This year’s pro bono week, which shines a light on “Voices of Democracy: Ensuring Justice for All,” is a fitting opportunity to recognize the work of Equal Justice Works Fellow Joe Philipson, who provides legal representation on workers’ rights matters to immigrant populations in Los Angeles. Philipson is sponsored by Fish & Richardson and Microsoft through EJW, a nonprofit organization that aligns opportunities between public interest lawyers, legal aid organizations, and financial supporters to provide access to justice to individuals in underserved communities.
EJW places over 300 fellows annually with legal aid organizations across the United States to address a breadth of unmet legal needs. Philipson is halfway through his two-year fellowship placement with Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles.
Philipson wanted to participate in the EJW fellowship program after learning about the organization in college. Reflecting on his fellowship thus far, Philipson discussed his work, why he got involved, and the impact it has on him.
Q: Would you tell us a little about your background?
A: I often say that my path to this work started before I was even born. My great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Czarist Russia and worked in sweatshops and in other low-wage industries. I grew up hearing about how my great-grandmother hid in a broom closet at 12 years old while working in a garment sweatshop because an inspector had shown up. The stories continued with my grandmother who worked at a makeup factory at 15 years old. On her first day, she walked in to see a cloud of particles in the air and walked right back out and asked for a transfer. She knew even then that it was an unhealthy work environment — and unlike many other workers, she could choose to leave without fearing the consequences.
Growing up with these stories motivated me to work to make people’s lives better. I decided to attend law school so that I could become a community lawyer with the goal of supporting immigrant workers like my ancestors.
Q: How do organizations partner with Equal Justice Works?
A: EJW fellowships are possible because of the firms, corporations, private foundations, and individuals who donate money to fund positions in which new attorneys can train. Many legal aid organizations do not have sufficient resources to train new public interest attorneys because they must prioritize their limited resources to fund experienced attorneys. EJW fellowships enable legal aid organizations like Bet Tzedek Legal Services to invest in new public interest attorneys like myself. Outside of the monetary donations, many of the sponsors donate time to clinics, pro bono representation, and even technology resources. Attorneys at Fish and Microsoft have provided pro bono services to people in need through our weekly virtual clinic.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about what you do with the Employment Rights Project?
A: The team I work with mostly handles wage theft, where individuals are not being paid the minimum legal wage, not being paid overtime, or paid as they were promised. Many of the clients we serve are undocumented immigrants. We also handle a range of other issues including discrimination, harassment, retaliation, unemployment insurance, and human trafficking.
Q: How has Fish supported your work?
A: Fish has been terrific to work with in several ways. We regularly have Fish attorneys participate in our weekly virtual employment rights clinics. During these clinics, Fish volunteers interview and counsel clients, thereby empowering them to take matters into their own hands. Fish attorneys, staff, and summer clerks are always professional and respectful to each client, and that goes a long way. I look forward to seeing how the relationship with Fish continues to evolve. As always, it’s nice to know we have a champion in our corner willing to provide additional support when needed.
Q: Can you share with us a case that had a profound impact on you and/or your client?
A: One recent case that stands out in my mind involves an undocumented client from Guatemala. The client was a construction day laborer whose employer did not pay overtime, denied him rest and meal breaks, and completely failed to pay him for his last three weeks of work. My client had never experienced wage theft like this before, and it was very upsetting to him. My client did not speak English but participated actively in settlement negotiations including most of the discussions with his former boss. During the call, the defendant was verbally aggressive towards me and made threats against me and my client. Although my client could not understand the full conversation, he certainly understood the tone. After the call, my client reassured me that in the end, it will all work out. He told me that either the opposing party will settle, or we’ll prevail in a hearing, but either way the construction boss will know that he can’t mistreat workers. The support from my client in that moment showed we had already accomplished one part of our mission: ensuring our clients know that exploitation is unacceptable, and we can help to end it.
Q: What do you want us to know about your clients or the nature of the issues they face?
A: Because so many of my clients are undocumented, immigration questions and concerns are constantly brought up. There is so much change that needs to happen to improve our current system, but right now, there are opportunities to combat the exploitation of immigrants in this country who work difficult and important jobs and must be paid a legal and living wage.
Q: What advice would you give to an attorney interested in getting more involved in pro bono?
A: There are a million ways to get involved and each way is helpful. Participating in clinics and cases and drafting research memos are all incredibly impactful. Even technical support is needed in some instances. If you speak multiple languages, translation is a wonderful help to many organizations. There are so many ways to contribute, regardless of time constraints, so it’s important not to get hung up on the details. Anything you can do is appreciated, so dive in.
*Responses have been edited for length and clarity.