“The perfect place to pursue my passions”
BU Law helps Nick Levenhagen (’12) cultivate his dedication to helping underserved Holocaust survivors
For Nick Levenhagen (’12), advocacy and care for the elderly and disabled has been a strong passion throughout his legal education. Last September, with funding from a prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship funded by the law firm Greenberg Traurig, he began his career with pro bono legal services organization Bet Tzedek in Los Angeles providing outreach to underserved Holocaust survivors.
Levenhagen is part of an esteemed group of law school graduates selected for two-year fellowship grants from Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit organization with the mission of cultivating legal careers in public service. Based on proposals submitted by applicants, the program seeks to establish cooperation between public interest lawyers, nonprofit organizations, law firms and donors to address unresolved social and legal discrepancies.
According to Levenhagen, Holocaust survivors face additional challenges in the overwhelming process of planning for their last stages of life. Out of the approximately 10-12,000 survivors currently residing in Los Angeles, 30% live below the federal poverty level, significantly higher than the national average of Americans aged 65 or older, he explains. Levenhagen maintained in his application that these survivors face unique difficulties, including a lack of traditional support networks and costly medical needs.
“These additional challenges inherent in being a Holocaust survivor highlight the importance of ensuring that access to benefits, services and support are provided as early as possible,” he said. “This project is an opportunity to fill this critical gap, protect these individuals from additional pain, and allow them to live out the end of their lives in peace and dignity.”
Equal Justice Works and the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, the sponsor of Levenhagen’s project, agreed and notified him in December of his 3L year of their support. Greenberg Traurig is the largest supporter of Equal Justice Works Fellows, having invested more than $6.9 million in the program since 1999, according to its Web site.
“I am incredibly grateful to Equal Justice Works, Greenberg Traurig, the attorneys at Bet Tzedek and BU Law for their support of this important project,” explains Levenhagen. “Holocaust survivors in the United States have been disproportionately affected by the hardships of poverty and social isolation. I am honored by the opportunity to work with members of the survivor community to help ensure access to vital care and support services needed throughout the aging process.”
During the first six months of his project, Levenhagen developed a diagnostic tool that can be used by staff members, volunteers and pro bono attorneys to holistically assess the legal needs of Holocaust survivor clients. Once those needs are identified, Levenhagen, other Bet Tzedek staff, and/or partnering organizations are able to provide appropriate counseling, referrals and/or representation.
In addition to offering individual counseling and representation, Levenhagen has conducted community presentations for approximately 115 Holocaust survivors and developed important relationships with social service and governmental agencies that work with the survivor population.
One of the next stages of the project is to begin running an increased number of clinics with pro bono attorneys to assist survivors in completing end-of-life documents, such as advance health care directives, powers of attorney for finance and statutory wills.
Levenhagen came to appreciate the need for such services while working—throughout much of his time at BU Law—as a home health aide and personal caregiver, providing in-home health care and assistance to seniors, and as a residential counselor at a community care center assisting adults with developmental disabilities to learn independent skills. During the summer of 2011, Levenhagen interned in Washington, D.C. for the Disability Rights Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, where he conducted legal research and drafted motions and legal memoranda for cases involving Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act discrimination claims.
Also during his time as a law student, Levenhagen participated in the Asylum & Human Rights Clinic (now the Immigrants' Rights Clinic), which helped to refine his savvy for working with individual clients and representing them in a court of law.
”The clinic was a remarkable experience for developing the skills needed for direct client-based service, such as client interviewing, counseling and testimony preparation,” he explains. “Additionally, I wrote substantive legal briefs, made appearances before immigration judges and questioned witnesses, which is invaluable for the work I currently do representing clients in appeals.”
Levenhagen stayed on with the Asylum & Human Rights clinic as a research assistant during his 3L year. “I could not have asked for better training for doing direct service work during my career,” he notes.
“From my first day at law school, BU Law has provided me with unwavering support in my pursuit of a career assisting vulnerable and underserved populations,” says Levenhagen.
In particular, he is grateful for the guidance of Carolyn Goodwin, director of public service programs, who continually supported and helped facilitate his public interest placements. Throughout all three years of law school, Levenhagen worked under Goodwin’s supervision to represent low-income clients in unemployment benefits appeals through the Volunteer Lawyers' Project. And when discussing possible host organizations for his fellowship, Goodwin was the one to put him in touch with a contact at Bet Tzedek.
“The Career Development Office helped me navigate the job market to find the best internships and volunteer opportunities to cultivate my legal skills, and the Public Interest Project provided me with funding so that I could take advantage of opportunities to gain experience in the public interest field during the summers,” he explains. “My professors are amazingly supportive, and the wide array of courses offered expanded my knowledge in my fields of interest. BU Law turned out to be the perfect place for me to pursue my passions.”
When asked what advice he would give students with similar interests, Levenhagen suggests gaining as much practical experience working with clients during law school. “It will help you develop the skills necessary to serve your clients in a post-graduate position and convince employers/funders that you are the right person to serve your target community.”
“Seek out volunteer opportunities in addition to summer clerkships, and establish a connection with the community that you would like to help,” he adds. “Additionally, contact alumni who are working in public interest positions to learn from their experiences. I am happy to talk to students anytime!”