Social Justice Law and Advocacy at Stetson

November 10, 2023

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How do lawyers envision a better world?

The media hasn’t been particularly friendly to lawyers, historically or contemporarily speaking. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s Henry VI commanding his court to eradicate them altogether or the shady legal practitioners depicted in movies and television, lawyers are portrayed far too often as poor carriers of justice. These portraits fail to capture the integral role lawyers play in real life in the fight for social justice across the country and globally. From advocating for individuals who have had their rights violated to working in institutions dedicated to shaping legal, cultural, and political reform, to socio-environmental protections, lawyers have unique ways to drive change. At the core, lawyers understand the nuts and bolts of the systems that shape our lives and environment.

At Stetson University College of Law, we’re invested in helping law students learn how they can use their careers to make an impact on the world. 

What is social justice law?

At its root, social justice refers to the struggle to ensure equality of rights, outcomes, opportunities, and treatment for all, regardless of age, ethnicity, race, religion, economic or social status, sex, sexual orientation, or gender expression.

Social justice law refers to any of the many branches of the law and of legal practice that intersect with and further these pursuits. This can include any number of jobs, like a litigator in a public defender’s office, where you’re making sure that people receive a fair defense even if they don’t have the resources to hire an attorney. It can include working as a prosecutor to see to it that particular civil or criminal statutes are fairly and equitably enforced.

Outside the courtroom, a career in civil rights law might involve drafting new laws and advocating for them in front of the legislature, or conducting the research and data analysis necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of public policies and advocate for change, either through a governmental organization or through a nonprofit. It might mean understanding the legal ins and outs to applying for and securing grant funding for non-governmental organizations.

Social justice advocacy at Stetson

At Stetson, students can pursue specific certificates of concentration to help prepare them for specialized areas of the law after graduation. One of those concentrations is in Social Justice Advocacy. Co-directed by Professors Judith Scully and Kristen Adams, the Social Justice Advocacy concentration helps prepare J.D. students for a career in a social justice-related field through:

  • Mandatory and Elective Coursework – At least 21 hours of coursework in a variety of required and elective courses in a range of areas such as Adoption Law, Disability Law, Employment Discrimination, Feminist Jurisprudence, Human Trafficking, and Native American Treaty Law.
  • Experiential Learning – Clinics and externships with outside organizations that focus on issues such as child legal services, public defense, homeless advocacy, consumer protection, and elder law.
  • A Capstone Project – A final Independent Study Project (IDP) or Directed Research Project (DRP) at the end of the third year that explores a social justice-related topic in greater depth. 
  • Mentoring – Meeting at least twice per semester with a mentor: either a member of the faculty at Stetson or a judge or practicing attorney in the Tampa Bay area with whom students discuss their elective course plan and how it intersects with their career path. 
  • Student Organization Membership – Students are encouraged to actively participate in at least one of the many student-run organizations on campus that are dedicated to social justice causes, including Amnesty International, the Stetson Law Innocence Initiative, the Black Law Student Association, the Lambda Legal Society, the Public Service Fellows, and many others. 

Stetson grads making a difference in social justice law

Stetson students have used their capstone projects as a springboard to make a difference in both the Tampa Bay area and throughout the state and country more broadly.

“We see the capstone project as the beginning of that student’s ability to build a legacy,” says Professor Scully, co-director of the Social Justice Advocacy program. “It’s not just something that sits on a shelf, but something that allows our students to have an impact on the community.”

One student, Taylor Sartor, used her project to research and put together a “know your rights” guide for children in foster care to help them access mental healthcare, education opportunities, and legal information. In 2018, she got grant funding from the American Bar Association and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation to turn the guide into a printed pamphlet which was distributed in Florida’s Pinellas, Pasco, Sarasota, Manatee, and DeSoto counties.

Several years later, after she’d graduated from Stetson, Sartor, working with another Stetson alum, Rachel Friant ‘23, received a $500,000 grant to turn the pamphlet into a multimedia resource called FosterPower available both online and as an app and relevant for young people in the foster care system throughout the country.

Learning to advocate for yourself

Professors Adams and Scully note that students often worry that they’re faced with an either-or proposition between pursuing their passions for reform or making the amount of money that they want to make to support themselves and a family. That’s why they stress the importance of learning the full extent of the opportunities available in social justice law because this either-or way of thinking often results from a limited understanding of the possibilities available to J.D. graduates with a little creativity and entrepreneurial energy.

“Many times students think ‘I need to find a job,’” said Professor Scully, “they don’t necessarily think, ‘Oh, I have the ability to create a job as well.”

By helping students understand the grant-writing process and by teaching them how to become better advocates for themselves and for the work they do, Stetson Law helps graduates create the positions they want either founding their own nonprofits or creating new roles within existing for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

If you’re thinking about pursuing a legal career in a social justice-related field and you want to learn more about how Stetson is shaping a new generation of reformers working for change throughout the country, find out more here and apply to the J.D. program today!

Dive deeper into the issues on Real Cases

In the latest episode of Real Cases, we sit down with Professors Adams and Scully, the co-directors of the Social Justice Advocacy program, to talk about how they work with students to build their portfolios and guide them to become better advocates both for themselves and for others.


Topics: Real Cases