Emily Burgess became interested in a career in public interest law while working as an intern with the Jean Crow Advocacy Center as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. The center serves survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and Burgess saw firsthand how attorneys helped clients understand their rights and what to expect in court. “My role was to listen, offer compassion, and acknowledge the difficult experiences our clients had gone through. While I recognize the importance of this role, witnessing lawyers assist clients more concretely made me realize I wanted to help people in ways only a law degree would allow me to do,” she said.
A native of Kingsport, Tennessee, Emily graduated from Peabody, where she studied human and organizational development, philosophy, and economics and history. After her experience at the Jean Crow Advocacy Center led her to apply to law schools, Vanderbilt’s collegial culture cemented her choice. She also received two scholarships earmarked for students seeking careers in public interest law: the Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey Scholarship and the Justice-Moore Family Scholarship.
At Vanderbilt, Emily has prepared for a career in civil legal service work by choosing from a broad array of social justice courses; she received the Scholastic Excellence Award in several classes, including Immigration Law and Policy, Actual Innocence Juvenile Justice, and Justice and Mass Incarceration. As a 2L, she worked as a research assistant for Professor Karla McKanders.
When Memphis-based immigration attorney Andrew Rankin asked McKanders if a student might be interested in researching and writing an article for the Tennessee Bar Association’s immigration law newsletter, McKanders encouraged Emily to take the assignment. Her article, “Garcia de Leon v. Garland: A Foot in the Door for Administrative Closure in the Sixth Circuit,” was published in 2021. Her work with Rankin on the article led to part-time work with his firm and whetted Emily’s interest in immigration law. “I had not really done academic legal writing before Professor McKanders suggested I write the TBA newsletter piece,” she said. “That experience gave me confidence.”
Emily also participated in the Workers Advocacy Practicum taught by Assistant Dean and Martha Craig Daughtrey Director for Public Interest Spring Miller. She wrote an opinion piece, “The High Stakes of Being a Low-Wage Tennessee Worker,” which The Tennessean published on Jan. 18, 2022, based on a report practicum students published that details the dearth of legal resources for low-income workers in Tennessee. To produce the report, students analyzed national data and data collected by the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and interviewed with civil legal service attorneys across the state. “The report found that many workers don’t realize that work-related problems like wrongful termination or difficulty securing unemployment benefits are legal issues. And even when they do, resources to help workers who can’t pay for legal representation are limited and overburdened,” she said.
During summers 2020 and 2021, Emily worked as an intern with Pisgah Legal Services of Asheville, North Carolina, and with the Tennessee Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, where she faced some sobering realities about the limits of legal advocacy. “My experience with the Post-Conviction Defender’s office redefined for me what constitutes a ‘win’ in this profession,” she said. “A ‘win’ doesn’t necessarily mean getting your client off death row—sometimes it’s convincing the governor to grant your client a temporary reprieve from an impending execution so he can spend more time with loved ones.”
During both academic years, she interned with the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands for course credit and served as pro bono director and co-executive director of the Vanderbilt Legal Aid Society. “Working with Vanderbilt Legal Aid has been my most meaningful extracurricular experience,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to build on pro bono programs offered to VLS students and connect with a community of students pursuing public interest work.”
Emily will work as a law clerk in the chambers of Judge Travis McDonough ‘97 of the Eastern District of Tennessee in Chattanooga for two years after law school. “I applied for clerkships at Dean Miller’s urging, and she also helped me choose courses and internships, encouraging me in incredibly thoughtful ways,” she said. “One of the biggest benefits of being at Vanderbilt Law School is the support and investment you receive from faculty members.”