Rachel Smit ('13) Named Skadden Fellow
Prestigious fellowship funds her work at Greater Boston Legal Services
Rachel Smit (’13) is someone who knows what she wants and just how to get it. Before coming to law school, Smit wanted to work in public interest. She also knew she wanted to work at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), which provides free civil representation for the neediest residents in Boston and the surrounding towns. She interned for GBLS for both her 1L and 2L summers, did a BU clinic housed at GBLS, and even went to Guatemala to enhance her Spanish. But as early as her 1L summer, her supervisors at GBLS warned her of the hiring freeze and that she should branch out and network.
“I said, ‘No, this is what I want to do,'” Smit says. “Recognizing that fellowships were probably my only opportunity to keep working in the Employment Law Unit at GBLS, I decided to put all my eggs in that basket and went back my second year. Going into my second summer I knew I needed to apply for a fellowship because that was the only way I could do this work.”
She applied for and was granted the prestigious Skadden Fellowship. Known as the “legal Peace Corps,” the Skadden Foundation provides funding to law students who are devoting their lives to providing legal services to indigent persons across the U.S. after graduation. The two-year fellowship provides students with a salary and fringe benefits and covers students not under a law school low-income protection plan. Fellows work across the United States on various projects.
“I just feel incredibly lucky, and thrilled, that I can keep doing the work that I love,” Smit says.
Smit advocates for temporary workers in Chelsea, MA, to enforce the Temporary Worker’s Right to Know Act, which became effective January 2013. The law protects the rights of workers to know basic information about their jobs (such as pay rates, type of job and worksite employers), regulates staffing agency fees, and provides for inspections and investigations by the Department of Labor Standards.
“When temporary workers don’t get paid the minimum wage or if they suffer workplace injuries, they might not even know the names of their employers to hold them accountable,” Smit says. “That’s why this job notice that they are now required to receive is so important."
Smit works with the Chelsea Collaborative, an organization dedicated to enhancing the community of Chelsea through collaboration and education. She provides community legal education and help train volunteers, in addition to directly representing workers and engaging in administrative advocacy.
In a feature about the new law, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health noted the story of Jose Mutz, who was cheated out of thousands of dollars by a temp agency for over two years of work. It is these types of workers Smit helps.
“Community organizations have spent years documenting the stories of temp workers. They are sometimes picked up in vans at four and five in the morning, unmarked vans, and they don't even know where they are going,” Smit says.
Smit worked in public policy before law school, but she felt that something was missing. After volunteering as a conversation partner for Spanish-speakers learning English, she started to figure out what that missing piece was.
“I realized that what really motivates me is people’s stories,” Smit says. “So I thought about where to go with that, and I realized law school made the most sense for me because I wanted to be able to advocate for and with individual clients, in particular low-wage workers.”
Getting advice from BU School of Law Career Development Office, she took on a case through the Volunteer Lawyers Project and started volunteering with GBLS during her 1L year. Her BU Law clinic housed at GBLS helped her develop litigation skills as she tackled a wide range of cases from divorce to disability to unemployment insurance, as well as gain experience researching a case involving an employment agency.
In the future, Smit still hopes to be doing public interest work. She likes that it is a combination of working with clients, researching and writing, and interacting and working with community organizations to seek justice for workers.
" I still want to be working as a legal services lawyer with workers and community organizations,” Smit says.
At the end of the day, for Smit, it is all about the clients.
“I have learned in law school that good lawyering is about storytelling. We do a lot of other things as well, but at the heart of what we do is the client’s experience and the client’s story,” Smit says.
Reported by Elyssa Sternberg
Updated April 30, 2014