$1M gift funds Southern Center for Human Rights fellowships

23rd January, 2013
Fulton County Daily Report
Meredith Hobbs

The Southern Center for Human Rights has received a $1 million gift from a former student of Stephen Bright, the group's guiding force for 30 years, to fund fellowships for new lawyers.

"I thought it was a way to make it possible for more people to do public interest law," said James Kwak, who took Bright's annual class on capital punishment at Yale Law School and now teaches business law at the University of Connecticut School of Law."

It's often said that we have too many lawyers. While we may have too many lawyers in the corporate world, we do not have too many lawyers to serve the poor," said Kwak, who received his law degree from Yale in 2011 while co-authoring two books on the financial sector meltdown of 2008 and the U.S. national debt.

Before starting law school in 2008, Kwak, 43, had already had several careers. After receiving a Ph.D. in French intellectual history from Berkeley in 1997, he worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Co., then for Ariba, which launched in 1996 to provide Internet-based business procurement software.

Kwak cofounded Guidewire Software with some colleagues in 2001. The company, which produces back-end software for the insurance industry, went public a year ago, which he said put him in the position to make the gift to the Southern Center.

"I drove to New Haven, had lunch with Steve Bright and talked about how people go from law school into public interest law," Kwak said.

At Yale, Kwak saw that far more people go to law school hoping to become public interest lawyers than actually go into public interest law after graduating.

"It's much easier to get a job at a corporate law firm if you graduate from a top law school like Yale than at a public interest organization. The process is easier, and it's more attractive if you have a lot of debt."

Kwak said he left Guidewire for law school for the intellectual challenge and the chance to work on public policy issues. He and his brother-in-law, Simon Johnson, an economics professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, started a blog on the global economy, BaselineScenario.com, while he was at Yale, which led to two books, 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, then White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You.

Kwak said he's too busy teaching right now to write another book, but he started blogging about economic policy issues for TheAtlantic.com last year.

The Southern Center has used Kwak's gift, which he is paying out over three years, to create the Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins Fellowship.

More than 100 years ago, Parden and Hutchins, the only African-American lawyers in Chattanooga, Tenn., took on the appeal of an African-American man, Ed Johnson, who'd been convicted in 1906 of raping a white woman and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Parden journeyed to Washington to ask U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan for a stay, which Harlan granted after he and the other justices decided to accept the case for review. That night, a mob broke into the jail in Chattanooga and lynched Johnson.

Kwak said he chose the Southern Center because of its work defending prisoners on death row and exposing and improving conditions in Southern prisons and jails.

"The work they do is extremely important," said Kwak. "Whatever you may think about the underlying morality of the death penalty, it gets imposed very heavily on people who are poor, mentally disabled and who don't have a lot of resources."

"The Southern Center has done a lot to help people who would not be helped otherwise, to highlight the injustices of the legal system as a whole and to provide access to justice," he said.

"It is a jaw-dropping gift," said Sara Totonchi, the Southern Center's executive director. She said the gift will allow the group to fund new lawyers' salaries, benefits and related expenses, such as open-records fees and travel to prisons around the South, for about a decade.

Kwak's gift will initially fund a three-year fellowship for Crystal Redd. She was a death penalty investigator for the Southern Center from 1999 until 2003 and then taught in the Atlanta Public Schools for seven years before going to law school. Redd will join the group in the fall after receiving her law degree from Harvard Law School and focus on impact litigation to improve prison and jail conditions.

Totonchi said the size of Kwak's gift will allow the group to fund lawyers like Redd for longer stints.

"Often fellowships are only a year long, and it becomes time for the fellow to leave just as they are getting deep into the work."The Southern Center is leanly staffed, with 12 lawyers and 26 total people. Totonchi said junior attorneys start at $38,000 and no one is paid more than $60,000. Redd's salary is in line with what junior attorneys are paid, she added.