by Grace Yuh
Every year, a cohort of students and alumni with an extraordinary commitment to public interest lawyering is recognized through a range f awards and fellowships. From the David Grossman Exemplary Clinical Student and Andrew L. Kaufman Pro Bono Award honorees to Skadden Fellows and recipients of the Public Service Venture Fund, HLS has no shortage of aspiring lawyers working on social justice issues.
Keeping Tabs is a Q&A series that follows up with such alumni on their careers after graduation, the lasting impacts of their clinical and pro bono experiences at HLS, and their experiences in a variety of sectors of law.
Michael Turi graduated from HLS in 2015, where he was a student attorney in the housing, immigration, and employment law clinics. He was a Skadden Fellow at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a fellow at the plaintiff-side labor & employment firm Lichten & Liss-Riordan, and a law clerk to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants. Most recently, he returned to HLS and joined the Project on Predatory Student Lending in 2020 as a staff attorney.
Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP): We’d love to get an idea of what your law school experience was like. Please tell us about your involvement in clinics or Student Practice Organizations.
Michael Turi (MT): My second and third years at HLS were absolutely defined by my clinical experiences. Every semester I commuted into Boston for clinical work; during 2L year, for the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic at Greater Boston Legal Services, and during 3L year, for the Post-Foreclosure Eviction Defense Clinic at the Legal Services Center and an Employment Clinic placement at Justice at Work.
OCP: Were there any cases, clients, or community moments that were particularly impactful to you?
MT: Because I spent an entire academic year with the Immigration Clinic, I would say that experience had the biggest impact on me. I worked mainly with two clients, both LGBT, who had fled life-threatening persecution in their home countries and were seeking asylum here. It was really gratifying to work with them over the course of an entire year, rather than just a few months, and provide continued representation that helped them feel at ease moving forward with their cases.
OCP: Law school is often a period of growth and exploration. Would you say that any of your clinical experiences informed the path of your career after graduation?
MT: My clinical work heavily informed my choices after graduation. When I began law school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a public interest career, though I don’t think I could have given you any more detail than that. In clinics I was afforded the chance to gain substantive experience with litigation, which was really valuable. As just one example, in the Post-Foreclosure Eviction Defense Clinic, my clinical supervisor, Maureen McDonagh, allowed me to guide a client in an eviction matter through an 8-hour long mediation where our opponent, a large national bank, was represented by a major law firm. We ultimately agreed on a favorable settlement for our client, though we had to litigate a bit further to get it enforced. There were a lot of useful lessons there on using the tools of the courtroom to win and maintain justice for our clients.
OCP: What inspired you to pursue law? Have these inspirations changed for you in the transitions before law school, during your time at HLS, and in your early career?
MT: I come from a family that needed the law on their side to survive at one point, so it’s always been fresh on my mind. My father and grandparents were welcomed into this country as refugees from Hungary in the 1950s after fleeing a brutal crackdown by the Soviet Union. After I graduated college, I worked with a terrific AmeriCorps program in Boston called the New American Immigration Program, where I helped immigrants—many of whom had been through harrowing experiences of their own—apply for U.S. citizenship and pass the citizenship exam. The jump to law from there seemed obvious. There’s always a market in the law for people in
need who don’t have a lot of resources.
OCP: You joined the Project on Predatory Lending as a staff attorney in 2020. What brought you back to HLS? What work have you been doing with the Project in the past year?
MT: It’s a small world—the executive director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, Toby Merrill, is also a Skadden Fellow, so her work and the Project’s work had long been on my radar. When I joined the Project, the previous iteration of the Department of Education was refusing to grant virtually any relief on the federal student loans of borrowers who had been ripped off by predatory, for-profit schools, so we were—and still are—doing a lot of nationwide class-action litigation on behalf of those students. It’s a huge area of need, and I felt that with my background I could be useful. Last spring, I had a chance to argue a summary judgment motion in federal court that resulted in the Project winning student debt relief for over 7,000 Massachusetts-based borrowers. We’ve had a number of other exciting victories recently, and it’s been really gratifying to be back at the Legal Services Center where I started as a clinical student.
OCP: You were a Skadden Fellow with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. How did this partnership develop, why did you choose this specific organization, and what kind of work did you do with them?
MT: When I began exploring organizations for fellowship sponsorship, the first question had to be where I would be most useful to the clients. AALDEF stood out for two reasons. First, I was a Chinese language major as an undergraduate at Tufts, so I had a bit of an advantage as far as communication with my client base. Second, AALDEF was a leader in securing stolen wages for low-income workers, and my project focused on proactively preventing the evasion of wage judgments, so it was a natural fit.
OCP: During your time as AALDEF, what was your most important take away as a Skadden Fellow?
MT: I think a public interest fellowship gives you the opportunity to figure out where your interests intersect with the community’s needs. In a direct services-oriented project, as most Skadden fellowships are, the clients very much dictate the pace and direction of the work. So for example, I had a lot of cases representing restaurant workers in wage theft, collections, and even a bankruptcy matter, and all of that was very much in line with my project description. But toward the end of the fellowship, the community centers I worked with had been sending me other clients too, like domestic workers—and in one case even a musician who had his equipment stolen by an employer. In the context of a two-year fellowship, you can only accomplish so much, so it’s great to take those opportunities to help real people as they arise.
OCP: What do you think is the most important thing for new law graduates to keep in mind as they begin careers in law?
MT: I think the most important quality is being flexible. It’s a volatile employment market, and sometimes the best fit isn’t always in the practice area you have in mind. During my Skadden fellowship, I was excited about being an employment litigator, and then after some time working at Lichten & Liss-Riordan I thought to myself, “oh no, I’m about to be pigeonholed into a career as an employment litigator.” Then just as I started to become comfortable with that concept, the opportunity to do consumer rights-oriented litigation here at Harvard came up. So it never hurts to keep an open mind.
OCP: Between your fellowships with AALDEF and Lichten & Liss-Riordan, you’ve had the opportunity to work in both public interest organizations and more traditional law firms. What prompted you to pursue opportunities in both areas and what were some key differences between the two experiences?
MT: In the workers’ rights universe, the biggest difference with the private firms is that life tends to revolve around the class action. And that really raises the stakes for everyone involved. At AALDEF, I spent most of my time on small or even single-client matters, but at Lichten & Liss-Riordan I would say that about 80% of the time I was working on behalf of hundreds or even thousands of clients. A private firm has the resources to do that; LLR was a particularly good fit for me because they operate with a public interest-oriented mission. They take a lot of cases on the “cutting edge” of workers’ rights litigation, lawsuits that are far from a sure win, which presented me with a chance to do a lot of work on novel cases, including appeals. So I had a fun year with them.
OCP: You were most recently a law clerk to former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Gants. What was that experience like? Had you clerked before and if not, what guided you to do so at that point in your career?
MT: My first and only clerkship came as a fourth-year attorney. I think many judges increasingly look for law school graduates with work experience, so I didn’t feel it was unusual to clerk at that point in my career. For my part, I thought that clerking with the Supreme Judicial Court would be a really helpful window into the state appellate system, which would be useful for me representing clients on appeal in the future. The SJC in particular is a wonderful court. It’s a pleasant, collegial environment where the justices and clerks collaborate exceptionally well together on really challenging issues all year long. And of course it’s the court of last resort in most cases, so there’s a lot of gravity to what you’re writing when the court issues a decision. I had a great year.
OCP: Justice Gants is well-remembered for his legacy of commitment to public interest work. Did this impact your specific experience as a law clerk?
MT: Absolutely. The hallmark of Chief Justice Gants’ legacy was his commitment to expanding access to justice, particularly for the poor and for people unrepresented by counsel. He had little tolerance for barriers to the courtroom and was always working on ways to make our court system more accessible and more equitable. Of course he was a wonderful judge, but his role was much greater than that. He defined what it meant to be Chief; he truly took responsibility for the entire court system with all of its flaws. In his final days, he was working tirelessly with the Housing Court to minimize the challenges that would ensue as the COVID-related eviction ban came to an end. Having a mentor with that kind of commitment to public service was invaluable. It really reaffirmed the importance of proactive leadership in our public interest world.