Public Service Voices

Q&A with Carrie Tracy

By Christina Wong, J.D. Candidate 2009


What kinds of jobs have you had that were in public service law?

I worked for Jim McDermott before coming to law school. That gave me a sense about how law got made but not how it gets used.

During law school, I also worked at Columbia Legal Services, but my first internship was with NWFCO. The policy world is a really small network. At the time, I applied for another job with the public defender’s office. I applied for a job with Daniel Gross who is married to Ele Hamburger. She worked at NWFCO at the time, so you can say that I heard about NWFCO through the grapevine.

During my first year of law school in all the law classes I still didn’t see that litigation was a remedy. Even in torts class, it didn’t make sense that litigation was the solution. After all that people are still hurt. Policy and legislative work made more sense. It was good to have a job that made a difference. It felt good.

What kind of projects did you work on during your internship?

I worked on a testing campaign for the Idaho Community Action Network (a grass roots coalition that is an affiliate of Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, also known as ICAN). ICAN heard from its members that when people went to apply for S-CHIP, the State Child Health Insurance Program, they were refused. ICAN did a testing experiment: they sent people to apply for S-CHIP and found that only 1 person out of 40 got it. When they analyzed the results, they found that the differences in outcome were based on race—white people were refused for some reasons, but Latinos were refused for others. They wrote a report of the testing project which forced the Governor to change how the program was implemented and many more people were able to get S-CHIP as a result. I made a kit that explained how to replicate the campaign. The kit got published and was distributed around the country. I knew that other organizations around the country would do that project and that it would make a real difference.

Please describe what you do today and the kinds of projects you work on.

We work on a lot of different issues. Health care is the most common issue for our members. I also work on immigration reform and immigration rights work, utilities, food stamps, and racial profiling.

Is that what draws you to the work? The variety of issues you work on?

It’s the most exciting part of the job and the most frightening!

How do you adapt to that aspect of your work?

I need to teach myself about issues quickly. It’s very different from traditional legal work-- lawyers tend to specialize but working in a grassroots agency with a limited budget, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

You learn to not be afraid to call on people who are experts. It’s important to build a network of experts on the issue— for instance, researchers in DC. You make friends with them and keep in touch. Another thing you have to learn is to not be afraid to run with less than 100% perfect knowledge. People would be afraid to do that in a lawsuit but in this world, you’ve got to just make do with what you’ve got.

It seems like you’re describing something that I’ve always felt about legal work: our traditional notion of legal work, litigation, seems to be very detail oriented and specific, but policy work, which can be just as important of a legal strategy, requires seeing a big picture. Does that seem right?

A big frustration for me is that lawyers focus on smaller and smaller parts of the world but there are systemic problems that affect any issue such as racism. Looking at a small window will not help us address the issue. It bores me, focusing on a teeny part of the whole picture. I don’t understand being content with that. I also think that lawyers are very risk adverse and that makes them tighten down more on what they feel comfortable with and that makes them not want to have their clients talk to organizers or reporters, makes them not want to talk to the legislature which are all parts of a lawyer’s role.

When people think of public service work, they usually think of civil legal aid or government work. What made you interested in policy? How do you see policy as working in the public interest?

I did work at CLS and definitely saw the role that litigation can play and also saw that some lawyers were afraid to use community organizing as a tool. Lawyers can be afraid to lobby or use legislation, but those are important tools in the arsenal that we have. It is important for lawyers who do policy to bridge that gap—litigation is an important tool but lobbying and forcing the government to enforce the laws that exist in a better way are also important. When you do litigation you’re limited to the remedies available but with organizing, there is no limit! You can ask for things that would not be granted in a lawsuit. Take the ICAN CHIP campaign -- the government could see that people will push until they get what they want so it gave a more complete remedy than litigation would have.

What does public service law mean to you? Do you have a specific vision about public interest work?

People should have the power that comes from community organizing. My job is to help people access the power they have and to take the country back from people who control that power, whether it’s through litigation or through organizing. Public interest law means helping people find their voice and their power.

What kind of advice would you give to law students who want to work in public interest?

Do as many internships as you can in law school because people who can’t afford to hire you can afford to hire you as an intern. You get to meet so many people, get so many experiences, and learn about the kind of law you want to do. It’s probably the only way to find a job after law school—people know you and know your work and will help you find work.

Don’t be afraid to ask people for help because people in public interest law are always wanting to help students. I’ve found people to be very generous with their time and with me, so get out there and talk to them.

Also, keep those loans low—fight for LRAP!

Have you ever felt burned out?

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, like the time I started crying at work when the immigration bill died. I knew there’d be raids, deportation, racial profiling-- a lot of people would be hurting.

What do you do to keep going?

For me, the solution is to talk with other people doing the work. I go to conferences, spend time with our members and hear about the incredible work they are doing. Our members are so brave, they live this every day but they keep fighting. They’re amazing. And my co-workers keep me going-- they save my life every day. We have a really tight team. They keep me going.

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