Justin Brooks entered law school with an ardent desire to work in the public interest. “I knew I wanted to use the law to help other people, whether that meant working for a legal nonprofit or in government service,” he recalled.
A Los Angeles native who earned his undergraduate degree in criminology and justice studies at California State University, Justin applied to Vanderbilt because an undergraduate mentor, Dr. Leigh Bradberry, ‘00, had earned her law degree at VLS. “Dr. Bradberry ran an internship with the Los Angeles Superior Court, and that’s where I got my first exposure to the legal profession,” he said.
Justin chose to attend Vanderbilt because of its strong Public Interest Office and ample opportunities for experiential learning. As a 1L, he and two classmates, Bria Black and Emily Slifkin, researched to clarify how Tennessee legal aid organizations could support clients impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. They produced a memo that was presented to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which issued an order clarifying that the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct permitted legal aid organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to clients. “It was incredible to have the opportunity to work on such an impactful project in the local community during my first year of law school,” he said.
As a 2L, Justin joined the staff of the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law. “Working on the journal was an invaluable learning experience that helped grow my legal writing and research skills,” he said.
He also helped lead the Vanderbilt Legal Aid Society, which organizes pro bono legal service opportunities and sponsors summer stipends to help defray living expenses for students working in unpaid positions for legal nonprofits.
Justin also gained from his coursework, through which he gained a thorough grounding in the law and honed essential legal research and writing skills. “Faculty here are experts in their fields, and I appreciated their enthusiasm to teach the law and their willingness to discuss its flaws and how law can be improved to make people’s lives better,” he said.
Justin worked in unpaid internships during both law school summers, advocating for domestic violence and sexual assault victims through the Metro Nashville Office of Family Safety’s Jean Crowe Advocacy Center in 2021 and working on civil matters for the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands in Murfreesboro in 2022. He also worked for a semester as a law clerk at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee, where his research supported civil and criminal cases.
After graduation, Justin will join the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Access to Justice, created in 2016 to help low-income Americans, as an Honors Program Attorney. His work will focus on improving access to justice and to critical civil legal services for low-income Americans, fulfilling a career ambition Justin has cherished since before he entered college.
“We recited the Pledge of Allegiance in primary school, and it ends with the promise of ‘liberty and justice for all,” he recalled. “As I grew up, I saw that equal justice is not a reality in this country. Low-income families can’t access the courts because of the prohibitive costs of lawyers and litigation. The cost barrier is especially problematic for people dealing with life-changing issues like child custody, eviction, debt relief, and safety from abuse.”
He encourages students preparing for any area of legal practice to take clinics, serve in externships, and take advantage of other experiential learning opportunities throughout law school. “Go out of your way to take an externship or clinic,” he said. “They offer practical learning experiences that are impossible to gain in the classroom!”