As she heard exonerated death row inmate Ray Krone speak of his ten years in prison during Cornell Law’s 2011 Death Penalty Week, Melissa Gallo was moved to tears. “You could hear the pain in his voice as he told his story,” she says. “I found it to be an important reminder of the injustices that are in place in our society that public interest lawyers work to overcome.”
Gallo’s passion for social justice had been kindled years before, when the Boston College graduate spent time working directly with the homeless. “I discovered the humility I felt from working with the poor was fulfilling and gratifying,” she recalls. “I knew right then I wanted to be a public interest lawyer.”
Her resolution led her to Cornell Law School. Attracted by its reputation, wide array of clinical courses, and strong public interest loan repayment program, Gallo soon found the Law School to be an ample source of inspiration as well. “Though the nature of my clinical work under Professors Andrea Mooney, Lance Salisbury, Christopher Seeds, John Blume, Keir Weyble, and Angela Cornell varied, each professor was equally as passionate as the other about the importance of working for justice. Together, they continually motivated and inspired me to keep swimming upstream and pursue the work that I love.”
Another important figure Gallo references in her Cornell experience is Karen Comstock, Assistant Dean for Public Service, who has been instrumental in career advisement. Comstock was also on the selection committee for the Frank H.T. Rhodes Public Interest Law Fellowship, for which Gallo was chosen earlier this year.
Cornell Law School’s first Rhodes Fellow, Gallo will commence her two-year fellowship in the fall of 2012 with the Community Development Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, through which she will provide supportive transactional services to nonprofits in the Gulf Coast that are working to increase opportunities in Latino communities. “I'm looking forward to traveling to New Orleans, meeting the people I will be helping, and, finally, seeing the fruition of my project — the development of low-income housing projects actually being built,” says Gallo.
In this challenge and many others ahead, she believes, the education she received at Cornell Law will serve her well. “I've been taught by world-class professors on how to think like a lawyer, to look at decisions closely, and to remember their policy implications. In the public interest world, there are so many obstacles in place that prevent your client from moving forward with their lives. With these analytical tools, and specifically within the context of my fellowship, I will be better able to examine the adequacy of a contract or clause to meet the needs of my client.”
And what awaits this burgeoning public interest lawyer as she moves forward in her own life? “I'm taking it one step at a time by just following my heart and doing what feels right,” says Gallo. “My only goal after my fellowship is finished is to continue to use my legal education to ‘fight the good fight,’ wherever that may be.”
By Owen Lubozynski