remedies for obstacles that get in their way.
“The Shepherd Consortium creates droves of future powerful individuals—leaders, business people, scientists, lawyers, doctors, community organizers, and so on—who are passionate about, and compassionate for, the powerless in a way that society has never seen before,” writes Bishop-Watt (W&L Law 2015).
I work in low income communities because they’re where I came from. But I didn’t always feel that way. I was raised by a single mom throughout rural Texas; we were poor, and we often moved around while my mother chased something better on the horizon. Through my mother and the communities we lived in, I first witnessed the tremendous failure of the legal system to address the needs of those who need the most.
I left high school desperate to escape my past. All I knew is that I wanted to make a bunch of money so that I would never have to be poor again. In college I began to unknowingly take courses that challenged the ethics of my goals, and by the time my senior year came around, I wrote my Honors Thesis about potential ways to use the U.S. legal system to alleviate the exploitation of foreign labor for goods sold domestically.
I went to Washington and Lee University School of Law confused about what I wanted. Finding myself out of place in the business crowd, I found the Public Interest Law Student Association and joined the executive board in my first year. I became more interested in the different kinds of poverty work, so a friend and alumna of the Shepherd Consortium encouraged me to apply. I was accepted, and I will always owe a debt to the program for providing me the funding to pursue a public interest internship that I would not have been able to otherwise afford.
This led me to my Summer 2013 internship at the Georgia Justice Project (GJP). GJP is a non-profit organization that does holistic indigent criminal defense, with a focus on community involvement. The organization pairs legal services with social services and works with clients to get their lives back on track—often through reintegration after incarceration—to avoid recidivism. The organization also does record expungement work and is active and successful in lobbying for criminal justice reform in Georgia. As a result of these programs, GJP has radically reduced the re-incarceration of its clients: the national rate of individuals who are re-incarcerated after a conviction is over 70%, and for GJP’s clients it is under 5%.
My experiences at GJP drastically altered my perspective on the world and the course on which my life was headed. I directly worked on litigation cases, record expungement cases, and policy advocacy regarding pardon laws in Georgia. My supervising attorney took me to meet a Georgia state legislator about the issue. I read books and research studies on the failures of the criminal justice system and how that spills into many other social justice issues. The staff also took me to conferences and symposia to work with other public interest organizations and students.
I personally interacted with clients, families, and the communities that GJP works with. Twice a year the organization puts on a huge party for all clients and family members who wish to attend, and I participated in the one that was thrown during that summer, at which we also distributed school supplies to all of the children in attendance. I painted faces, played with children, and generally witnessed how important the organization is to its community. As valuable as public defense offices are for the volume of cases they handle, GJP is equally valuable because of the long-lasting effect it has on nearly everything it touches.
This experience culminated in a deep commitment to social justice issues and a new interest in policy advocacy. I returned to school and took as many classes involving public interest as I could. I took part in more events involving those issues, including a three-day retreat. I took the Poverty and Human Capability research seminar, which broadened my perspective to include global, environmental, and economic issues regarding poverty. It also forced me to challenge my commitment to what should be the aim of poverty reduction. I did my primary research paper in this course on the issue of U.S. fundamentalists aiding African nations in the criminalization of homosexual activity and the persecution of anyone believed to be gay. This led to a lot of research regarding the treatment of homosexuals in the criminal justice system in those nations, which then led to statistics on sexual assault of those individuals.
I did my second summer internship at the Federal Public Defender Office (FPDO) of the Northern District of Texas (Dallas Office). This was a continuation of my interest in indigent criminal justice issues from my time at GJP. It gave me the opportunity to see the issue from a federal perspective, which involved a lot less client interaction than GJP. While I enjoyed my time at the FPDO, it showed me that I want to work somewhere that I get to work frequently and directly with clients, something that I really valued about my previous experiences.
I got lucky in that I came to this realization after I had been accepted in the W&L Law’s Criminal Justice Clinic, where I got plenty of client interaction. It’s a clinic that allows students to represent indigent clients from the surrounding areas under the guidance and tutelage of a supervising attorney/professor. That opportunity was the most rewarding in terms of practical experience, because I was responsible for my own cases, and got to make my own decisions about the strategy all the way through each case’s resolution. In continuation of my commitment to public interest, I also took classes that explored laws on drugs and prostitution and the civil-side of indigent legal services.
After graduation and the bar exam, I was offered my dream job: a staff attorney position at Lone Star Legal Aid (LSLA). LSLA’s main purpose is to provide a vast array of civil legal services to low income individuals across east Texas. My unit has just been created under a new grant with the goal of working with survivors of sexual assault on their legal needs, which may not always be obvious or traditional. The grant allows us to help all survivors with their civil legal needs related to the abuse, which includes intimate partner violence and non-partner violence.
Our long-term goal is to work more closely with non-partner sexual violence survivors. They represent the vast majority of sexual assault incidents every year. Most of these survivors do not realize that they may have legal needs or that there are legal solutions to their needs. If they are assaulted in their home, they may not feel safe sleeping there anymore, but they likely don’t know that they could speak with a legal aid attorney for help getting out of a lease or improving security measures. They may suffer from trauma that doesn’t allow them to work or continue their education, but they may not know that they can get help applying for public benefits and working with their school about their enrollment status and scholarships. There are countless other possibilities.
Part of my job is to work with clients to meet those needs, and another part is reaching out to the community to let others know that this new unit exists and that there is help available for these survivors. Over time, we hope that people will begin to think about these services as they do of others. When someone poor is accused of a crime, he usually knows he’ll get a public defender. When a poor woman is escaping an abusive marriage, she often knows that there are shelters and legal services available to her. But when someone poor is raped, he almost never thinks that there are attorneys available to help him unless it’s to sue his attacker. If we’re going to help those survivors, then we have to overcome that lack of awareness.
What I love most about my job is that, at the end of the day, I can go home and know that everything I did that day was the right thing to do. All I have done was help people who needed to be helped, in ways that they could never have helped themselves. I never have to file a pleading that will hurt anyone who hasn’t already hurt my client. And while I do not get to participate in policy advocacy while employed with LSLA, I get to engage in some more subtle efforts to change the system. When I come across a judge who is unfriendly to a particular issue, I can continue to push that issue into the spotlight to try to demonstrate its significance. We’re looking into ways to prevent the possibility of future victims from repeat attackers. And, of course, I hope that simply by making this unit successful over the course of a few years that laws and court policies will be forced to change out of demand for services and remedies that were previously not pursued.
All of this leads me back to the Shepherd Consortium. I found it at a time in my life when I needed a push. And that’s what it can be: a reminder for some, or an eye-opener for others. It provides opportunities that might not be attainable in its absence, and it leads to experiences that otherwise may never happen. Most students head into the summer with, at the very least, a spark. And then the internship gives that spark the fuel it needs to become a fire. Each individual fire may not be likely to change the world by itself. But every single year, the Shepherd Consortium creates droves of future powerful individuals—leaders, business people, scientists, lawyers, doctors, community organizers, and so on—who are passionate about, and compassionate for, the powerless in a way that society has never seen before.
As grateful as I am to the Shepherd Program for reminding me of my own passion, I’m even more appreciative of what the program will eventually mean to my family and friends and the communities that I came from. It’s exciting to know that the students this program invests in are graduating and will quickly become people with power and influence across the country and around the world. In the not-too-distant future there will be resources available to the poor that we can’t even imagine right now, as a direct result of the work that the Shepherd Consortium is doing today.