Meet Jean Soo Park, CBJC’s New Director of the Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project
by Cheryl Lopez and Jean Soo Park August 23, 2021
We are excited to announce that Jean Soo Park joined the City Bar Justice Center as Director of the Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project (Fed Pro) in August 2021. She will be leading Fed Pro’s programming, assisting pro se plaintiffs and defendants on a range of federal legal issues including civil rights, employment discrimination, and disability discrimination. Ms. Park received her J.D. from Brooklyn Law School, an M.P.A. (Executive Program) from NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and a B.A. in Sociology from Wellesley College. Her legal career spans close to 20 years which includes serving as the Legal Director at Open Hands Legal Services, criminal appellate prosecutor at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, hearing officer for the NYC Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, and judicial law clerk to U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson (District of Columbia) and U.S. Magistrate Judge Marilyn D. Go (Eastern District of New York). Throughout her career, Ms. Park addressed legal issues at the federal, state and local levels. She most recently worked with individuals experiencing poverty and homelessness, providing advice on issues including housing eviction, immigration-related matters, employment rights, collateral consequences caused by a period of incarceration or criminal record, and obtaining vital documents.
The following interview offers a closer look at Ms. Park’s impressive professional and personal path leading up to this role, and insights on what she sees in store for Fed Pro and our clients.
- What prompted you to pursue a career in public interest law?
I was always drawn to work and causes that were service-oriented and involved helping others. My career in public interest law stems from the early experiences I had working in public service and domestic policy studies. As a law clerk, I got a bird’s eye view on how the litigation process and judge’s decisions impacted litigants (pro se and represented). As a prosecutor working in a resource-limited community, I often questioned how and why the law negatively affected individuals impacted by historical socioeconomic and racial inequality. I then studied public policy focusing on poverty, inequality and development at NYU Wagner. This added another dimension to my understanding of the law and caused me to see individuals and communities more holistically. Thus, while the legal issue was identifiable, I was able to examine the broader scope of systemic and institutional challenges. This trajectory led me to realize that I could use my experience and knowledge to become an effective advocate in public interest law.
- You have a strong volunteer track record from your time as a pro bono consultant to volunteering with Don’t Walk By (with Rescue Alliance) and various service projects globally. What have you learned from these experiences? How has it shaped your perspective or how you approach your work as a lawyer, if at all?
My volunteer experiences have influenced my approach in how I interact and communicate with others. I attribute this to my local and international service work where I had the chance to meet individuals from different continents with similar experiences leading to poverty. For example, through Don’t Walk By in New York City, I learned about challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness and witnessed how it was caused by housing, economic, and food insecurity. I connected with a few homeless individuals who told me their stories and the events leading up to their displacement. I learned how to engage in difficult conversations with individuals experiencing hardships in a way that was respectful and mindful. During my work abroad, I built relationships with children who had been placed in a group home after living on the streets of Peru and worked towards fostering a safe space for those who wanted someone to quietly listen to them as they shared their thoughts and feelings. Also, at my church, I worked alongside congregants who needed financial support for housing and/or counseling services. All of these experiences helped me develop practices to serve my clients with empathy and compassion – all while being able to identify and focus on the legal problem at hand.
- What influenced your decision to join the City Bar Justice Center in this capacity?
I have followed the New York City Bar Association for many years and have been impressed with the amazing resources it provides to attorneys. I became more familiar with the City Bar Justice Center when I worked in legal services and was intrigued by their ability to address a diverse range of issues affecting New Yorkers through its dozen projects. I was also drawn to CBJC’s pro bono model of inviting volunteer attorneys to share their skills and to learn something new. The need for legal assistance in New York is great, and CBJC brings the legal community together to serve on the frontlines and address the varying needs of our community. I was particularly attracted to the Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project because I believe that my career experiences and personal interests intersect at this point to serve litigants in federal court. I am excited to begin this new journey!
- Since the outbreak of the pandemic, New York City courts have been operating at limited capacity and for the most part, remotely. What challenges do you foresee for the Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project and its clients in the coming months, assuming the courts, like others parts of our city, will reopen and resume its in-person operations?
The pandemic created a great deal of hardship for New Yorkers on many levels. As I think about how and when the Court will safely reopen and ramp up in-person operations, I imagine I will see the effects of the pandemic manifested in different ways. First, I anticipate meeting individuals who have experienced physical, financial and/or personal loss. Second, we all undoubtedly experienced some trauma in this difficult time, and I am concerned that some litigants may not have had the chance to get the care they need, or may not even be aware of how they have been responding to various stressors. Third, I expect many individuals will come to us frustrated about their experiences participating in court proceedings over the phone, particularly because they were not able to see the judge and their adversary as is the norm. Despite these foreseeable challenges, I am confident that our team at CBJC will work together to identify ways to help our litigants navigate changes as we return to a different and “new” normal.
- What are you most excited for in your new role?
There are many aspects to this new role for which I am excited. I’m excited to work with the dynamic CBJC team and invite volunteer attorneys and law firms to share their skills and resources to help others. I look forward to working with current and potential litigants and help empower them by providing them with a better understanding of their case and the court process – which involves complex systems and procedures. I’m excited about participating in the collaborative partnership Fed Pro has with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York to provide pro se litigants with tools to effectively advocate for themselves. Finally, I am happy about returning to my old stomping grounds in Brooklyn -where I was born, lived across the street from the courthouse during law school, and clerked.
Jean Soo Park is a director for the Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project. Cheryl Lopez is a communications and development manager for the City Bar Justice Center.
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