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College of Law Grad Already Making His Mark Helping the Community

Public Interest Spotlight: Nolan Downey

For one recent DePaul University College of Law graduate, work has already been in full swing by helping Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients in DuPage County maintain their benefits. Nolan Downey (JD ’18), originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, was attracted to the College of Law in part because the emphasis on public service matched his own values and there was the opportunity to be involved with service from day one.

“I want to use my career to advance equity and prosperity for everyone,” Downey said. “I want my work to mean something for other people and just to make the world better. There are certain things that people shouldn’t have to ‘earn,’ like housing, healthcare, food. It’s unthinkable, with all this country’s wealth, that anybody is going hungry.”

Downey was awarded a prestigious 2018 Skadden Foundation Fellowship to work with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago facilitating a weekly clinic for SNAP recipients. Specifically, Downey is monitoring the implementation of harsh time-limit provisions for able-bodied adults without dependents, who often have their benefits cut erroneously when these complex provisions are reinstated.

“This population is extremely vulnerable. Among SNAP recipients, they tend to have the lowest income, coupled with barriers to employment that are unfortunately difficult to overcome. Further, the label ‘able-bodied’ is a misnomer. These folks frequently suffer from invisible disabilities and undiagnosed mental illness which only serve to compound their struggles,” Downey said. “For those that truly are able-bodied adults without children, they’re members of a group that can get overlooked in certain contexts. So much of our social services are deservingly devoted to children and families, but the consequences of such a structure mean that some of the folks I serve fly under the radar and their challenges go unnoticed.”

Despite its focus on this specific underserved population, the clinic serves anyone with SNAP benefits issues, and the project is already making an impact. Downey said that after a few short weeks the clinic has worked to recover over $3,000 of SNAP benefits.

“That’s food back on tables. That matters. I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to do thus far, and I’m hoping to build on that momentum. I know that people in the DuPage community are having these issues, it’s our mission to try to reach them.”

The project to help SNAP recipients was an idea that Downey came to during his involvement in programs at DePaul, and he credits the College of Law faculty and staff for assisting him in refining his clinic model and getting the project funded. He also said he envisions this clinic model extending into neighboring counties and offering training for other legal aid organizations to fill the same need for this population of SNAP recipients.

Downey did not always think he would be a lawyer, but he has always been drawn to public interest. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in political science but said he realized he wanted more professional training to make a difference in underserved communities and for people like those in his own hometown who suffered economic hardships. Downey picked DePaul because of its strong public interest experiential learning program which focused on helping marginalized people and communities.

“I really wanted that on-the-job training,” Downey said. “I wanted to get out of the classroom as much I could to do real work.”

With that goal in mind, Downey spent both of his summers during law school working in public interest, first at the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender and then at the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. He was selected both summers to receive a prestigious scholarship from the Patrick and Anna M. Cudahy Fund to support him during his public interest internships.

Downey was also drawn to the College of Law’s Third Year in Practice (3YP), which tailors a student’s particular interests with the opportunity to get in-depth experience in a field of practice along with specific skills-based courses. Downey worked with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law for his 3YP intensive externship placement. The additional time at the Shriver Center strengthened his fellowship application.

Downey excelled academically and was equally dedicated to service and social justice. He became very involved with the public interest law and pro bono program. Downey was a Center for Public Interest Law Fellow and a student coordinator for the Pro Bono and Community Service Initiative (PBCSI). For all three years, Downey volunteered with the Neighborhood Legal Assistance Project (NLAP), assisting people experiencing homelessness in the South Loop to acquire State IDs and to seal and expunge their criminal records. NLAP is DePaul’s signature pro bono program, a legal help desk serving the south loop community at a food program on Saturdays morning for over six years. With alumni supervising attorneys, law students have the opportunity to assist clients and gain real experience that also has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of people trying to overcome homelessness.

“[NLAP] has been, not only the most formative experience in law school but the most beneficial in terms of growing who I want to be as a lawyer,” Downey.

During his time at DePaul, Downey also served as an Academic Success Program Mentor, the Faculty and Curriculum Committee Student Chair and the vice president of the Public Interest Law Association. At graduation, Downey was awarded a Senior Service Award for his outstanding service to the College of Law.​