Chris Rogers and Shawntel Williams, both members of Michigan Law’s Class of 2023, have been named 2023 Equal Justice Works Fellows. They are among 76 recipients, from law schools nationwide, of one of the country’s preeminent public interest post-graduate fellowships.

Chris Rogers, ’23
Chris Rogers, ’23

Both fellowship projects are highly personal. Williams, who is Filipino-American, will be providing legal services for Filipino victims of labor trafficking at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) through a fellowship sponsored by Albertsons and Kirkland & Ellis LLP. Rogers, who served with the US Navy in Iraq, will work with immigrants and veterans at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in El Paso through a fellowship sponsored by Greenberg Traurig LLP and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

“Immigration and veterans advocacy are two areas of the law that don’t normally meet,” Rogers said. “I came to law school initially because I had an interest in immigration stemming from my military service, where people who assisted the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan as interpreters are now trying to come to the US and need help. In law school, I began to see the problems that there are with the immigration system—and how hard it is to immigrate, especially if you’re not wealthy. I understood that it is an area of the law that really needs some work and that people going through the system need advocates.”

Shawntel Williams, ’23
Shawntel Williams, ’23

Growing up, Williams said she heard stories of Filipino workers in other countries experiencing abusive and exploitative working conditions with little to no pay. “I was sad to learn that the problem was just as prevalent here in the US, though it may be more inconspicuous. Labor traffickers use many tactics to maintain control over their victims, including debt bondage, isolation, deportation threats, and deceitful recruitment,” she explained. “It is my hope that through the work the clinic does, we can counter the injustice faced by Filipino migrants who’ve been subject to these abuses.” 

Serving those who served

Rogers interned with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid before his third year of law school, and everything clicked when he met representatives from Repatriate Our Patriots, who were seeking legal assistance for a couple of veterans.

Tens of thousands of military veterans are not US citizens; some go into the military to get citizenship but later encounter roadblocks. Others may not want to become citizens but are still entitled to veterans’ benefits and need help navigating a complex bureaucracy. Many legal aid groups in Texas don’t do immigration work since it can be difficult within the constraints of various grants and federal funding requirements. 

“There is a blind spot where it comes to veterans who are immigrants,” Rogers said. “So that’s where my two interests came together.” 

Although he doesn’t speak Spanish, a barrier to many legal aid jobs in Texas, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid was attracted to his military service. For example, “I am on [Veterans Administration] disability. I’ve been out of the military for four years and it still hasn’t all been sorted out. So I have a sense of what my clients are going through,” Rogers said.

Expanding services to Filipinos in LA

Through her work, Williams will help LAFLA broaden access to quality legal services for low-income Asian-Pacific Islander communities. She also will partner with community-based organizations in LA County that provide social services to Filipino victims of labor trafficking in order to create a legal clinic dedicated to these victims. 

The fellowship aligns well with her long-term interest in providing direct legal services especially in support of the Asian-Pacific Islander community and related to issues of trafficking—and perhaps one day being a clinical professor of law. 

“While I didn’t think I’d be going into direct legal services when I came into law school, my summer internships helped set me on that path, and I’ve really enjoyed it since,” she said. “My work as an Equal Justice Works fellow will help me continue to build expertise and substantive skills in pertinent areas of law, like immigration. I also will learn valuable skills in community-centered project development and implementation.”

Clinical training paved the way 

Both Williams and Rogers said their Equal Justice Works (EJW) fellowships build on experiences they had as Michigan Law students, especially as student-attorneys in the clinics. Each began their clinical practice during their first year as student-attorneys in the Workers’ Rights Clinic (now the 1L Advocacy Clinic). They also served in the Human Trafficking Clinic (HTC).

“My work with EJW will mirror a lot of what the HTC does, and I hope that both can serve as models for human trafficking-focused legal clinics nationwide,” said Williams. “I’m thankful to have had phenomenal supervisors who mentored me and helped me build invaluable skills, particularly with client relationship building and written advocacy. The HTC has also equipped me with much of the substantive knowledge regarding labor and sex trafficking that I’ll need throughout my work.”

Williams also noted the support of her Michigan Law peers who are public interest-oriented and from student organizations such as the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) and the Michigan Journal of Race and Law: “I attribute much of my success to them.” 

Rogers also credits his clinical experiences with laying the groundwork for his development as a public interest lawyer, including advocating for his fellow veterans in the Veterans Legal Clinic and for families in the Pediatric Advocacy Clinic.

He then got his first taste of immigration practice as a student-attorney in the Human Trafficking Clinic, work that he is excited to build on as an Equal Justice Works fellow.

“The immigration system is even more susceptible to racism and discrimination than other areas of the law, in part because courts have been reluctant to limit the federal government’s power to restrict and regulate immigration for any reason,” he explained. “If you run afoul of the immigration system, you are exiled for the rest of your life. So I see it as roughly on par with the criminal justice system in terms of areas where just a little bit of help at the right time—keeping someone on the right side of the justice outcomes early on—can have life-altering ramifications for people.”