Lawyering for the Greater Good
Public interest law is an area more students should consider,” said Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, who joined the College of Law in 2006. “At our very best, all lawyers are public interest lawyers. From pro bono work to poverty law practice to innumerable methods of service in between, lawyers are called upon to enhance access to justice by serving the most marginalized among us.”
According to Cunningham-Parmeter, his own interest in public interest law stems from his experiences growing up among migrant workers in Gilroy, Calif., a small town in the Bay Area and the self-proclaimed Garlic Capitol of the World. The son of a lawyer, Cunningham-Parmeter grew up in a standard, middle-class household. However, he saw a different side of life through his classmates, about half of whom were Hispanic. Many were immigrant farm workers themselves or the children of farm workers. Cunningham-Parmeter soon realized their lives were drastically different from his own.
“We would drive around town and see migrant labor camps where the workers lived,” he said. “When you see people living in small shack-like dwellings and working all day under the hot sun, it makes you appreciate how much tougher their lives are than yours. That really influenced the work I do now. Part of my commitment as a professional is to serve those with greater needs.”
Although he always planned to attend law school, Cunningham-Parmeter did not apply to any law programs after college. Instead, after earning a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Oregon, he enrolled in Teach for America, a program that hires outstanding college graduates to serve as public school teachers in disadvantaged communities. “I knew I wanted to do something service oriented,” he said. “I thought about the Peace Corps, but decided there’s lots of need here in the United States.”
Cunningham-Parmeter joined Teach for America in the summer of 1997. He spent the next two years teaching English and math in the Mississippi Delta — in one of the 10 poorest counties in America. “Prior to moving to the Delta, I had a lot of romantic notions about life in the South,” he said. “Those were the two toughest years of my life. As an outsider, I had to earn credibility and respect from my students, many of whom were justifiably skeptical of me.”
Because the needs of his students were so great, small efforts on his part had a huge impact on his students. “The Delta is very insular, so it was important to talk to my students about the outside world and life beyond the region,” he explained. Although he believes his work with Teach for America has been the most important of his career, Cunningham-Parmeter was jaded by the experience, as life in the region continued to worsen for his students. “In the end, you just have to realize that change is incremental — it comes one student at a time.”
When his contract with Teach for America ended, Cunningham-Parmeter enrolled in law school at Stanford University. As a student focused on public interest law, he was able to work at the school’s law clinic, the East Palo Alto Community Law Project. “It was my first opportunity to see how lawyering is about creativity and doing what you need to do for your client,” he said. “At the clinic, each problem would start with a person in need, and I would learn about new areas of the law through that person’s case.”
Between his second and third years of law school, Cunningham-Parmeter worked for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where he took on a case representing female lettuce packers who had been passed over for promotions. Although his clients had the greatest seniority in the union, their male counterparts with less experience frequently were promoted to better-paying jobs. The women filed a discrimination case with the EEOC, and Cunningham-Parmeter spent part of the summer investigating their claim and drafting the charging documents against the employer. He said the experience cemented his desire to practice public interest law and serve low-income clients.
That same summer, Cunningham-Parmeter also worked for a small employment law firm in San Francisco that specialized in plaintiffs’ employment class action suits. He worked on a case representing claims adjusters in a large insurance company who had not been paid overtime. “That case really brought home for me the power of class-wide litigation and how it can make a huge difference for working-class people,” he said.
Following graduation from law school, Cunningham-Parmeter spent two years clerking for Chief Judge Ancer Haggerty of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. The position allowed him to develop a broader understanding of different areas of the law. “In some ways, it was like another few years of law school — but applied to active cases,” he explained. “I would work on a motion to suppress one day and then work on a Clean Water Act case the next. I became a mini expert in each case.”
When his clerkship ended, Cunningham-Parmeter received a two-year fellowship to provide legal services to immigrant and low-income farm workers in Oregon. The fellowship was funded
by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, one of the largest law firms in the country. Each year the firm grants approximately 28 fellowships nationwide to attorneys dedicated to public interest law.
As a Skadden Fellow, Cunningham-Parmeter worked with the Oregon Law Center Farmworker Program, representing migrant farm workers in cases involving occupational health issues and workplace discrimination. During this tenure, he served as lead counsel in a wage and hour class action lawsuit brought on behalf of food processing workers in Oregon. “The case resulted in the largest class action settlement for agricultural workers ever in the state,” he said.
With his fellowship ending, Cunningham-Parmeter decided to enter the world of academia. He joined the law faculty in August 2006. “I really enjoy the process of teaching and scholarship,” he said. “There’s something satisfying about coming up with a specific legal problem to investigate — one that no one else has researched yet. In my case, this interest area involves the unique problems facing low-wage and contingent workers.”
It is also an area he wants more students to consider — for the good of their careers, their communities and the legal profession. “Students need to look at their futures soberly and remember that they will have truly rewarding careers when they focus on work that nourishes them,” Cunningham-Parmeter said. “When we do what we love, we are enriched, which makes us better community members, family members and advocates for our clients.”