Excellence in Public Interest Awards Honor Commitment to the Greater Good

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Front row: Sally Vandenberg, Lia Sifuentes Davis, Meg Clifford, and Ryan Goldstein; back row: Keith Cohan, Lyle Paul, and Daniel Woodward (Not pictured: Sarah Mae Jennings).

Texas Law Fellowships, the student organization that supports students pursuing public interest law work, presented its annual Excellence in Public Interest Awards at a festive celebration on March 26 in the home of Bill ’70 and Stephanie Whitehurst, longtime supporters of TLF and its mission.

“These awards are our opportunity to recognize and honor those serving the public interest community either through outstanding legal work or indirect support,” said Grace Thomas, the current president of TLF. “Typically, our honorees have made significant contributions not just through their legal representation, but also for the Texas Law public interest community.”

Jordan Steiker, the Judge Robert M Parker Endowed Chair in Law and the faculty advisor for TLF, noted that “the TLF awards create an important link between students, faculty, and alumni.” Indeed, TLF presents awards to members of each of those communities.

“And it’s a great way to celebrate the extraordinary work of those committed to social justice,” added Steiker.

The awards typically recognize individuals who have made outstanding contributions in the public interest law field, honoring individuals in five groups: students, professors, staff, public interest attorneys, and private attorneys.

This year also featured special recognition for a student organization.

Award winners, all of whom are current students or alumni, are nominated by students across Texas Law and selected by the TLF Board of Directors.

The 2023 Excellence in Public Interest Awards and their winners are:

  • Students of the Year: 3Ls Sally Vandenberg and Danny Woodward
  • Faculty Member of the Year: Lia Sifuentes Davis ’11
  • Staff Member of the Year: Meg Clifford ’12
  • Public Interest Attorney of the Year: Sarah Mae Jennings
  • Private Attorneys of the Year: Keith Cohan ’09 and Ryan Goldstein ’12
  • Student Organization of the Year: Texas Journal of Oil, Gas, and Energy Law (TJOGEL)

“Across our student, faculty, staff, and public interest categories, we received the most nominations than we have ever received in past years, which we think is because so many people in the Texas Law community are public interest leaders locally, statewide, and nationally,” reflected Thomas.

Below are the full descriptions released by TLF of every award and winner, along with an excerpt of each winner’s nomination.

Texas Law Students: Sally Vandenberg  and Danny Woodward

Sally Vandenberg ’23 has worked with the Justice Center Student Advisory Board, acting as a liaison between the center and public interest students. She also served on the board of the Public Defense Group and participated in three clinics: Immigration, Criminal Defense, and Housing. After graduation, Vandenberg will provide civil legal services to formerly incarcerated parents facing legal barriers to reentry in South Carolina as a Gallogly Family Foundation in Public Interest Law Fellow.

“Through her work with the Criminal Defense Clinic, Sally has consistently gone above and beyond for her clients and shown how effective a clinic student can really be.”

Danny Woodward ’23 has served as a Human Rights Scholar with the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and as a Pro Bono Scholar with the Mithoff Pro Bono Program, leading immigration programs and the Parole Packet Project. He also participated in the Immigration Clinic and Supreme Court Clinic. Upon graduation, he will be a Fellow in the Litigation Department at RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services).

“Daniel has dedicated his whole life to serving vulnerable populations, and his time at Texas Law has been no exception.”

Texas Law Faculty:  Lia Sifuentes Davis

Lia Sifuentes Davis ’11 is the interim director for the Civil Rights Clinic, a visiting clinical professor at Texas Law, and faculty mentor for the Texas Law Disability and Neurodivergent Alliance. She started her position following a decade at Disability Rights Texas where, as a senior litigation attorney, she advocated for the rights of people with disabilities.

“Lia clearly cares greatly for her students and is dedicated to their success. I know that I could go to her for career advice for years to come and that she would try to help me reach my goals.”

Texas Law Staff:  Meg Clifford

Assistant Director of Academic Success Meg Clifford ’12 supports students as they navigate the academic transition to law school, offers individual counseling to students who need academic support, and helps students navigate the law school experience through passing the bar. She is known for successfully facilitating connections between public interest students with alumni doing that type of work. A double Longhorn, Clifford previously spent 10 years as a staff attorney at Texas Law with the Mithoff Pro Bono Program and the Justice Center and served as a program advisor for the Explore Law program.

Public Interest Attorney:  Sarah Mae Jennings

Sarah Mae Jennings is the interim co-executive director and policy director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, which fights to end the criminalization of poverty in Texas. Prior to joining TFDP, Sarah Mae was a trial attorney at the Orleans Public Defenders Office.

“Sarah Mae deeply believes in the work that TFDP does to help people remove the barriers erected by the criminal legal system, and her career reflects that.”

Private Attorneys:  Keith Cohan and Ryan Goldstein

Keith Cohan ‘09 and Ryan Goldstein ‘12 are partners in the Austin office of Reid Collins & Tsai LLP, where they represent plaintiffs in state and federal court in actions involving business torts, professional malpractice, and complex financial transactions. Both maintain an active pro bono practice, including work through the firm’s partnership with the ACLU of Louisiana on the Justice Lab initiative.

Student Organization: Texas Journal of Oil, Gas, and Energy Law (TJOGEL)

The Student Organization Award was added this year to recognize the role that student organizations can play in furthering the public interest mission. TJOGEL consistently supported TLF fundraising efforts throughout the year and helped to spread information about bar matching to big law students.
“TJOGEL has taken an important step to help develop a student culture of giving by making sure that all Lawhorns are uplifting public interest work.”

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