Get to know Deirdre von Dornum, who became the assistant dean for public service in September 2013.
What made you decide to give up Federal Defenders after 11 years, during which you represented clients like the Somali pirate depicted in the Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips, to lead the Public Interest Law Center?
I really want to be a positive force to create more public interest lawyers and support students to do the kind of work that I’ve done. That said, I continue to take cases representing indigent defendants and always will.
Continuing the Hollywood theme for a moment, I heard that Julianna Margulies trailed you for several days to research the role she plays on The Good Wife. What does she do on the show that she picked up from you?
You’ll see on the show that she always touches the client on the shoulder in front of the jury or the judge. I taught her to always show through her manners or gestures that she really cares about her client.
What are your goals for the RTK Program?
I have two initial goals: first, making sure every form of public service is viewed equally, from the tremendous pro bono work by law firm partners such as Catherine Amirfar ’00 [of the Office of the Legal Adviser at the State Department], to the amazing work by direct-services lawyers like Dorchen Leidholdt ’88 [director of Sanctuary for Families’ Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services]. Second, connecting the Roots more strongly with the public interest community.
Are there particular challenges for a public interest scholarship program at a school noted for its public interest opportunities?
At a recent Admitted Students Day, a prospective student asked—given how strong individual students such as the RTK Scholars are—how he could possibly be a standout and get attention and resources? I see each of the students as a standout based on what he or she cares about individually. But it’s a good thing to keep in mind that the resources must be spread equitably.
What are your priorities as head of PILC?
My immediate priorities are to forge stronger connections with government employers; to help every student at NYU participate at some point during law school in public interest work; and, as with the RTK Program, to connect students more strongly with the public interest alumni.
Why is it so important that every law student participate in public interest work?
To get the feeling early on of directly helping people in need so that this can be carried into every legal career.
On a personal note, I noticed you have an unusual middle name, Dionysia.
Yes, my parents meant it to counteract Deirdre, the queen of sorrows in Irish mythology.
Do you think it works?
Sure. I balance a great deal of awareness of the sorrows of the world with a lot of joy and interest in people celebrating who they are.