Thursday, May 31, 2018

Alumni Spotlight: Mackenzie Dunham '17 & Douglas Evans '17

MacKenzie Dunham left, and Doug Evans, right, co-founders of nonprofit law firm Access Justice Houston, in their downtown Houston office.

Access Justice Houston, founded by 2017 University of Houston Law Center graduate MacKenzie Dunham and Doug Evans, has become the fourth Texas-based nonprofit firm—along with DiFilippo Holistic Law Center in Austin, Legal Access Texas in Dallas, and Greater Waco Legal Services in Waco—that are targeting modest-means clients in an effort to close the justice gap. The other Texas-based nonprofit firms were launched by veteran lawyers; Dunham and 
Evans are the first recent law graduates to take the plunge.

1.  Describe your current position/practice area/employer.  

MD: I’m the co-founder, executive director and staff attorney at Access Justice Houston (AJH). Houston’s only sliding scale non-profit Lawfirm. The core areas of my practice are Family Law, Landlord Tenant, and criminal defense work.

DE: I’m the Director of Legal Services and an attorney at Access Justice Houston, a nonprofit that I co-founded to help those who can’t get help from tradition legal aid organizations. I represent clients in Criminal Defense, Immigration, and Family law matters. The firm accepts clients who are up to 400% of the federal poverty guidelines. In addition to my practice areas, the firm also accepts cases involving landlord-tenant disputes and some other consumer claims.

2.  How did you obtain your first job out of law school?

MD: I kind of cheated and made my own job by creating a non-profit Lawfirm with my best friend in law school. The idea for starting a non-profit Lawfirm started during my 2L summer. Working from the initial idea, Doug Evans (my partner in crime and co-founder) worked for about a year on what our organizations' goals were. We eventually came to the idea of creating an organization that’s able to help serve people who are turned away from legal aid for making too much money but cannot afford a private bar attorney. 

After graduation, we worked on the formation of the organization all the while we were studying for the Texas Bar exam. Meeting potential board members and attorneys in the community in the morning while studying for the bar in the afternoon. While waiting for our bar results we laid the groundwork for what our practice would look like as well as creating and maintaining relationships with the local non-profit community and the local bar associations. With the help of a bit of technology and a ton of work, we hit the ground running when we got our bar results in November of 2017. We’re about six months in and our organization is growing every day.

DE: I co-founded my firm with MacKenzie Dunham as we realized that there is a huge lack of legal representation for people who may not qualify for free legal services but have no practical means of paying for representation. The model that we formed our firm upon, though it’s new to Houston, has been steadily growing throughout the U.S. in this past decade.

3. Describe what led you to your current position, if different from the position in Question 2.

I was really inspired to find a nonprofit solution to what’s been deemed the “justice gap,” the class of people that earn too much, or for some other reason cannot obtain legal aid though they still can’t actually afford an attorney. I went through similar issues myself and feel a lot of compassion for people in that predicament. I feel lucky to know MacKenzie, who’s a pretty entrepreneurial person and did the research to come up with the business model that we have.

4. What experiences/internships did you have that you found to be helpful or beneficial in your job search and career thus far?

MD: The best thing I did in law school was taking Charles Brown’s “How to make money as a lawyer” class. Understanding where value is created in various traditional business models for law firms was invaluable to when it came time to create my own. I took mainly practical courses during law school. From Trial Advocacy and Storytelling to Depositions those courses helped prepare me the most for the daily life as a lawyer. I also had the privileged to work at a small firm that gave me as much hands-on experience in practice as I could handle. To the point that I was able to get my temporary bar card and practice under my attorneys supervision. I think my Mock Trial coach, Jackie Houlette summed it up best when she said, being a lawyer is all about the “actual” practice of law, reading alone won’t prepare you for the job.

DE: My internship at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office (HCPDO) the summer of my 1L year really led me to find out what I’m really passionate about: criminal defense and immigration (primarily the immigration consequences of criminal convictions). From there, I took both Immigration Clinic I & II and interned for Neighborhood Centers (now BakerRipley) in their immigration department. I also took the Juvenile Record Sealing I & II classes and am receiving training through Gideon’s Promise, a renowned national public defender training program, paid through the Future Appointed Counsel Training (FACT) scholarship that the HCPDO provides. Another great benefit of the FACT program is the plethora of experience I get locally from established and successful criminal defense attorneys who are available to help guide and mentor me and the rest of my class who are a part of it. All of these experiences have helped guide me to my career goals.

5. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to current law students?

MD: Take storytelling with Jim Perdue Sr., He’s some of the most accomplished treasures UHLC has. Even if you never intend to practice as a litigator, his class will make you a better lawyer. I’d also suggest that if you want to be a litigator take as many trial advocacy courses that you can. You won’t get an A, but the sheer knowledge of the practical application of the law that the adjunct faculty possesses is astounding. If you have the opportunity take a clinic course. You’ll work on real cases, meet real people, and most importantly you’ll meet the judges in Harris County. To top it off if you’re wanting to find a job UHLC’s networking functions are great, but going to CLE’s (which are free) through the State Bar, or through the local bar association will allow you to network with far more attorneys who will be impressed you even showed up. (very few students put in this extra effort, you’ll be remembered fondly).

DE: Find out what you really care about, what really drives you, and pursue it. But also don’t forget about the fact that you can have a life that has more than just the practice of law.