Appleseed – A Network of Public Interest Justice Centers

(In recognition that interest in Progressive Lawyer has been steadily increasing, we felt it to be a good time to periodically reintroduce you to the organizations and people we have featured as well to update the post with any changes relevant to the subject we are covering. This week I am re-posting our very first feature on the Appleseed Network from October 6th, 2014. Since this was published Betsy Cavendish has moved on to become general counsel for Washington. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. The Appleseed Network interim presidency is currently in the very capable hands of Annette LoVoi.)

Welcome to the launch of Progressive Lawyer! Every Monday over the next few months we will be spotlighting some of the most innovative progressive law organizations around the world and we could think of no better way to kick off the site and this feature than by starting with the Appleseed Network. As our mission (and yes we have chosen to accept it!) is to connect law students and lawyers with progressive, public interest organizations and firms from around the world, the first step is to become aware of who those organizations are. Please check in regularly on the site, follow us on Twitter, friend us on Facebook and join our LinkedIn group as this is just the beginning of what we hope will be a true, progressive legal community that leads with its values and makes a real difference in our world.

Welcome to Progressive Lawyer!

Progressive Lawyer:       Thank you for taking the time to speak to us! Please introduce yourself and describe your role in the Appleseed Network

Betsy headshot.2014
Betsy Cavendish

Betsy Cavendish: I’m Betsy Cavendish, President of Appleseed.  Appleseed has seventeen Centers in the U.S. and Mexico; I lead the headquarters office.  We’re a network of public interest justice centers. Each Center and the national office tackle a diverse portfolio of issues.  We address problems at their root causes and aim for systematic, structural solutions.  The national office incubates and supports local Centers.  We help connect our network of pro bono supporters to Centers to advance their work and we connect Centers to each other, so that they build on each others’ successes and learn from their efforts.

My role:  you’ve heard the phrase “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer?”  My roles span the range from social justice entrepreneur, to public interest organization medic, chief cheerleader, fundraiser, and connector.

PL:       Why was Appleseed started?

BC: Appleseed’s founders thought that the agenda for justice was ever changing and that communities across the country needed local justice centers that could tackle local needs and problems. They wanted to break out of the model of lawyers handling one case at a time to fix injustices once and for all.

Appleseed’s founders were at their 35th law school reunion and they wanted to make a lasting difference with their talents.  They ran big transactions, huge litigations, they were trusted advisors to major companies and government agencies.  They thought that their talents would be best spent creating institutions for change across the country.

They wanted to switch the paradigm from charity to justice.

PL:       What issues does Appleseed confront?

BC: Poverty and asset building; education and juvenile justice; effective government, civic engagement and democracy; health and worker safety.  Within these broad issue areas, we address smaller but still huge issues, like keeping kids in school, getting school kids breakfast at school, giving consumers information before they send money abroad, fighting payday lending and stopping mindless “zero tolerance” policies that incarcerate too many people.

PL:       What services does Appleseed offer? How is it structured? Who are its primary clients/audience?

BC: You could say Appleseed offers several kinds of services.  First, Appleseed often plays the role of convenor, bringing a variety of stakeholders or Appleseed Centers together to come up with solutions, share research, craft goals.  We’re thought-partners and advisors to Appleseed Centers and policy makers and we provide technical support to Centers.  We also are a broker of pro bono services.  We use the skills-based talents of lawyers and other professionals to conduct research and advocacy, and we match up volunteers with Appleseed Centers and provide some project management services to our pro bono partners.

Clients include Appleseed Centers, vulnerable people, and everyone who believes in justice, democracy, genuine opportunity and public engagement.

Our audience tends to be those who have the power to make the changes we seek.  We don’t have the communications budget to reach “the general public” – we aim our research, messages and advocacy right to decision-makers, generally.

PL:       How do you utilize the law to further your organizational goals?

BC: Sometimes law is the problem; sometimes it’s the solution.

Remember your high school civics class on How a Bill Becomes Law?  That’s part of it, but a small part.  Appleseed has a lot of tools in our legal toolkit:  From researching gaps in the law, to working to change laws, to advocating before agencies and commenting on proposed rules to get solid regulations adopted, to making sure well-intended laws are funded and implemented well.  Sometimes we’ve pushed for model legislation and for a model rule’s adoption in states.  Some Centers litigate.

PL:       What role do legal professionals play in Appleseed?

BC: Critical roles.  Most of our board members are lawyers.  14 of 17 Appleseed Centers are run by lawyers.  Most Centers have other lawyers on staff.  Hundreds of lawyers volunteer every year for Appleseed and almost all the top law firms support us financially or volunteer for us, or both.  I’m a lawyer.  Support staff at law firms help with graphics, research and more.  Expert witnesses volunteer for us.  And many of the people who implement the changes we recommend are lawyers.

PL:       Do you offer any internships or volunteer opportunities?

BC: Absolutely!  Both the national office and the Centers have internships and volunteer opportunities. (You can find more details on the Get Involved page of ed.)

Vertical Logo dark teal (_083E45)PL:       How would a legal professional pursue a career with Appleseed? What advice would you give to a law student or legal professional who would be interested in this type of law?

BC: Some Appleseed network attorneys joined at the start of their careers; most others joined from law firms, other public interest organizations, or government service.  In short, there’s no single path to being an attorney at Appleseed.

Appleseed lawyers do have some commonalities:  they are solution-oriented – that is, many lawyers are trained to spot problems and identify risks.  But Appleseed lawyers have honed their entrepreneurial and creative skills.  They ask, “Why not?” “What if?”  “How could we fix this?”  Appleseed lawyers are also good at project management and leading teams, especially teams of volunteers.   They’re good at working with allies, board members.

My advice to anyone wanting to figure out a career in progressive law is to try to pick up some fundraising or sales-y skills.  You’ll need to sell your vision and get it funded.

Progressive law is almost always at the intersection of other disciplines – pick up some skills in communications, community organizing, lobbying, data analysis, social science research, project management, politics, as well as development and you’re a doubly-valuable lawyer.

PL:       How do you balance your work life with your private life?

BC: I’m fortunate to have a supportive husband and pretty self-reliant kids.  They do their own laundry, write shopping lists, do their homework without any prodding, get around on bikes or with Uber.  They can call for take-out or cook if I’m at work or driving one of them to soccer.  My husband and I have scheduling meetings so that our benign neglect doesn’t fall into actual negligence.  And we make time for date nights. When the girls were young, we had a standing Saturday night babysitter so we could see each other.

That said, work is never-ending and justice issues are compelling.  I’m not really good at putting work aside at night.  Ambien or melatonin helps.

PL:   Outside of your organization, what issues are you particularly passionate about?

BC: In no particular order:

Full equality for girls and women’s sports,
a woman’s right to choose, access to contraception and honest sex ed,
a constellation of issues surrounding bicycling,
solutions to global warming,
combatting rampant NIMBY-ism when it harms the larger community good,
end-of-life issues,
early learning of foreign languages,
cutting through the superficial values of a consumer culture,
minding queues,
saying thank you.

PL:   What do you think the role of law and lawyers should be in society?

BC: Lawyers need to make sure that the law is an instrument of justice not oppression; a venue for equality before the government, not entrenching power.  We have to make sure our legal systems work effectively, so that we resolve issues peacefully and in accord with known standards, rather than through violence, money or raw power.

I would like to extend a big thank you to Betsy for taking the time out to answer our questions and for being the very first organization featured on Progressive Lawyer!

Leave a Comment