Alumna Starts Non-Profit Legal Organization that ‘Gets It’
By Timothy C. Ervin
After more than 12 years practicing criminal and civil law in Springfield, Ill., alumna Nicole D. Nelson noticed that there were very few attorneys who looked like her, but a lot of clients who looked like her.
“Whether it was in the courtroom as defendants or on the civil side as individuals who needed representation for consumer and other litigation matters, I distinctly recall times when I would have black clients tell me they related to me so much better because I was black and that they felt this sense of relief that I was representing them because I “got it.”
Even though most of her early career was in private practice, for the last three years she served in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, Sexually Violent Persons Bureau in Belleville, Ill. Every day, Nelson would manage the docket and work a number of jury cases only to be reminded of the tremendous need for an increased reflective representation of the diverse communities served.
So Nelson left the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and returned to criminal defense, but this time for non-profit work. Recently, Nelson started Equity Legal Services, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides free legal services for low-income individuals. As the director and founder, she has guided the organization to successfully manage criminal defense, civil litigation and consumer matters for several individuals.
“Our organization seeks to capture that feeling for all marginalized groups that may not feel that the person on the other side of the desk “gets” them,” nelson said. “There can be a lot lost in culture and perspective, but a lot gained too if people in our profession are willing to do the work.”
The impact of Equity Legal Services on the community is certainly a work in progress. They are currently taking cases that impact low-income individuals and communities; with the goal of making a difference in how minority and marginalized populations are treated within the correctional system, as well as within their own communities where they have lived for years. Nelson said that there also are the day-to-day issues that affect individuals who are living at or below poverty level or paycheck to paycheck.
“We are providing legal assistance to them as well and hoping to positively impact their lives by providing great resolutions,” she said. “At the forefront of our impact will always remain our mission to provide access to counsel and staff who are diverse and well-trained in cultural competency and what it means to meet our clients where they are. Diversity and inclusion are definitely key, but they mean nothing if everyone in the room, including clients, are not valued and treated as such.”
In addition to her organization, Nelson is a volunteer on the United Way Metro East Allocations Panel and is currently involved in providing pro bono legal assistance through the Immigration Justice Campaign.
Nelson, who graduated from ASU in 2006, has sound advice to current students in college.
“Get an internship in your senior year that really matters, it can affect the trajectory of your career,” she said. “If there is really loud music being played out in the middle of the yard (campus), it is your duty to go see what is going on. Extra duty applied if there is a DJ. Somebody is probably stepping. You should go. Disclaimer: if you have class, stay in class.”
For more information about Equity Legal Services, visit www.equitylegalservices.org.