Location: Oak Park, IL
For as long as she can remember, Julie Justicz has always felt a kinship with those who are struggling. Her dad always referred to her as “the tenderhearted one” among his seven children, and Julie says she always felt “a connection with and compassion for people who didn’t have as much as I did.” That empathy began with having a front row seat to the struggles her brother, born with severe cognitive and physical disabilities, endured and the challenges her family faced in raising him. “I have always been interested in advocating for the underdog,” Julie says. “I can’t sit by and not get involved.”
As an undergrad student at Emory University in Atlanta, Julie was an active volunteer at local soup kitchens and homeless shelters. She knew she wanted to make a career out of helping others, and she figured that law school was the best path to doing so. “I had a notion that being a lawyer would give me some sort of power to move justice forward,” Julie says. She chose the University of Chicago Law School, more for its strong academics and reputation than its focus on public interest. “It was one of the more conservative law schools,” Julie says, but that allowed the small cadre of law students who were as committed to using their law degrees to bring about social change as she was to band together. She joined the Progressive Law Students Association, where she met her wife, Mary Rowland, who was just confirmed as a federal judge for the Northern District of Illinois.
After Julie got her Juris Doctor in 1988, she returned to Atlanta to clerk for the District Court for two years. But unlike her wife, whom Julie describes as “a lawyer’s lawyer,” Julie did not aspire to sit on the bench one day or to pursue a traditional legal trajectory. She wanted to put her law degree to use in the social services arena, where both her passions and her strengths lie. So Julie headed back to Chicago to work as a staff attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, where she had interned while in law school. She served as a general civil legal services practitioner, focusing primarily on issues of domestic violence, housing law, and public benefits. In the early 1990s, Julie wrote a grant to get funding to do HIV/AIDS work and started the HIV/AIDS project at Legal Assistance. Julie’s best friend from high school, who remains one of her closest friends, gave her a firsthand look at the travesty of AIDS, both with his own battle with the disease and the fact that he lost many people to it. Julie made it her mission to help people with HIV/AIDS on any civil legal issues they encountered (they faced rampant discrimination at the time), and she was ultimately hired as the Executive Director of an organization called AIDS Legal Council of Chicago.
Julie switched to part-time work on the Children’s SSI project at the American Bar Association in the late 1990s, a two-year, national program established to recruit pro bono attorneys to help children with disabilities. After her son was born in 1998, Julie continued her advocacy for children at an organization called Health & Disability Advocates. During her tenure, from 1998 to 2010, Julie initiated a medical legal partnership program that brings legal services to the hospital or wherever a family in crisis is receiving medical care. “The outcome is better for families when they receive this kind of wraparound care,” Julie says, tapping into her own family’s experience dealing with the myriad legal issues that arose as a result of her brother’s severe physical and developmental disabilities. The pilot program Julie initiated in the NICU unit in three Chicago hospitals has now expanded to other hospitals and clinics in Chicago and has been expanded to other cities as well.
In 2011, Julie again switched to part-time so that she could focus on writing a novel. Degrees of Difficulty, due to be published this fall, is another way Julie is paying tribute to her family’s experience with her brother. Julie describes it as “a novel about living with and loving a kid with profound disabilities and the toll it takes on family and caregivers and what is not there in terms of service and support.”
Julie parlayed the development work she was doing for Health & Disability Advocates into program development and grant writing consulting that she did for other nonprofits for the next five years. One of her clients, Chicago Lawyers for Civil Rights, asked her if she could work for them fulltime. Julie began the day after the 2016 election and currently serves as the Chief Advancement Officer, working on program development and running the Hate Crime Project. She sees a direct link with the timing of her hire and the nature of the cases she oversees.
“I think it is really true that when you have people in positions of power spewing vitriol,” Julie says, “then it becomes okay to have Joe Citizen do the same thing.” She notes that many of the people she represents who are victims of hate crimes are told to go back where they came from even though they were born in the United States. “It is emblematic of the xenophobic times we live in,” Julie says.
Julie does not see herself as a particularly good lawyer. I suspect her clients and colleagues would disagree, but Julie says that logical, legal reasoning does not come naturally to her. Her strength lies in advocacy, and she does acknowledge that she is “a good advocate orally and in writing for my clients.” She is grateful that her law degree has been as useful as it has in opening doors and giving her credibility in the social services arena. Her whole legal career has been devoted to legal services or organizations working with people with HIV/AIDS, disabilities and civil rights issues. “I have found a thousand ways to use a law degree that don’t involve being in court,” she says.
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Kirkus Review recently awarded Julie’s novel, Degrees of Difficulty, a Starred Review; the book is available for pre-order at local bookstores and through Barnes & Noble and Amazon.