These Three Attorneys Overcame Massive Obstacles—and Were Awarded for Their Efforts

Student loans have an effect on just about everyone in the country. If you don’t have a heavy load yourself, chances are you know someone who does: more than 44 million Americans are struggling with outstanding student loan debt, which adds up to a grand total of more than $1.5 billion.

Lawyers are in a particularly dire student loan debt situation, frequently graduating with more than $100,000 in debt for their law school experience alone. And despite the stereotype of lawyers making high salaries, many attorneys are devoted to public service—and those positions pay a relatively modest salary on average.

Coupled with the weight of student loans, some lawyers find themselves in debt in perpetuity, or struggling to make ends meet with monthly payments that can edge into the four figures.

SoFi At Work, the program that provides financial wellness benefits to employers and associations, partnered with the American Bar Association (ABA) in 2016 and has refinanced more than $20 million in student loans through this partnership.

To maximize the impact of this partnership, SoFi At Work and the ABA designed a student loan relief scholarship contest to help three members pay off a portion of their student loan debt.

Contest applicants were asked to submit an essay answering the question, “How would an ABA SoFi Student Loan Relief Scholarship impact your world?”

Entries were judged both on their financial need and their dedication to serving their communities, and three winners were selected to receive $50,000 in total cash prizes toward their student debt.

Here are their stories.

A Single Mom With Service in Her Blood

Jordyn Emmert, a staff attorney at Houston’s Equal Justice Center, is no stranger to sacrifice. When she was only three years old, her father was lost at sea during Operation Provide Promise, a humanitarian relief mission with the United States Navy.

When she was six, her mother remarried a pastor, and the newly formed family spent time traveling abroad on various humanitarian trips. So it makes sense that Emmert eventually decided to apply to law school: Her whole life had been about serving other people.

However, the journey wasn’t going to be an easy one. In 2014, when she started classes, Emmert was a single mom raising a preschooler—and the family was on food stamps.

She spent her limited time off over the weekends traveling 60 miles round trip to work for $10 an hour at a church nursery on Sunday mornings. Despite these challenges, she finished school one of the top of her class, landing her some scholarships to help with tuition and a prestigious fellowship. Everything was looking up—just in time for Hurricane Harvey to arrive and rock her (and Houston’s) world.

Luckily, Emmert and her daughter were in North Carolina visiting family during the actual event. The havoc Harvey wreaked on her city broke her heart, but also motivated her to take action.

In 2018, Emmert began working for the Equal Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm devoted to providing legal representation for working men and women in employment-related matters regardless of their immigration status.

Specifically, she was a member of the Disaster Recovery Legal Corp, a group of 23 legal aid attorneys that received funding from Equal Justice Works to represent hurricane victims.

Although the funding enabled her to begin representing clients who had been impacted by Harvey, it wasn’t quite enough to make ends meet. The first office space in Houston was an older home with heating problems, and the Houston-based staff has had to move office spaces several times.

“Despite the operational difficulties, I represent amazing clients who have been victims of injustice, unpaid wages, and even trafficking,” Emmert said. She acknowledges that if the organization had more funding, the attorneys could take twice as many cases.

Emmert received the $30,000 grand prize, which she hopes will allow her to funnel the money she’d previously been using to pay down her student loans toward improving her organization’s legal operation—and also making a down payment on a small house for herself and her daughter. The two have been sharing a single bedroom apartment since Emmert’s second year of law school, and the preschooler is now ten years old.

Emmert also plans to continue in her family’s legacy of service. She’s been accepted to an LLM program (a Master of Laws degree) in International Law at the University of Houston this fall.

She’ll use this new degree to continue working with the immigrant community throughout Texas, and also to take a larger role in her mother’s new non-profit, Providing Promise.

A Tribal Justice Specialist Making a Difference

Heather Torres performs an indispensable service: She works with the nonprofit Tribal Law and Policy Institute in Los Angeles to, in her words, “build the capacity of tribal governments to maintain, exercise, and protect their sovereignty.”

She’s doing so in one of the most expensive cities in the world, let alone the country—and she’s one of a cohort of less than 3,000 Native American lawyers in America doing this important work.

Torres does much more than provide training and technical assistance for tribal governments and organizations. She maintains seats on the boards of the American Indian Scholarship Fund of Southern California, the American Indian Alumni of UCLA, and the United American Indian Involvement, Inc.

She also spends time mentoring future law students and has taken a part-time job as an educator with the California Native Vote Project, which focuses on building up the political power of Native Americans throughout California.

“I need to keep up this level of involvement,” Torres said. “History and current politics demonstrate that if indigenous peoples do not speak up for ourselves, who will?”

Torres will use the $15,000 second-place prize to help pay down the more than $100,000 she owes towards her student loans, while also maintaining housing and basic living costs in Los Angeles.

A Dad Whose World Was Rocked

Phillip Bower had a pretty idyllic life. He was a partner at a large law firm, and his wife, a “retired” attorney, had shifted her attention to working in patio furniture design. But on January 24, 2018, their then-five-year-old son was diagnosed with B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. “Our world flipped upside down overnight,” Bower said.

The family, which includes two other young boys, spent much of the next year in the hospital for overnight stays and day treatments as their son was given multiple rounds of chemotherapy.

“Fevers sent him to the ER since his immunity was suppressed. He missed weeks of school. Vacations were cancelled. Stress levels were high,” Bower said.

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending: The Bowers’ son is in remission and doing well, but his treatments are expected to continue through May 2021. And although the family had a lot of conditions working in its favor—good insurance, understanding employers, and a five-minute commute to a world-class children’s hospital—they still saw their income fall by nearly half in the ensuing chaos.

Bower’s wife made the decision to quit her job and stay home to focus on all three of the boys, and also to help build the new 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation the couple founded to help advance pediatric cancer research and to support families of kids with cancer or other serious diseases.

The Bowers will use the $5,000 in prize money to help offset their monthly student loan payments, which will allow them to focus on spending more quality family time together and also to bolster and nourish their new nonprofit.

Congratulations to all the lucky winners, and thank you so much for your continued service, sacrifice, and dedication!

The American Bar Association is a SoFi At Work partner, which provides financial wellness benefits to employers and associations. Learn more about how SoFi At Work can help your employees or association members by reaching out to [email protected].

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